The name was the Dave Matthews Band. The group played lots of gigs around the University of Virginia because it was based in Charlottesville. The guy at the party told me a friend had sent him a tape of a performance. He said he wasn’t sure whether the band would ever blow up, but he and his frat brothers liked it.
So did I. In fact, the more I learned, the more I liked. Matthews, the lead singer, was a white guy from South Africa. The bassist, Stefan Lessard, was a prodigy who dropped out of school to do what he loved. And the majority of band members looked like me. Yet when I went to my first show a year later, I saw no one else in the crowd who did.
Still, I’m no stranger to being the only African American in the room. I attended predominantly white schools, had mostly white friends growing up and I’ve successfully straddled the worlds of black and white (Asian, Jewish, Indian, Latino and gay, too) my whole life, both out of necessity and because that’s just the person I am. As a reporter for the past 17 years in Detroit, a city that’s nearly 90 percent African American, I’ve met adults who are uncomfortable if they’re not around their own kind. I couldn’t imagine being that person.
Since that first show in 1994, I’ve been to roughly 40 more. I try to get to at least five shows a year, traveling mostly around the Midwest. (I can’t make it to the show at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow on Saturday, but I have already seen the band on four stops during its summer tour.) Over the years, I’ve been teased by some of my black friends who call DMB “white-people music.” At shows, some white people look at me as if I don’t belong: “Wow, you’re really a fan?” I’ve been asked while waiting hours in the fan-club line to get early access and a chance to run for the front row. I guess I don’t look the part.
True story: My friend and I were waiting in a lot after a show last year outside Cleveland when a white woman stumbled over and began talking to us.
“I was going to do something, but I stopped myself because I realized it was racist,” she said, slurring her words.
She explained how she was going to take a picture of us to prove to her co-workers that the Dave Matthews Band had African American fans. She said she worked with some black women who mocked her obsession with the band and who couldn’t understand what she saw in the music. It was clear that she had to walk that line of working with people of different races, but she seemed to be frustrated by their stereotypes and assumptions about her life and priorities as a white woman.