Growing up biracial is musically weird and confusing. In my earliest years I grappled with a white dad who worshipped Dylan and the Stones and a black mom who listened to nothing but Diamond Life over and over (and over) again. My elder sister was the adventurer, introducing me to Dookie and Sublime and getting my empowered fem juices flowing with Jagged Little Pill. But things took an irrevocable turn when I bought my first album at the tender age of seven: the Fugees’ The Score.
Thus began an uninterrupted fifteen-year run of total hip-hop immersion. This included making my dad buy me No Way Out after I won a chess tournament and promised to skip “Victory.” This included many adolescent indiscretions, petty both in nature and scale. This included showing up to orientation at an Ivy League institution wearing a 2XL tall tee. This basically continued all through graduation.
But at a certain point I realized that my hard stance on music couldn’t last. It was my very first post-grad summer. I was working at a big advertising agency staffed with almost no one black or biracial or part of any kind of tall tee target demo. I was on occasion forced to tuck in my shirt. White girls surrounded me and I wanted them to like me. And white girls who spend their hot summer days listening to Uncle Murda are few and far between.
I was lost.
But then, from the pop culture abyss, came a man. Not just any man, a white man. And not just any white man, but a white man with some big ideas about how to put black music and white girls in the same place at the same time. This man was Ezra Koenig. He fronted a band I never much liked called Vampire Weekend. And he penned my first White Song of the Summer.
“Warm Heart of Africa” found Koenig collaborating with The Very Best, a London-based group with a Malawian singer. Most of their music veers traditional (and is sung in Chichewa). But Koenig managed to push them into a space that somehow sounded native to Brooklyn rooftops on hot afternoons filled with people who’ve never sniffed Africa. He was a white guy making Pan-African music. He taught me what Pan-African meant. He was and still is the king of White Guys Making Pan-African Music. “Warm Heart of Africa” was something a desperate biracial kid could get behind. Summer 2010 had its soundtrack. I bought a medium t-shirt and an inquisitive mind.
Each year following, sure enough, brought with it another White Song of the Summer.
The smash hit of 2012:
And a pattern was established. The White Song of the Summer has a distinctive criteria: it must be made or (in the case of our inaugural song) defined by a white man; it must reek of a particular Pan-African influence; it must be wholly appropriate to play at a gathering of white girls who don’t love French Montana.
For 2013, I have a nominee:
Ezra Koenig may be the king of WSOTs, but John Wizards is the Jesus – a man born into such fantastical circumstances that he may redeem all of my racially confused sins. He’s literally African. White African. And he works with a black African singer. His music even sounds Pan-African in a novel inverted sense. Whereas Koenig tries to make African music through a completely white prism, in “Lusaka By Night” Wizards makes white music through a completely African prism. That is the pinnacle of WSOTs. John Wizards is the apex predator.
And this is all very relevant to me, specifically, as a biracial guy, and also for society at large. WSOTs tease something major. These are songs that straddle some weird line between paying tribute to and exploiting the cultural influences they appropriate. It’s no coincidence that summer is the only time in which privileged Northeastern people appropriate the relative benefits of your average close-to-the-equator life: warmth and music. And it’s no accident that White Songs of the Summer are what turned me on to an entirely new spectrum of music. Being biracial is confusing, but when necessary – when the tall tee no longer fits – it allows you to co-opt a new set of tastes. Because shit, if Ezra Koenig can do it I sure can too.
Featured image courtesy of Tumblr