The Uniter Speaker Series presents Matthew James-Wilson

Indie music, DIY culture and systemic racism

Writer and musician Matthew James-Wilson will be a guest of The Uniter Speaker Series on Jan. 28.

Last week, I sat down over Zoom with BIPOC musician, artist, creator, writer and all-around cool-guy badass Matthew James-Wilson. Funnily enough, it was Lead Belly’s birthday, and Matthew was wearing a T-shirt of the legendary Black blues musician. We discussed his Pitchfork article “What It’s Like to Be Black in Indie Music,” published in September of last year. 

In hindsight, I was terrified to write this article for a few different reasons. Being a Black, gender non-conforming metal/hardcore vocalist myself, I have dealt with a lot of ignorance, blatant and subtle racism, as well as people using performative allyship in order to elevate their own social status. So you can imagine how excited and extremely validating it was to hear James-Wilson’s fresh but all-too-common experience of navigating through white narratives in order to create and share his own.

James-Wilson started Forge Art Magazine with high-school friends in 2012 as an online zine. After the first year, he became the sole editor of the zine as it evolved into a quarterly webzine while he attended college in New York. He used his role as editor to shine a light on BIPOC/LGBTTQIA* creatives. 

“It’s always been really important to me to talk to as many different people from different backgrounds and perspectives as I can,” he says. After putting the online zine on hiatus right before the COVID-19 pandemic, he started a project based in Los Angeles called Rolling Paper, which is a foldable print publication in a traditional newspaper style that features artists, musicians, playlists, recipes and other things. 

James-Wilson comes from a mixed-race family (his father is Canadian-Scottish, and his mother is Caribbean) and was raised in New York City. Because of this, he has firsthand experience in exploring the relationship between race and identity.

“A big part of the conception of the (Pitchfork) article, or thinking about the article, or feeling some need to write it was I had a handful of really negative experiences around when a lot of the protests were happening earlier this summer that were very revealing of certain people’s sort of intentions or naiveness around race,” he says. “It was just very, very upsetting and disappointing.” 

This story is far too familiar to me. Last summer was incredibly telling for a lot of Black folx, regarding us fighting for our lives, the privilege of the white people around us and how they react when their viewpoints on race are challenged. Many people do not want to have this discourse. It could be fear, pride, ignorance or just not knowing what to say. 

“If the biggest thing you have to deal with is feeling uncomfortable having a conversation, THEN YOU ARE PRIVILEGED,” James-Wilson says.

“I did have a lot of conversations. Some people I was like, ‘Alright, I truly can’t deal with this right now.’ Some people, I tried to sort of communicate how it felt, and they were defensive immediately. And that was even more disappointing. And that sort of led to some friendships ending, and I think certain people from that have also come around. 

“I think that they do realize why I felt hurt and why I felt like I needed to speak up for myself. But yeah, I think I felt, in the article, I sort of talked about being interested in indie music and DIY culture and sort of eventually feeling really disappointed by a lot of the community I’ve been involved with. Because I think that I, myself, have even been blind to how little some people really care or understand what the experience of not being white and operating in an underground community is like.”

In Winnipeg’s metal community, I have often felt ostracized, because I feel and look like the odd one out. I’ve worn a T-shirt of a metal band and have been quizzed on the spot by white men who clearly had nothing better to do. It can be a harsh climate, where people can be judgmental, cruel and victimizing.

Being part of a subculture is hard enough, but try and see that through the lens of someone who is Black. Our narratives. Our stories. They will be vastly different from yours. People will always have a hard time believing this, and I, frankly, have become weary trying to explain oppression in the music community to people who are complacent in believing that there are no problems regarding systemically oppressive and often racist behaviours.

I asked James-Wilson what he thinks of the events of this past year, their effect on inclusivity in the music scene and if that inclusivity is performative or authentic. He points out that representation of Black folx in the music scene in the last decade has seen slight improvements. However, there seems to be a disparity in the efforts put forth by white-owned record labels to address the systemic issues of “racism, sexism and xenophobia, in a structural way.”

In his Pitchfork article, he says that “structural transformation is necessary.” In my own experiences in Winnipeg, I can absolutely agree with this. There needs to be a dramatic shift in diversifying at every single level. I am tired of constantly playing in white spaces and often feeling like a token of white guilt, because let’s be honest: these spaces were not meant for people like me, anyway. 

James-Wilson is realistic yet hopeful about the future, saying, “It’s going to take a long time, but the generation of young people (is) already ensuring that that change is going to happen.”

In my hour-and-27-minute conversation with James-Wilson, I drew many parallels between his experiences, the experiences of those he interviewed for his article and my own. Through his soft-spoken nature, I saw someone who has a true love for music and the arts. His dedication to inclusivity and understanding the dichotomy between what you deserve and what you get as a Black person from the music industry was something that was refreshing yet unfortunately necessary in the quest for self-fulfillment and acceptance.

The Uniter Speaker Series presents: A Conversation with Matthew James-Wilson will stream live at facebook.com/theuniter on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. Read James-Wilson’s work at forgeartmag.com and pitchfork.com/features/article/what-its-like-to-be-black-in-indie-music. His music can be found at castlepasture.bandcamp.com.

Kayla Fernandes is a Black gender non-conforming metal/hardcore vocalist, activist and poet. Their band Vagina Witchcraft has opened for acts like Propagandhi and Cancer Bats. They often intertwine their activism with music, using lyricism, socio-political undertones and a barrage of riffs. They delivered a powerful spoken-word poem at the 2020 Justice4BlackLivesWinnipeg rally and funneled that momentum directly into their practice as an activist, musician and poet, using these platforms to call for action and accountability in their communities.

Published in Volume 75, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 27, 2021)

Related Reads