Selected ambient works: Black indie artists deserve our attention

A phone displays the vibrant album cover of music by artist Blood Orange.
As the streaming era of music emerges, Black indie artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve, argues music columnist Nick Black PO ’24. (Kirby Kimball • The Student Life)

Growing up on 2014 Tumblr and obsessing over The 1975, I gained a fondness for indie music, but this blessing doubled as a curse — white people dominated my library. Luckily, the seemingly unbreakable bond between white people and indie music is finally dissipating. 

Since its emergence as a musical label in the twentieth century, white artists and listeners have dominated indie music. Of course, the contributions of Black musicians have always played a central role in influencing indie music, but with the emergence of the streaming era of music, Black indie artists are finally seeing successes of their own. 

Let’s get the ambiguity of the term ‘indie’ out of the way first. While indie music was meant to refer only to artists who aren’t signed to major music labels, it has since become more of a cultural marker that describes musicians who sound different from the output of these major labels, much like the label “alternative.”

Music critics have noted the dominance of white people in indie spaces, resulting in the production and consumption of indie music being seen as a “white people thing.” This isn’t because Black people don’t like indie, but rather because various barriers have made it more difficult for Black indie artists to break out into the industry. However, as music production programs have become more accessible and streaming platforms have come to dominate the music industry, many of these barriers have begun to break down. 

PinkPanthress, a Black indie creator who’s seen huge success from the release of various singles and her mixtape “To Hell With It,” began by singing over GarageBand instrumentals and uploading the results to SoundCloud and TikTok. Her music and style are unapologetically indie: She cites 2000s-era pop pock artists as her inspiration and features grim aesthetics in her artwork. This is a prime example of how artists today can break out without access to expensive computer equipment or support from a major record label.

As barriers to music production and distribution have waned, Black people have become more visible in indie spaces. With this, indie music’s status as a “white people thing” is finally deteriorating. Pre-streaming age Black creators recall feeling unsupported and marginalized for participating in an alternative culture meant only for white people. Contrast this to the modern day, where social media platforms like TikTok have popularized alternative music and styles, increasing the visibility of Black alternative people and diversifying the image of indie. 

Rico Nasty, another Black artist who rose to fame on the Internet, began releasing music independently in 2014. Nasty, now an extremely successful figure in the hip-hop scene, remembers when participating in indie culture made her an “outcast.” Today, she says, the internet has completely changed the game; indie spaces have become much more diversified and accepting of groups beyond hipster-esque white people.

Many of my Black indie heroes — Dev Hynes, FKA twigs, Solange, Azealia Banks and so many more — have been creating beautiful indie music long before society started to recognize the contributions that Black people are making to the genre. Just because many of these artists are seeing more mainstream success doesn’t mean that there were no Black people in the indie scene before, nor that indie audiences are absolved for their mistreatment of creators who aren’t white. I’m elated that indie music is finally diversifying, but most importantly, this prospect should motivate listeners to explore beyond what’s propped up by white-dominated spaces. Black indie artists have and will continue to provide the world with beautiful music, and I simply ask that we pay attention to them. 

Nicholas Black ’24 is from Rochester, New York. He only listens to recommendations from Pitchfork.

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