Relationship Between Music and Identity is Reductive

“You haven’t seen [insert popular media here]???”

I think it’s time we deconstruct the problem with this question. Whether it’s the film buff who’s cornered me at a party or a friend I’m grabbing lunch with, the question seems to sneak its way into any conversation. It’s often followed by, “Are you even Black? Queer? A real fan?” etc. if I haven’t seen the specific media they are highlighting. The real question that needs to be addressed, though, is much deeper: When did we start defining our identities by certain media pieces?

The idea that media can correlate with someone’s identity is not one I disagree with. Take Boyz n the Hood, a movie that speaks on race, police brutality, generational trauma, and more. Many members of the Black community, myself included, resonate with the themes in the film and appreciate that it encapsulates a part of the Black experience in America. While I love and appreciate the film, though, I do not use it to validate my Blackness, nor does watching it set me apart from my Black peers who haven’t. Being Black isn’t a question, and it isn’t something that can be confirmed based on what movies you have or “OMG you haven’t seen.”

I see the point of assigning certain media to certain identities. It can be a way to express one’s identity discreetly and also a good way to find those who share your interests. I cannot deny the joy I feel when someone has listened to the same artist as me or watched a movie that correlates with our shared identity. However, when we assert that someone is not something because they haven’t consumed that specific media, it only creates more division within the community. It doesn’t give space to all different types of identity and shrinks our ability to explore the subsections within our identities. It creates a criterion that completely limits how we view ourselves.

I’ve been repeatedly faced with the “You haven’t?” question in my own life. As a teen, I felt insecure about my queerness and was looking for ways to explore how it felt and looked to me. It was around the same time as the popular TikTok trend #doyoulistentogirlinred, and I was often chastised for never listening to her myself. Suddenly there was a popular way people saw and interpreted queerness and, more importantly, a popular way people defined others as queer. But I didn’t relate to a white Norwegian singer-songwriter, and I certainly didn’t feel represented in my queerness when listening to her music. Nonetheless, I felt like I needed to add her to my playlist and Tinder profile. And while I don’t think there is anything wrong with listening and relating to girl in red, I did it because I wanted to fit into social media’s new perception of what queerness was, not because I really enjoyed or connected with her music. I don’t think that girl in red — or any artist, film, or media — should be used to define who is queer and who isn’t. Upon realizing that there are so many ways to be queer, I started branching out and exploring what queerness and queer music looked like to me. I ended up finding music that resonated with my identity, listening to artists like Janelle Monáe and Niña Dioz.  Whether you listen to girl in red or Janelle Monáe, there is no “right” relationship to queerness — as long as you don’t shame others for not being exactly like you.

The issue of stereotypes plays into this as well. When a white person scrunches up their nose and says, “You haven’t listened to Tyler the Creator’s new album?” or “You’re not a Drake fan? Are you even Black?” I can’t help but side-eye them, because no one but me should define my identity. Even if I were a Drake fan, it wouldn’t make me any more or less Black. Say I did like girl in red; that wouldn’t make me any more or less queer. Deciding to like and consume something is a choice that I make, especially when it directly coincides with who I am. That choice should not affect how others see themselves nor set any standard for how people should present themselves. Furthermore, someone assuming that I like Drake or Tyler the Creator asserts that they want me to fit a certain stereotype of what Black people listen to. When I challenge that assumption, people can’t help but feel uncomfortable that I don’t fit the narrative they’ve laid out for me.

So what do we do? Well, the first thing is to stop asking that question — or even just frame it differently. It’s not a question of “You haven’t?” — it’s “Hey, have you seen this? I think it’s really cool.” Center the question around yourself, because the point is to see if you have something in common. You don’t have to ostracize someone to do so, and you might just make a new friend.