Music/Features

How John Mayer taught me about the awkward reality of cultural appropriation

What happens when your favourite artist wouldn't exist without your ancestors, but that artist fails to recognize your humanity?

Credit: Michael Webster
December 10, 2018

John Mayer and I began our musical relationship when I was 11. Back when MSN Messenger and landlines were all the rage, I’d blast Continuum and Room for Squares on repeat via my fuchsia iPod nano and matching headphones. It was my own heartsick version of pre-teen angst. A boy didn’t like me back? It was fine, I’d listen to what John had to sing about it. When I was in high school, Battle Studies and Born and Raised provided tender comfort as I lay in bed listening to John sing about girls who had stomped all over his heart as his guitar riffs whisked me away. By the time I got to university, I was appreciating the mellow and tender vibes of Paradise Valley, until The Search for Everything dropped when I was in my third year. I bounced around to “Love on the Weekend” the day it was released as sunlight filtered into my apartment, illuminating the half empty bottles of liquor from the night before.

When I finally got the chance to see John live, 10 years after I had first discovered the magic of his music, it was a glowing humid day at the end of August last summer, the kind that makes your hair frizz out as the hot sun slowly burns into a sticky warm night. I was with my friend Katie and we were giddy with excitement. We were both longtime fans of his; we’d bonded over his music in high school when we met in art class and have been friends ever since. We often attended concerts together, but this was a rare one we were both equally excited for. We walked along, gliding through throngs of sweaty people all headed to the same spot. My palms were glistening with anticipation — I’d been waiting for so many years. We marched up to security, armed with the tickets we’d purchased months ago, the second they went on sale. It was time.

We entered the 16,000 capacity Budweiser Stage amphitheatre, with seats sprawling in all directions. As we walked around to grab drinks I did what I always do in a public space—I counted. I scanned to see how many other people of colour were nearby. It’s partly curiosity, and partly so I can breathe a little easier. I do it on the bus, at the grocery store, at the library, everywhere. I’ve found it ends up being calming or incredibly alienating—there is no in between. When I see someone who looks like me, there’s an unspoken recognition when our eyes meet as if to say, “hey, we’re in this together.”

As my friend contemplated which beer to buy, my eyes inspected every inch of the area. There were many white, blonde girls, dressed in ripped denim with groups of their friends. They posed for photos, tossing their heads back and grinning at each other. Several of them brought handmade signs proclaiming their affection for the night’s headlining act: “I love you John” on hot pink and lime green construction paper. There were pale brunettes and redheads with their boyfriends, with arms wrapped so tightly around one another they melded into one. There were frat boys in flip flops and snapbacks, and middle-aged wine moms with their husbands. There were no black people in sight.

We shuffled to our seats. The air was electric, as the sky began to darken while scruffy roadies in black tees with shaggy beards wheeled out amps and tested mics. I turned around again, my eyes lasering around desperately. In most public spaces, Toronto is the picture of a truly multicultural city; it’s difficult to walk down the street without seeing a diverse group of people. I turned back around to face the stage, observing the sound engineers hustling back and forth with cables and wires. I was deflating. I was apprehensive, as if being there was somehow wrong. I surely wasn’t the only person with darker skin to like John’s music. But then and there, it certainly felt that way.

 

It suffices to say that John Mayer, the Grammy-winning patron saint of early 2000’s pop-rock, has a tumultuous past: the supposed quintessential ingredient for a particular conception of “rockstar.” From his reputation as a serial womanizer—I still believe that Jen Aniston was too good for him—to his outlandish comments about masturbating his way out of serious problems, he’d made numerous headlines over the years that portrayed him as a tactless ass.

I figured as a celebrity, it had to be difficult with the world listening to his every word, and a lack of privacy served to exacerbate each slip-up. He was only human, and it didn’t seem fair for every mistake to follow him around forever. I knew his behaviour could be bad but it never provoked any emotional response in me—it was his music’s job to do that. I was empathetic to his entrapment under the media’s microscope.

His also words created a new layer of confusion and frustration as I surveyed the overwhelmingly white crowd: what about when the art can’t exist without your ancestors, but the artist has no respect for you?

Everything changed in February 2010 with the release of his now-infamous Playboy interview. John was asked about not being interested in dating black women, which he explained by using the n-word and joking about white supremacy: “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fucking David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.” The misogynoir was real. It was bigoted, degrading and simply, disgusting. He went on to explain “if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a n—-r pass.” I felt betrayed. He quickly apologized and moved on from it. Many people forgave him. I never fully did.

Now, sitting in the August heat, I was tasked with navigating the age-old question: is it possible to separate the art from the artist? John’s comments hit me in that tight spot in my throat that burns when I cry. Yet, a very, very small part of me yearned to write them off just because he was great at guitar and wrote some of my favourite love songs. But his also words created a new layer of confusion and frustration as I surveyed the overwhelmingly white crowd: what about when the art can’t exist without your ancestors, but the artist has no respect for you?

Ultimately, I was dismayed that someone who made a living off of playing music dripping in the blues—albeit a version that was watered down to be made palatable for white audiences—could be so ignorant. How could John fashion himself after B.B. King and Buddy Guy and then turn around and degrade black women? This was the same guy who once gave half of his Grammy to Alicia Keys because he thought she deserved to win over him. I tried to rationalize his actions. Instead I felt an aftershock that hit me in my gut, rippling all the way back through musical history.

To me, it was a modern twist on the Elvis effect—where a white man takes something invented by black people, alters the flavour, and repackages it for the world to consume. It’s been happening forever. All I could do was consider the part I was willing to play in it.

The energy that emanates from hundreds of people all singing the words to a song you love is as close as you can get to magic. Hearing a song out in the open, the artist unguarded and present, is a gift. Concerts are a fleeting moment when the world hits pause so strangers can come together and enjoy something that makes them feel. When the lights go down there’s palpable excitement; despite everyone knowing what’s about to happen there’s a funny familiarity every time a crowd collectively holds its breath.

In the moment before the show began, there was a soft stillness as everyone waited anxiously, their eyes glued to center stage. Phones emerged from purses and pockets. Then the lights changed colour and everyone exhaled. John’s band strode out and everyone erupted in cheers. Screams pierced the air. He had several backup singers in sleek black outfits. The band began to play the first few notes of “Helpless” a funky, groove-fuelled song from The Search for Everything and the reality barrier shattered. I blinked and there he was, in the middle of the stage, a silhouette. I was close enough to see his initials on his guitar strap.

He was someone who I felt I had known for years, with every public fumble and flaw. I could see him and he couldn’t see me back. Everyone was yelling. Katie and I cupped our hands to our mouths and joined in, as if our noise would bring him closer to us. I blinked again. He stepped into the light.

When a guitar jangles, not much else in the world seems to matter. Before I knew it, John was playing a funky, upbeat version of “Something Like Olivia.” The original track is a butter-smooth song that sounds how sunshine tastes on one’s skin. The warm melody made my spine tingle every time I heard the organ chords effortlessly complimenting his bluesy guitar licks. This live version was faster and fuller, emphasizing the harmonies. The backup singers were stealing the show, letting their rich gospel voices ring out. John bopped along, crooning into the mic with his guitar glued to his hands. Everyone was feeling it. A song I listened to all the time on the bus with my headphones in, picturing better days, was transformed into a tune that had people dancing. I clapped and shimmied along, loving every second of it.

Halfway through the show, he brought out the John Mayer Trio, comprised of himself, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer Steve Jordan. They played blues-infused rock with such style. They joked and played like their lives depending on it, drenched in sweat as they fed off of each other’s energy.

As I smirked at Steve while he churned out a wildly groovy drum solo, I realized a glaring fact I could no longer ignore: he was black, the backup singers were black, a good portion of the band was black, and John plus his bassist and a few others were creating an eerie juxtaposition. I looked at the stage, then back at the crowd. I was one body in a sea of people who all liked the same music; it should have been a wonderful, unifying human experience. Everyone was laughing and smiling, trying to be present in the here and now.

But I couldn’t stop questioning if the people around me knew or cared about Albert King, Muddy Waters, or any of the grandfathers of blues who made it possible for him to play this music. Part of me felt like a hypocrite for liking him in the first place knowing there are countless artists of colour who do exactly what he does, some better than him, but don’t achieve the same success.

John swayed back and forth, his hands knowing exactly which riffs to play. His eyes were closed as he immersed himself in each note. It was a natural kind of showmanship, the kind that comes with years and years of practice. He played his guitar with grit and style. He projected a charisma that made him larger than all of us.

It would be unrealistic to assume all art is created equal, when the experiences that birthed hip-hop, blues, rock, soul, jazz and more, are so deeply inherent to black lives.

I grappled with my emotions. Stuck to my seat, my ears perked up to enjoy “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” But my head pounded. I knew white artists took inspiration from black ones all the time, because it’s anyone’s right to play music. If they want to play jazz, go ahead. Rock music? Why not! Rap? I’m sure there are people out there who actually like Eminem!

But it would be unrealistic to assume all art is created equal, when the experiences that birthed hip-hop, blues, rock, soul, jazz and more, are so deeply inherent to black lives. When Jay-Z raps about gang violence and drugs on “The Story of OJ”, it’s because that’s his truth. When Solange sings “Don’t Touch My Hair” she artfully articulates how a seemingly innocent gesture is in fact a racist microaggression and invasion of black space. The same is true of Frank Ocean, who highlights the fatality and heartbreak of police brutality on his somber track “Nikes” with a nod to Trayvon Martin: “RIP Trayvon, that n—a look just like me.” Acknowledging the roots of a music’s culture is as equally as important as the music itself. Without that history it is rendered meaningless. Without meaning, it loses its power.

One of the last songs he performed was the fan-favourite, ever so timely political anthem “Waiting on the World to Change.”  “Me and all my friends, we’re all misunderstood, they say we stand for nothing and there’s no way we ever could,” he sang as he strummed. My heart moved to my throat. “Now we see everything that’s going wrong, with the world and those who lead it, we just feel like we don’t have the means, to rise above and beat it.”

Every song John played carried weight. Behind each one, there were the obvious culprits including heartache, moral tug-of-wars and self-preservation. “Waiting on the World to Change” was special; it cradled my heart and made it feel heavy. The added immensity stemmed from the irony it generated. He was saying what so many artists of colour always had but his voice was louder than theirs—his earned praise; theirs were swallowed up as they shouted into the wind.

“It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight isn’t fair, so we keep on waiting.”

The sound swelled as everyone joined in. As he was shrouded in screams of joy and excitement, he smiled. I stood still, absorbed his message and processed my feelings. The song was about the lack of clout his generation possessed to fix the world’s problems. But he was someone with power. The very thing he was singing about was as applicable to politics as it was to the music industry. The two were and are, inextricably intertwined. If he wanted to make a difference by addressing his privilege, he could.

I thought of Katy Perry and her cornrows, of Miley Cyrus and her twerking, and of all the other white artists who fashioned their brands using black music and culture as a costume to be taken on and off when it’s most convenient to sell albums.

“Now we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change,” he belted.

His words were never truer to me than right then. I was waiting and waiting and waiting.  

I still am.

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