The Perils of Karaoke While Black

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 13 2013 11:55 PM

Socializing While Black

You loved my karaoke performance and think I’m amazing on the dance floor. I’m pretty sure I know why.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

A few months ago, in support of a friend’s work project, I found myself performing karaoke for a crowd full of strangers, at the most hipster-y of hipster affairs: A video performance art show in a Brooklyn museum that doubled as a karaoke event. The early part of the night started off rather dull—several people chose moody, “deep” tracks, some obscure (to me at least), others predictable (“In the Air Tonight”). Most were bad in the way only lame karaoke can be bad—lackluster performances with minimal enthusiasm or overenthusiastic ones with cringe-inducing vocals.  The hundreds of people in attendance didn’t pay much attention to the singers or the videos that played behind them; the room was abuzz with a light murmur that didn’t quite drown out the assault upon our ears.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

But then my boyfriend and I hopped up onstage to perform. Before the song had even begun, the audience was noticeably excited to see us appear in front of them. The crowd, it should be noted, was mostly white. My boyfriend and I were the first black people up onstage that night.

We duetted on Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule’s 2001 hit, “I’m Real (Remix).” If you’ve never heard “I’m Real” before, here’s the deal: It’s a sexy, summery little ditty, and performing it requires little effort and even less vocal talent. This is J. Lo, not Whitney.

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Still, the audience loved it—disproportionately so. This is not a humblebrag. We were … fine. Sure, my boyfriend and I danced around and had fun, more fun than anyone else seemed to be having up until that point. We also notably messed up the lyrics and got stuck in a rut of chorus-repeating at song’s end we couldn’t escape. By the standards of live performance, it was pretty tame. But we received roaring applause anyway.

As we said our goodbyes a few minutes later, a couple came up to us to tell us how much they loved our performance. We walked outside, headed to dinner a few blocks away, and ran into a different couple that had also been at the art show—and they gushed over our J.Lo-Ja Rule impressions. An hour later, while waiting for the subway, yet another pair of attendees spotted us and spoke highly of us.

The barrage of accolades caught me off guard. And I had to wonder, as Syl Johnson did in his oft-sampled blues song about black oppression in 1970: “Is it because I’m black?”

During the previous season of their eponymous sketch comedy show, comedians Key and Peele did a short standup bit about what it’s like to be black at a predominantly white social event:

Jordan Peele: So one of the worst places to be a black man is at a party where there’s only white people there.
Keegan-Michael Key: It’s just way too much pressure to provide all of the fun.
Peele: Yes. You cannot cross the dance floor at all. If I need a drink at one of these parties, I will go around the perimeter of the party, ‘cause you know if you go through this, you will have a group of white people around you talking about, “Go Jordan! Go Jordan!”

For much of my life, I remained unaware of this particular phenomenon. While many of my friends growing up were white, and I attended a PWI (“predominantly white institution”) as an undergrad, I surrounded myself with my fellow musical theater nerds, so every party was stuffed with attention-seeking dancers and singers. Since venturing into the post-collegiate, regular-person world, though, I’m beginning to understand just how right Key and Peele are. Even though I’m no longer an aspiring performer, I’m still often called on to perform—whether I’m up for it, or not.

Full disclosure: While I’m certainly no Beyoncé, I did study and perform musical theater in college and have taken voice lessons, so I’d venture to guess that my singing and dancing is above that of the average karaoke-goer or wedding attendee. I also love performing, and get really into it, even if I know I might look slightly like a fool.

And compliments don’t flow every time I sing karaoke or hit the dance floor. But it’s happened enough times for me to think that my race has something to do with how well-received my performances can be.

I’m not alone in this: A friend of mine—who does not share my vocal training—recalls the time she and her cousin sang karaoke and decided to perform “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. Presumably in part because black girls aren’t supposed to know who NIN is, they were greeted with a “standing ovation, some ‘amens’ and ‘you go girl!’ ” (Would white people ever shout “You go girl” to white friends?)

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