Black Voices in Music Criticism Are Essential

There's a lack of journalists of color at publications across the country. A Black, female music critic weighs in on why the industry needs to change.

Jordannah Elizabeth.

I got one of my first major gigs as a music journalist by writing an angry letter to VICE about a piece where a Black journalist badgered Black people at the Conservative Political Action Conference about their political leanings. I thought the piece was intrusive and small-minded, and ultimately catered to the stereotype that Black people should be expected to lean to one political party — and that we all must think alike.

Well, that writer happened to be an editor at VICE and gave me a job.

I understand that Black readers could view my contribution to predominantly white-run publications as tokenization, or assume that it stems from my personal desire for validation from a white readership. But I would counter that, through journalism, I have the opportunity to share my frustration with the reality of my oppression with a broad audience, and bring my perspective to newsrooms that often lack diversity.

The first and only piece I wrote for VICE was an interview with Tech N9ne. It is still one of my most memorable interviews, as I was able to talk to the rapper about family, religion, authenticity in hip-hop, and his concern and compassion for his friend, Lil Wayne, who, at the time, had recently been in a medically-induced coma after experiencing a series of seizures due to an alleged drug overdose.

With that piece, “The Karmic Concepts of Tech N9ne,” I was able to create a complex, vivid, spiritual, and compassionate portrait of an African-American rapper during a time when the conversation often focused on beefs, incarceration, and misogyny. These robust and accessible conversations create a relationship with readers, Black writers, and Black artists that are largely absent in white alternative media.

As a writer, it is my job to create an authentic critical dialogue. I feel that only writing for feminist and/or Black publications would keep me from challenging the status quo. Preaching to the choir would limit my ability to pry doors open for other Black writers who may not feel like they have a place in mainstream media. It is not about fitting in with white writers and editors — or promoting mainstream, white narratives — but about carving out an equal place for Black voices.

The inclusion of Black music critics isn’t only about covering Black artists or other artists of color — even though that it is part of it.

Black music critics should be unapologetic about their perceptions of music and how they express them. Black writers don’t owe publications, editors, or readers an explanation for their style, intelligence, or understanding of music and its history as long as their voices and opinions are poignant, bright, and well-crafted.

I have to be very clear that my writing style has been honed through sheer experience. I feel out my own style and cadence of writing and never overthink or lose faith in my journalistic or literary impulses. Even when I want to quit after dealing with racist and sexist editors, I follow my instincts.

An Encouraging Word to Young, Black Writers

I will say that my success as a music journalist is unique in that people are able to put a face to my name. Many prominent Black music critics and editors tend to go nearly anonymous to their general readership. If you do choose to pursue this career path — which, to be very honest, is arduous and full of rejection — share your entire being with your readers: Use your image, your thoughts, and your craft to inspire and equip other Black writers and readers to embrace literary and cultural criticism. This will ensure that Black voices will be expected — not just yearned for — in white alternative and mainstream music media.

The future is up to us. If we do not engage, communicate, and pitch our ideas with honesty and realism, we will be etched out of music history forever. It is not my goal to encourage Black writers to write like me. But I should not feel alone in my field. I understand if I want to see a change in my industry, I should make sure I voice the change I desire to see.

This piece is dedicated to all the Black journalists, editors, authors, literary scholars, and others who are constantly belittled and overlooked. We are in this together and hopefully will open doors for many.

Jordannah Elizabeth is a musician, educator, and writer who has contributed to Village Voice, LA Weekly, Baltimore City Paper, Bitch Magazine, VICE, and more. She splits her time between the Bay Area and Baltimore, Maryland.