Minor-key melodies, all-black everything and a love of the macabre. The little goth within me awakened in 1991, thanks to the dark humor of the Addams Family movie. My fascination with Halloween and dark imagery would've been socially acceptable — if I were an Addams. The teenage me wouldn't have felt a need to conform strictly to the social construct of "blackness" — if I were an Addams.
But I was not an Addams. I was a little black tomboy growing up in east Charlotte, socialized in a home filled with black pop culture. I grew into a black teenager, full of angst, who explored music outside of "black pop culture" to express those emotions.
In the safety of my bedroom, without judgment from others, I tuned into MTV, VH1 and Black Entertainment Television. Those channels nurtured my love for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eminem. But I also enjoyed videos by The Prodigy, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Linkin Park and Evanescence — bands the "white music channels" added to the mix.
I never bought albums by the musicians I enjoyed watching on those channels, though. It would have been taboo. The black kids in middle school would have accused me of wanting to be white. I had already dodged the ridicule bullet of people accusing me of wanting to be a boy because of my tomboyish nature. Being bullied for denying my blackness, due to the music I enjoyed, was not a top priority on my list of things to do.
But the little goth in me needed a way to publicly express itself. Gangsta rap with strong traces of horrorcore became the music that helped me explore the dark side of my emotions outside of the safety of my bedroom. In my late-elementary school years, I gravitated to the Gregorian-meets-hip-hop sounds of Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, and by middle school my love of the group helped me find my first friend.
Reciting Bone-Thugs' rapid-fire lyrics with my buddy at the back of the classroom created musical-bonding moments that made me forget my awkwardness. Chatting with fellow Eminem fans about the shock-and-awe horrorcore tales on Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers allowed me moments of not feeling like a complete social pariah. I would transform from a shy and demure little girl into a talkative, passionate music lover who could carry on extended conversations with complete strangers.
When I got to high school, I wanted to express my love of the macabre more outwardly. I wanted to explore cybergoth and emo fashions. But social acceptance won out. I knew the unspoken rule: this was "white people shit," and as a black kid who loved hip-hop culture, dressing as a goth or emo kid was not allowed.
The box that defined blackness during my formative teen years, as the world transitioned from the 20th to the 21st century, was very small. If you wanted to be accepted by the black kids, and not be relegated to awkwardly chilling with white kids as the token black friend, you had to publicly present the appropriate blackface mask. You wore Rocawear and Baby Phat, you talked about the latest hip-hop celebrity gossip, and you listened to hip-hop, neosoul and spoken-word poetry. Granted, I liked all of those things, but I was also denying another part of myself because of the construct of socially acceptable blackness.
The criteria for being a socially acceptable black teenager was narrow. The ability to find my blended pop-culture tribe was not accessible through a social-media network when I was growing up. A festival like Bla/Alt would have allowed me to quickly find the black version of my Addams Family brethren. But there were no such festivals. For me, the Bla/Alt Music Festival is a symbolic celebration of black Charlotteans shattering the confines of blackness that are both self-imposed and projected upon us.
You can be the one black person in a rock band, and still rest in your blackness. You can love listening to emotive singer-songwriters, and still rest in your blackness. You can dress in full-on steampunk gear, and still rest in your blackness.
You are black and you are alternative, and that is something to be celebrated.