Life as a black Dave Matthews Band fan


The author, Suzette Hackney (third from right), and friends at the Chicago stop of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan Tour in July 2011. (Courtesy of Suzette Hackney)
July 26, 2013

I first heard their music at an off-campus party in the spring of 1993. It was a white party, one with very few, if any, other African Americans. I mention these facts for a reason. One I will revisit.

The sound, a mix of rock, blues, jazz, folk, classical, world and pure funk, woke me from my beer-soaked buzz. And that voice. It was raw and sexy, with a commanding range from falsetto to guttural baritone that left me awestruck. I was instantly obsessed and ran around the party asking the band’s name. I was told it was some group out of Virginia and that its live shows were being taped and passed around at college campuses everywhere. I found the tape’s owner and drilled him with questions.

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.

I understood better than most. I wasn’t angry. I even told her she could take the picture if it was that important to her. Instead, I was just sad because this woman’s drunken rant signified something larger for me. Why are we racially identified or judged by the music we like?

A friend who often joins me for concerts, despite saying, “I hate Dave’s voice” every chance he gets, is African American. When he’s with me he counts the number of other blacks at the venue. In a crowd of 50,000, sometimes he makes it up to three or four. For him, it’s kind of a validation that we really shouldn’t be there.

But I want to be there, bringing the tally of black fans in the crowd to at least five. I’m not there to represent African Americans; I’m there to get my groove on and I’m comfortable enough with myself to know that I like the music I like.

Still, I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few weeks about where, as a black woman, I am supposed to be. In his remarks a week ago, after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama talked in a personal way about race and his own experiences.

He used his position to explain to folks something they truly can’t understand unless they’ve been there. And I applaud him. The only criticism I have is that because he was talking about the death of Trayvon Martin, his message mostly was framed around the African American male experience.

I, too, have been followed through stores like a thief in the night. I, too, have seen women clutch their purses or become uncomfortable on elevators. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that for me to be a successful woman, I had no choice but to learn about other races — while other professionals have no requirement to learn about me.

Nearly 20 years after I first saw the Dave Matthews Band in concert, I’m still the only “chip in the cookie,” or at least one of a few. But I embrace it. I have met so many incredible people while following this band — friends I now call family. I love the band and its music. I’ve met most of the members, and they are the kindest, most gracious people you could know. I interact with them on social media and I try in different ways to let them know they appeal to people in all walks of life, or at least mine.

What’s funny is that although I’ve never met the band’s namesake, I know he sees me out there. We often make eye contact at shows. And last December, after the encore at a concert in Philadelphia, he found me, a brown face in the sea of white ones, smiled and reached down from the stage and handed me his guitar pick.

Hackney is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She worked for 17 years as a newspaper reporter at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News.

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