Recently I read three memoirs by musicians that seemed in many ways to intersect. Indeed, all of the memoirs were connected by a variety of common threads–all three of the musicians were ones whose best years were behind them as far as popular success was concerned and were artists who have generally been well-regarded. Similarly, they were connected by the ties that each of them had within the field of music. Mariah Carey’s memoir, for example, mentioned that she had done backup singing for a band that Lenny Kravitz had been involved in before both of them became famous, and also about a time where she sang with Alicia Keys. The three artists also had other similarities, relating to their identities, in that all three of them were bi-racial, with one black parent and one white parent, and each of them identified so strongly with their black heritage that they seemed not to understand their white heritage except as something that made them light enough to not fit in particularly well with the side of their ancestry that they identified with.
Identity is a tricky matter. Part of what makes it so tricky is that it contains aspects by which we define ourselves as well as aspects which are defined by others. The claims we make as to our own identity are not truly secure until and unless those claims are respected and agreed by others. And running throughout all of the memoirs was a poisonous thread of envy related to the fate of those whose identities are trapped in a middle ground. Mariah Carey, for example, was lighter skinned than her two older siblings, and found that they envied her because they saw her lighter hair and lighter skin as a privilege that they were denied. Carey, in turn, was incensed by the privilege that her mother, an Irish-American opera singer, enjoyed, a privilege that included being able to trust the cops to be on her side. Alicia Keys, whose parents were never really a romantic couple and who grew up with her single mother, has spent a great deal of the last few years indulging in misguided and mistaken ideas of Black Egypt to bolster her fragile African ego. Lenny Kravitz, despite his Jewish name, was told that he would never be respected for his identity and so has always identified with his mother’s identity, a complex blend of African American and Afro-Caribbean from the Bahamas.
One of the ironies of reading the memoir as a not entirely sympathetic reader was seeing how it was that projection related to the rejected white identity of the three singers was such a profound quality. All three of the artists had not truly come to terms with what it meant to be partly but not entirely white. They resented the racism that they suffered from both sides, for not being all one thing and all the other, but not having a coherent identity that would allow them to accept and come to terms with both sides of their mixed heritage. By rejecting the white part of their heritage, they viewed white Americans (including their own white parents and grandparents and other relatives, as well as teachers, police officers, neighbors, and fellow classmates) as a dangerous and hostile other, even though it is their rejection of a part of themselves that turned white America into the other in their eyes. And because they did not recognize the natural consequences of their rejection, they failed to understand that what they perceived about others was nothing more or less than the reflection of their own poisoned and hostile view towards them. We will believe of the other how we view and think of the other.
Despite their best efforts, though, none of the the three artists has ever been completely at ease with the black aspects of their cultural heritage either. For all of her efforts at making music that spoke to R&B and rap, and Mariah Carey has made many such efforts (most of which I don’t happen to like), she is best known for her pop and adult contemporary ballads, which are much more appealing to mainstream white audiences. Similarly, Lenny Kravitz, for all of his interest in being like Prince, has had a career whose success has been with largely white audiences in a rock world that has had few successful black musicians in recent decades. Similarly, Alicia Keys’ successful music came in a period where she was playing the piano in ballad music that appealed to a similar widespread market in adult contemporary, and her more politically strident and less appealing music was correspondingly not very popular. All of these artists are in the ambivalent place of depending for their popularity and their cultural power and influence on a white mainstream audience that they view with at best considerable ambivalence and at times immense outright hostility.
And that is deeply sad. The broken families these artists came in is typical among those who view the search for fame as being the ticket to personal wholeness and respect. The divided background of these artists has led to a continual struggle to be accepted for who they are and the lack of any of these artists to really come to terms with who they are is not particularly surprising but is deeply lamentable. For them to come to terms with the fact that they are partly white and that it is quite possible that their popular success has been due to their ability to perform in a way that is appealing to white audiences would be to admit that they too are at least part of the white cultural elite, and that their self-worth and position of cultural influence comes in large part because of their popularity with white audiences. How reflective such artists are of the source and foundation of their own influence is unclear. It is remarkable that three such similar memoirs from such similar artists should appear in 2020, in a year where it was thought particularly important to make grand claims of black identity, claims that these three artists seem particularly ill-suited to making in light of the sources of their own popularity and their blindness towards the blessings of their own rejected aspects of their identities. Let us hope others profit from the example.