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.

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?)

I’ve written before of the “persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform,” in the case of Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey and his hilarious black neighbor counterparts. For another recent example, take the black couple who earlier this year found themselves as the lively antidote to an otherwise weak recurring Jay Leno skit “Pumpcast News,” earning raves for their seemingly impromptu karaoke performances in front of a gas pump. They were pretty entertaining, singing “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” with giddy abandon.

But the sometimes tense cultural politics of karaoke—oh yes, there are many—definitely came into play here. As one commenter at Gawker noted, the couple’s song choices were apparently surprising:  “The last thing you would (if we're all honest with one another here) expect this guy to sing would be an 80s North Jersey Hair Band anthem. Then she breaks out the New Wave. Tremendous.” (Bear in mind, of course, that it may all have been a hoax.)

The issue of black social performance, though, goes beyond viral YouTube sensations—for when you’re a black person who finds herself at a predominantly white social event, there’s a good chance that you’ll be expected to be the main source of entertainment. I recently “crashed” a particularly fancy wedding at an estate in Sonoma Valley. (We were in town visiting my boyfriend’s brother; his band played the reception, and the bride and groom kindly allowed us to attend.) At first we were hesitant to join in with the predominantly white, older crowd as they shuffled to “Higher Ground”; after all, we didn’t know anyone except the band. But it wasn’t long before a grey-haired old man hustled over to us on the sidelines and implored us to join them on the dance floor. “Come on guys!” he proclaimed. “Show us how to do it!”

Oof. Clearly, he meant no harm—folks never do—but it was obvious that we, the only black people in attendance, were expected to make the night hipper for the actual wedding guests. But we were not “party motivators,” and we sure as heck weren’t going to put on a show for a group of people we didn’t know and would never see again. Eventually we let loose a little bit more, but it was hard to shake the feeling that each person who coaxed us into dancing alongside him was eager to associate himself with the cultural cachet of the wedding’s only black guests.

Being expected to dance, to inspire others to dance, or (sheesh) to teach others to dance is a frequent occurrence for me and many of my black friends. Thanks to Miley Cyrus, white girls beg us to show them how to twerk when we’re out at a club. Sometimes—when they’re not putting their hands in our hair—they’ll be so in awe of our (not overly awe-inspiring!) dancing that they’ll blatantly record us on their phones. Recently I watched a young woman belt out “Baby Got Back” at karaoke; she later drunkenly informed my boyfriend that she is “a black girl in an Irish girl’s body”—as if that were some sort of compliment. A friend remembers a Halloween party where, when she arrived, the host instantly changed the music from alternative rock to 2 Chainz.

Why is this the case? The obvious, academic answers would include the long history of minstrelsy; movie musicals that carefully insert black performers for a song or two, only to have them disappear for good once the plot starts back up for the white characters; and an eagerness (by people of every ethnicity, including blacks themselves) to embrace the idea that blacks are “naturally” gifted in the realms of music, art, and dance. Or perhaps, as another friend of mine suggested to me, black people are like alcohol for white people: a way for them to appropriately lose all inhibition and let go. (And I have yet another existential question I’m now forced to ponder: Does this make me a beer, wine, or liquor? Top shelf? Well? Are my moves skillful enough to be considered craft?)

I get it—most white people rarely ever have to consider their whiteness in social settings, so they don’t recognize how their well-intentioned, overly friendly actions are perceived. They may have seen one too many of those infamous dance movies where the black kid from the wrong side of the tracks teaches the white girl how to get down and solve her life problems at the same time, and hope I may do the same for them. And I recognize that unlike Syl Johnson’s aforementioned ode to blackness, my situation is merely an irritant, not something that’s holding me back from accomplishing my life goals.

But I will say that the phenomenon of socializing while black has held me back a bit when I’m out in certain unfamiliar predominantly white settings. (This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s just a fact of code switching.) I just wish more people were aware that while you may think you’re being friendly and welcoming, your behavior might come off as ignorance at best, or fetishization at worst.

So I implore you, kind folks who might find a black person (or two or three) at your next predominantly white function: Think a moment before you compliment them on their poor, out-of-tune rendition of “I’ll Make Love to You,” or attempt to grind all up on the group of black girls dancing beside you. Am I doing this because I genuinely think they’re good, or want to make friends? Or is it because they’re black?

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