Adia Victoria (photo: Kaiya Gordon)
“So the question that naturally emerges is simple,” Jenn M. Jackson writes in her 2015 essay, “We Done Told Y’all What’s Up”. “What are the rules?” she continues. “Is there a rule that Black bodies are always up for public (read ‘White’) consumption?”
In music, the history of Black exploitation and white consumption is long. Black innovators have watched as country took cues from gospel music, as jazz halls filled with white performers, and as hip-hop was white-washed by appropriative pop. Even the advent of rock and roll––a genre fronted in the contemporary imagination by British white boys––is credited to a Black, queer, woman: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The ‘white gaze,’ a term that James McNally describes in his essay “Azealia Banks’s ‘212’: Black Female Identity and the White Gaze in Contemporary Hip-Hop” as the process which constructs “whiteness and Eurocentric conceptions of the world as normative and superior and [portrays] non-white perspectives and cultural practices as deviant and inferior,” can be seen behind each of these musical movements. What makes white borrowing of Black ideas more exploitative than inventive is the way that white power and economic advantage intersects with the art and music world. When white musicians make money off of jazz, while Black performers’ clubs were torn down during urban renewal, and when movies like 2016’s La La Land reconstruct the musical narrative to center white bodies, it not only portrays non-white perspectives as “deviant,” it also strips them of power and agency.
Who was gazing at Adia Victoria during her 2017 Noise Pop performance? I can tell you that––though the night’s line-up was predominantly made up of POC––there were four cameras pointed at her during her set, and behind each of those cameras (mine included) was a white eye.
Adia Victoria is an incredibly accomplished artist, and her releases over the past three years have varied greatly in both style and content. Last Saturday, at Bottom of the Hill, Victoria showcased that breadth in a spectacular set which drew influence from the blues, rock, pop, jazz, and french ballads. She is charismatic onstage, and as technically fantastic on the guitar as she is stunning on vocals. And her music is fun. It was fun to dance under the venue’s dim red lights, and to close out the lengthy Noise Pop festival with inspiring sax solos and rushing melodies. The set felt like a reset button; a reason to remember why I write about music, why I love seeing live shows, and how great great music can be.
But the night was also a stark reminder of how racialized the art scene is, and how many barriers are put up for artists of color in the Bay Area. When twee duo Pumpkin took the stage at the beginning of the night, they called for people of color to come to the front of the crowd. And for the most part, that did happen––except for the press. And for the most part, the crowd was made up of POC––except for the press. What happens when Black performers only have agency over their identity on-stage? The narrative is, again, reformatted to center and soothe the eyes of white folks.
Victoria, too, has spoken about the way that the white gaze impacts her as a performer. “A lot of times we, as Black women, are invisible,” Victoria said in an interview with The Stranger. “Or, when we are represented,” she continued, “it’s such a gross manipulation, a racist stereotype, it’s not even human. It’s this ugly, distorted figment of the white imagination that you have to contend with. So when you actually see a representation of Black femininity, it’s so rare and it’s so precious, and it means so much.”
In light of both the brutality of 2017, and the generally white eye of the San Francisco music press, it was notable that Pumpkin dedicated their set to incarcerated youth. Notable, too, was the moving set by AhSa-Ti Nu, which was wonderful to watch, listen, and move to. Musically, the only let down of the night was Madi Sipes & the Painted Blue, which, though made up of excellent musicians, fell a bit below the high bar set by the rest of the performers.
Since performing in San Francisco last week, Victoria has released her latest EP: How It Feels, a collection of French pop songs. The release is, again, a testament to her range as an artist and performer. Along with listening to this new release, it’s worth re-reading Victoria’s open letter to the Americana Music Association, which highlights problems with whiteness in the music industry that, frankly, San Francisco press outlets need to address.
To be clear: Black voices should not be re-packaged by white standards and white eyes, and to that end press outlets in the Bay Area should be actively recruiting writers and photographers of color. And let’s get rid of “Southern Gothic” labels too––as Victoria points out, those buttoned-up categories only exist to neatly exclude artists from being recognized for the fullness of their craft. Adia Victoria is a remarkable poet, composer, translator, musician, and performer. She is all at once, and she is worth seeing as such.