When I was younger I wanted to be black.
Good now that the awkward part is out of the way let me tell you why I wanted to be black. (I promise you will want to read this entire thing even if it seems like I’m going in a slightly reverse racist direction, just stick with me.) I grew up in the Metro Detroit area. Now lets be clear, I’ve never actually lived in the Detroit itself. I grew up in a suburb of it about an hour west, but because of my proximity and the fact that I guarantee none of you have ever heard of my hometown, because it’s not even big enough to be a town, it’s much easier to say I’m from Detroit. I digress.
Growing up this close to the Motor City it was only natural that I would be raised on Motown music. Knowing Motown music and it’s artists is almost like a right of passage for Detroiters. I knew it all by the time I was five, Aretha Franklin to The Temptations to The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. And of course my personal favorite was always Diana Ross and The Supremes.
My parents both lived through the Motown era in its full glory, my dad being a teen in the late sixties and my mom in the seventies, so whenever we took trips in the car the oldies station was always on. So much so, that until I was about seven, I didn’t know that it was oldies. I knew almost every popular song and then quite a few not so popular songs within the Motown catalog. This has always been something that I felt made me unique. But it’s brought some unique problems along with it.
I wanted to be a Motown singer when I was young (Probably around five or six). I would constantly sing the songs basically anywhere that we went. I yearned to be able to do the soulful runs and tried my best to master the skillful melodies. But the problem, in my eyes then, was that all of the good Motown singers were black. And If you’ve never seen me take your nearest pile of snow or sheet of printer paper. I’m whiter than both combined. This upset little me. I couldn’t understand why I would be given a talent for music (which obviously when I was six I couldn’t actually sing like I can as an adult) and the desire to be a singer in a genre that due to my skin color I would never be able to perform.
The tale only got worse for young me with the 90’s African American pride movement. (wether that was an actual thing or if that’s what it was called I’m not sure, but I think it was.) It wasn’t just Motown music inspiring my dislike of my skin color. From tv shows to current music, everywhere I looked I was influenced by the African American culture. I was surrounded by black role models that I could never be like, because I was white. It ate me up inside.
Flash forward to 2004, twelve year old me is still struggling with my internal race issues until my friend Sarah shares this song with me.
Any girl my age knows Jojo, But the first time I heard this song I full heartedly believed that she was black (which honestly I think she might have thought she was at this point) and here’s one more person that I want to be like but I can’t. Then I saw her Baby It’s You video on MTV and I was shocked. Here was this very white girl singing this soulful song and absolutely killing it. I was saved, there was hope for my Motown dream! I mean if Jojo could do it then why couldn’t I?
The thought never crossed my mind when I was younger how important it was that all of my black role models where there. Sure I felt inadequate because I was white and I couldn’t be like them. But I soon realized that they weren’t there to be my role models. Sure they could be, but they were there to show young black kids that they could be the things that for so long they were told only white people could do. I realized that my problem was never the color of my skin, my problem was thinking that the color of my skin was a problem.
The Motown era was during the Civil Rights movement. So many songs within the Motown catalog are about equality of the races even if it’s not explicitly. Every one of the great artists of the era faced tribulation and ridicule from white music artists, producers and record companies.
That’s why Motown exists.
It’s not about the color of ones skin that makes the meaning of Motown as a movement so great and important. It’s about acceptance and equality and seeing that we’re not so different after all. This is why I love it so much.
I now realize that my skin color doesn’t determine my singing abilities. Since then I’ve learned of many white women that sing just like my Motown inspirations and it has laid my childhood troubles to rest.
I never needed to hate the way I was made. None of those role models were ever there to make me feel so. They were only ever there to bring up those who never had a voice in the media. To show that we’re all capable of doing great things. And for that I’m glad I had those role models.
So I guess that I can be a Motown singer after all. Maybe one day I’ll even be an inspiration to a little girl who wants to sing with that Motor City sound and she won’t have to feel she can’t because of the color of her skin.