Rockers are white and colour blind too

15 October 2019

Soul and rap music belong to the black culture, just like klezmer belongs to the Jews and salsa and tango to Latin America. Whoever comes from one of these groups, or would like to belong to one of them, can find a connection via the music. But nobody really reflects on the fact that country, dance and rock 'n' roll are typical white music styles. Nobody except Julian Schaap, assistant professor in cultural sociology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. On Friday 11 October, he obtained his PhD cum laude with funding from the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities.

Rock concert Las Vegas, Nevada, photo: Jeffrey J. Coleman |shutterstock.com

Schaap spoke to 27 American and Dutch rock fans, had more than 900 respondents make associations with records, and combed through 577 reviews of rock concerts. All of this revealed that rock 'n' roll is the domain of white men without this ever being made explicit. And that is despite the fact that the early big names in rock 'n' roll were Afro-Americans like Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thornton. However, the record and film producers in the segregated America of the 1950s preferred white artists, such as Elvis Presley, because they sold better. Rock 'n' roll was therefore deliberately whitewashed and has remained white since.

Rock fans are not deliberately trying to exclude others, says Schaap. However, they associate their music solely with being white, and non-white people do that as well. An Afro-American rocker is all too easily compared by reviewers with artists from the soul scene even though there is no musical reason for doing this. And if an Afro-American singer joins a rock group, then it is quickly said that she is introducing "soul elements". Schaap spoke to several Turkish-Dutch girls and a Hindustani-Dutch boy who were crazy about rock music, but nevertheless did not feel welcome at concerts, while their families also discouraged them to go there.

Racism without malicious intent

'Interestingly, the whiteness of white rock music is invisible for the white people themselves', says Schaap. 'That is why my research is an immediate eye-opener. It concerns an apparently trivial subject that people do not directly respond to in an agitated manner. However, it clearly shows how racism works. There is no malicious intent, and so it is pointless looking for the perpetrators. Instead, you can better look for broadly shared categorisations that both white and non-white people use to order the chaos around them. Where the white culture is dominant, the stereotypes are not a problem for white people; they can easily ignore these. Non-white people, however, do suffer from these.' In this way, the rock scene shows how racism works in a nutshell.

More information

Julian Schaap (1988) gained his doctorate for the thesis Elvis has finally left the building? : Boundary work, whiteness and the reception of rock music in comparative perspective that he defended at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research was supported with funding from the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities. The supervisor was Prof. C.J.M. van Eijck and his associate supervisor was Dr P.P.L. Berkers.

Source: NWO