The Power of Music to Divide, Unite, and Create Racialized Spaces

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Have you ever been to a bar where everyone sings along to both Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares?” Yeah, didn’t think so.

Racialized Spaces

could see the place from the car window. Not too crowded, but certainly not empty — my kind of Friday night spot. We were all smiles as we stepped out of the Uber, handed our IDs to the bouncer, and headed straight for the bar — unconcerned with dancing until we secured a pregame buzz. There wasn’t much to dance to anyway. The DJ was playing some watered-down house music, presumably preparing to kick things off that night in Drinkers Pub. Okay DJ, let’s get it started.

Finally, something recognizable came on. A familiar “Doo-doo-doo/ Doo-doo-doo-doo” blasted on the speakers, and the bar burst into song. Within 20 minutes, the place was packed, and the crowd was hype. You can’t go wrong with a song like “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, a song everyone — at least everyone at that bar — knows the words to… but why does everyone in here know the words? I started having flashbacks to my senior year at Villanova University, located comfortably along what they call the Philadelphia Main Line. Originally named for the railroad connecting the townships along Route 30 in Pennsylvania, the Main Line is one of the wealthiest suburban residential areas in the country today. While at school, we spent many of our weekends out at the townie bars that littered Route 30. They became the “Main Line Bars” or “MLBs,” as they were affectionately known. I couldn’t help looking around and noticing that, just like at the MLBs, everyone in the bar was white.

There I was, along with a lone brotha standing near the entrance — the only two people of color in the bar. The night continued with a medley of popular 90’s and early 2000’s alternative songs (have you seen how people get when “Mr. Brightside” comes on?). There were also a few songs that lost me, proving to be a little “whiter” than what I was familiar with. That was my first time at Drinkers, and I left thinking it was the whitest bar I had been to in a while.

It’s just so awkward when your friend looks you square in the eyes, serenading you and whatnot, hoping you’ll reciprocate and connect on some deeper, musical level. But you can’t make up an experience you don’t share.

But what is it about music that can create such a racialized space? There was something so distinct about Drinkers that made it easy to deem it a “white bar.” Today’s social psychologists might call this a “shared experience.” Recent research on the topic has found that shared experiences with others, even total strangers, can often be more intense than if they were experienced alone. It all draws back to each person’s need to feel included or accepted, or to feel like they belong. The music that night was made up of pop and rock hits, genres historically followed by white audiences, thereby attracting a predominantly white crowd and creating a “white space.” In this space, the people who attributed their upbringing and nostalgia to the jams of the 90’s and 2000’s were able to establish connections with those who also shared that experience.

You can imagine how ostracizing this is for individuals who don’t identify as white, especially at a place like Drinkers. Although coming from my Haitian-American upbringing, I’ve had my fair share of nights jumping up and down as I sang along to Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue.” I’ve also made good use of the old trick of pretending to know the words by mouthing “buffalo watermelon,” hoping no one would call me out. I mean, it’s just so awkward when your friend looks you square in the eyes, serenading you and whatnot, hoping you’ll reciprocate and connect on some deeper, musical level. But you can’t make up an experience you don’t share.

This doesn’t just happen at Drinkers Pub or the MLBs. You can witness this in any space where music associated with a particular race is dictating the overall environment. That following Friday night, my roommate invited me to join her and a few friends at Tavern 222. This, for sure, was a boy bye, I just wanna dance kind of night, and I was told this place would deliver.

When I got there, I was easily the “whitest” person in the bar — another extreme. Nonetheless, I danced with my friends and sang along to the songs I knew. I had a great time.

I felt like I belonged in this predominantly black bar, that is, until Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” came on. There was a passion, a fire, and a rawness that exuded from everyone rapping along, and a communal understanding of what it means to be young and black in Philadelphia. Well, damn. Although it was exhilarating to watch, I definitely had one of these moments. I went home that night thinking that was the blackest bar I had been to in a while.

Those two nights clash in my mind like Timbs and a Patagonia vest. Music holds a powerful influence over the spaces it fills. From in-house pre-games to nights at the club, the very act of curating music can set the tone for division or inclusion. Recognizing this power can be the first step in integrating our shared musical experiences. So remember, when it’s up to you to choose the DJ or the playlist, be intentional. Through music, we can open new lines of communication and deepen our understanding of each others’ sometimes-distant worlds.

And who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be able to mouth the words to both Meek Mill and Third Eye Blind no matter what bar you walk into on a Friday night.

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