Sunday, January 28, 2007

Totally awesome unless they opt for indie bangs, too

Published: January 28, 2007

WHEN Douglas Martin first saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a teenager in High Point, N.C., “it blew my mind,” he said. Like many young people who soothe their angst with the balm of alternative rock, Mr. Martin was happy to discover music he enjoyed and a subculture where he belonged.

Except, as it turned out, he didn’t really belong, because he is black.

“For a long time I was laughed at by both black and white people about being the only black person in my school that liked Nirvana and bands like that,” said Mr. Martin, now 23, who lives in Seattle, where he is recording a folk-rock album.

But 40 years after black musicians laid down the foundations of rock, then largely left the genre to white artists and fans, some blacks are again looking to reconnect with the rock music scene.

The Internet has made it easier for black fans to find one another, some are adopting rock clothing styles, and a handful of bands with black members have growing followings in colleges and on the alternative or indie radio station circuit. It is not the first time there has been a black presence in modern rock. But some fans and musicians say they feel that a multiethnic rock scene is gathering momentum.

“There’s a level of progress in New York in particular,” said Daphne Brooks, an associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton. She was heartened last summer by the number of children of color in a class she taught at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, where kids learn to play punk-rock standards.

There is even a new word for black fans of indie rock: “blipster,” which was added to UrbanDictionary .com last summer, defined as “a person who is black and also can be stereotyped by appearance, musical taste, and/or social scene as a hipster.”

Bahr Brown, an East Harlem resident whose Converse sneakers could be considered blipster attire, opened a skateboard and clothing boutique, Everything Must Go, in the neighborhood in October, to cater to consumers who, like himself, want to dress with the accouterments of indie rock: “young people who wear tight jeans and Vans and skateboard through the projects,” he said.

“And all the kids listen to indie rock,” he said. “If you ask them what’s on their iPod, its Death Cab for Cutie, the Killers.”

A 2003 documentary, “Afropunk,” featured black punk fans and musicians talking about music, race and identity issues, and it has since turned into a movement, said James Spooner, its director. Thousands of black rock fans use's message boards to discuss bands, commiserate about their outsider status and share tips on how to maintain their frohawk hairstyles.

“They walk outside and they’re different,” Mr. Spooner said of the Web site’s regulars. “But they know they can connect with someone who’s feeling the same way on the Internet.”


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