Going to a new school just before junior high did have one advantage, though: It meant I could “reinvent” myself. I was pretty much known as a dork in grade school, and I longed to be, or at least seem, cooler. I was starting to rebel internally against my own self-image; I felt rough and bratty and whiny. Lucky for me, this was all happening in the mid-to-late-’90s, when a pop-punk revolution was taking place in America. Acts like Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte spoke to my suburban angst. I began exploring MTV and watched TRL religiously. Q101, Chicago’s excellent (sadly now defunct) radio station, became my respite and my truest love.
My new school was even whiter than my last one. I was one of three people of color in my grade. Race wasn’t brought up, because there was nothing to talk about—three people don’t cause so much as a ripple in the majority’s consciousness. It wasn’t until sixth grade, when a required Spanish-language class was added to our curriculum, that I realized everyone had assumed for a full year that I was Hispanic. This came to light after our teacher, a white woman, asked in class if I spoke the language at home. When I answered that I wasn’t Latina, people seemed shocked.
By now I had fully adopted the persona of “the rock girl.” I talked about Linkin Park and Blink-182 with the boys in my class who played in bands and had rock & roll dreams. My favorite music also helped me bond with another male in my life; my dad, who had seemed for so long like an alien being, was now my most valuable resource. I asked him to play me his Metallica albums, which I had previously rejected as “too loud.” We’d listen to System of a Down’s “Aerials” every time it came on Q101; I would later steal his copy of Toxicity. Young dudes in 2002 apparently loved System of a Down, so I always had something to talk about with these new friends and classmates. During later visits, my father would take me to Best Buy, the only store that sold CDs in our town. On the way there we would blast the radio or one of my dad’s CDs instead of talking.
By seventh grade, I had marked my territory as my class’s resident music snob/nerd. I began collecting full discographies for my favorite bands and subscribed to Rolling Stone and SPIN. My homeroom teacher, a hippie with a small peace sign tattooed on his hand, would play Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd CDs for us in class. Eventually, he let me bring in music I had been discovering on VH1, Fuse, MTV, and my magazine subscriptions. I remember playing Bright Eyes in that class; our teacher seemed to appreciate Conor Oberst’s talents more than my classmates did.
That year two new black kids enrolled in our school, bringing the grand total of people of color to five, and the number of black kids, including me, to three and a half. This must have been some kind of tipping point, because suddenly race became an issue. My classmates learned a new word that year: Oreo— not in the sense of the delicious snack, but in the sense of a black person who is “white on the inside.” This word was used to describe not just me but also my mysterious father, whom no one had met but who loomed in everyone’s imaginations as “the black guy who likes metal.” For the second time in my life, I felt that eternal mixed-girl struggle: not quite black, not quite white, but still pressed to choose sides. This time, however, I didn’t feel as confident proclaiming my golden uniqueness. I was getting insecure about my identity, mostly because there was this very visible other half of me I didn’t know if I was allowed to claim, because I was “the rock girl.”
One of the new black kids was a girl named Amber who was obsessed with R&B, soul, and hip-hop, the last of which had recently been discovered by the upper-middle-class suburban white boys in our class. Amber’s pride in her own culture made me step back and take a look at the music I had been consuming. After two years of a steady rock education, I hasn’t realized how blindingly white all of it had been. Outside of Eminem’s single “Lose Yourself,” a song that was almost unavoidable in 2002, hip-hop didn’t appeal to me, and I had been prevented from buying the 8 Mile soundtrack because my mom found Eminem’s past lyrics misogynistic.
I befriended Amber, and my new education began. I began actively seeking out music that strayed from the grunge self-education I had been focused on and added artists like Mary J. Blige and Common to my iPod. From there I moved on to 50 Cent, Kanye, OutKast, Usher, and Lil Wayne. It was wonderfully surprising how much this music appealed to me, even if I cringed whenever the N-word came up in a song. Amber and I are friends to this day, and she still loves thanking me for introducing her to rock and pop artists like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Lana Del Rey.
At some point, you have to learn to love what you love outside of the roles you feel you need to play. Rock & roll never left my heart, but the moment I learned to love hip-hop for the sake of the music and not to prove anything to myself or anyone else, I realized that my race, my skin color, and my own anxiety had nothing to do with what I look for I put my headphones on and get lost in a really epic playlist. Instead of segregating my iTunes according to my two racial halves, I started to see the connections and similarities among all the different kinds of music I liked. I took ownership of who I inherently was–a mixed girl who just happens to love a lot of music. This was the beginning of the future I had daydreamed about for myself as a music writer, which is what I am today. I’ve never felt more golden. ♦