The debate over how racial identity is expressed in popular music is a crucial one; one might even say that pop itself is a debate over how race is expressed. A new round of this always-necessary conversation is unfurling, causing heated discussion among avid music fans.
It started in October, when New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones published an essay lamenting the lack of African American influence in indie rock. Carl Wilson countered in Slate, suggesting that class, not race, is the dividing point. Now David Brooks has written a New York Times op-ed piece, based around a conversation with E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt, blaming technologically driven social fragmentation for isolating musicians, causing historical amnesia and resulting in music that "stinks."
These pundits raise many valid and troubling points. It's tempting to just join in, starting by gently noting the irony of three well-published, white, upper-middle class men leading an argument about race and class. Then there's gender: Frere-Jones' description of his musical ideal as "miscegenation" -- a word choice he's said was deliberate and appropriate -- raises serious issues about sexual violence and racial objectification that stretch all the way back to slavery and can't just be put aside in the paragraph or two they've been granted in this debate.
But first, a practical intervention. Frere-Jones has claimed that what's happening right now doesn't negate the historical arc he's described. That's fair. But his piece is being read in the present tense, when in fact indie rock right now, like pop in general, is strikingly hybridized.
This cross-fertilization is one of the most positive aspects of pop today. It's been renewed by a love of dancing, cross-cultural collaborations forged on the Web, and the ever-growing diversity of fans themselves. Here are several artists, among the many, who are making it happen. (In addition to Ann Powers, the following contributions are from staff writers Richard Cromelin, Randy Lewis, Todd Martens, Margaret Wappler, August Brown and Charlie Amter.)
M.I.A. Living the complexities of race and gender, women in hip-hop always occupy multiple positions. Internet-savvy world traveler M.I.A. leads a new wave. She's the most political of a bunch that includes Philly upstart Santogold and Kanye protege Kid Sister, but simply by existing, these ladies redefine the game. (A.P.)
Devendra Banhart. He's typecast as the driving force of an international psychedelic folk scene, but the many songs he's written and recorded en espanol are a reminder that he's half Venezuelan (thanks, mom!) and spent most of his preteen years in Caracas. And his latest album includes clear homages to some of his favorite African-rooted music, such as doo-wop, Jamaican mento and bluebeat, and even some Jackson 5-style Motown. (R.C.)
Ozomatli. You need look no further than East L.A. to find a thoroughly invigorating band that fuses rock with Latin, Caribbean, funk and soul. Ozomatli has practically become the house band at the Hollywood Bowl, and it's been common during the group's opening slots for high-powered headliners to see tens of thousands of people hearing the group for the first time getting caught up in its irresistible fusion. (R.L.)
Gogol Bordello. This New York-based band recasts the music of the Roma people within a kitchen-sink blend of rock, ska, reggae and more that they call "gypsy punk." With Israeli, Russian and Roma members, Gogol Bordello's music reflects the immigrant experience as it's unfolded from Ellis Island to the outer boroughs and suburbs of today's America. (A.P.)
Rodrigo y Gabriela. Not officially an indie-rock act, but what could be more independent than playing heavy metal infused with Latin rhythms on acoustic guitars. The Mexican couple, together since their teens, did their apprenticeship busking in Dublin, Ireland, where they're still based. Now, they're packing in crowds who scream in wonder at their Metallica covers and originals inspired by every guitar tradition on Earth. (A.P.)
Beck. Indie big brother Beck paved the way for goofy style-rappers Gray Kid and the Cool Kids but on some of his albums, his cultural mash-ups produce some uncomfortable moments. Who doesn't cringe when the white Scientologist adopts the cholo accent? But if not for him, most hipsters wouldn't have Os Mutantes or Caetano Veloso on their iPods. (M.W.)
Zoe/Kinky. Pop's "Latin explosions" have come and gone, but bands like Zoe and Kinky, from Mexico City, point to a different future. Zoe takes cues from Brit-pop bands such as the Stone Roses; Kinky's house beats, rock guitars and jubilant brass meld into a pan-cultural party-starter. Both bands sing in Spanish, play stadiums in Latin America -- and remain obscure to Anglo audiences stateside. But let's be real: U.S. audiences are growing more Latin every day. (A.B.)