Following the uprising, Baltimore's white music scene has been trying to get a bit more introspective. Conversation starters such as Jana Hunter and Abdu Ali's piece for Pitchfork, "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene" in July, and Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman's tough-minded "SCUM (Segregated Communities and Upward Mobility): A state-of-the-arts manifesto with 10 points to improve the visual art scene" here in City Paper last month, which focused on visual arts but had plenty of useful things to say if applied to the music scene, questioned the nature of and role of Baltimore's underground/DIY music scene, which too often seems as if it is beyond reproach.
These pieces, though, have been met with conversation enders: One white person I spoke to responded to scene critiques in terms of diversity by declaring that he didn't understand why he couldn't just "live [his] life" and make the art he wants to make; another dismissed Abdu Ali's comments on being a black artist as complaining; On Facebook, members of the arts scene said City Paper's role was to "support" them; phrases such as "white guilt" and "social justice warrior" popped up a few times; even City Paper's own Baynard Woods offered a rather glib response in his Conflicts of Interest column last week when he said, "get a more diverse group of friends."
What both pieces (and these disappointing responses) made clear to me is that because we're in an apartheid city, the "DIY" conceit is a canard.
If you are a white artist who is part of the DIY scene, you benefit from the city's racist policies—and that's on top of the work-a-day privileges whiteness allows you. Baltimore's white DIY scene is not "do it yourself" because it was built on the backs and fueled by the pain of the city's oppressed, as Hunter and Ali pointed out. "I'd also still say that living in Baltimore affords one a sense of freedom, except to add that the sense of freedom exists almost solely for non-black artists and musicians," Hunter writes. "Whatever benefits there are for non-black artists and musicians to live in and move to Baltimore are directly indebted to the majority black population of Baltimore. Our liberties come at the cost of theirs." In short, low rent for shabby spaces, an edgy scene, the cheap thrills of illegality are all the flip side of a history of segregated housing, white flight, vacant, repossessed homes, the drug wars, zero tolerance and police brutality. And while there has been a crackdown over the past few years of DIY spaces, it's ultimately small potatoes compared to the de facto racist policing and governmental policies that run this city and seriously limit accessibility and resources for large swaths of black Baltimore.
Plus, "DIY" is not just implicated by virtue of quietly existing in this profoundly racist city (something it might grapple with rather than avoid, but which it ultimately cannot single-handedly change). As Callahan and Kirkman pointed out, there is a lack of diversity in the DIY community, which reflects the segregation of the city: "The DIY scene isn't very diverse, and so some of political implications of DIY are lost," they wrote. "Twenty of your mostly white friends making art for one another feels like the status quo in miniature, not an inspiring counter to the mainstream." A group of mostly white people making art for people a lot like them, quasi-legally, is about as subversive as a JHU party on some bro's porch full of underage drinkers—it's flaunting the luxuries of the empowered.
That said, there are plenty of examples of diverse DIY in the city. Last weekend, I attended a Halloween show at The 5th Dimension featuring Wet Brain, Noisem, and a few other metal and punk bands, along with DJ Ducky Dynamo and Dimitri Reeves, colloquially known as the Michael Jackson guy (he dances all over the city and, most famously, aggressively grooved in front of the cops the day of the riots). The show transitioning from a Michael Jackson dance party to a violent mosh pit during Noisem was thrilling. So was DJ Ducky Dynamo playfully mixing Juvenile into Limp Bizkit—both are music for raging out to, after all.
A couple of weeks before that, there was the EARTHSEED x EARTHSEED party at Floristree, featuring Abdu Ali, JPEGMAFIA, JuegoTheNinety, and others. It was important to witness that legendary space, which has for the most part booked white acts (and was simply by reputation a white space), hold this event. That's an example of artists, organizers, and the owners of a venue working together to change perceptions and that in and of itself is a political act (Greydolf's events at the Copycat and other DIY spots are similarly radical).
What's hovering around in the background of this is the Broom Factory Factory, a black DIY space, which was raided by police, as City Paper reported back in 2013. City Paper's coverage of that raid, if you ask many people in the scene including some involved in the BFF, is the reason why the space is no more. Fair enough. Our well-meaning concern for the truth as a white publication can have major consequences. A white paper sent a white writer to highlight an injustice—an aggressive raid that went unreported—and as a result, we had a hand in killing the space. We are still a publication while the BFF is gone. That's my point here: None of us are exempt from this critique.
Too often in these recent debates, "DIY" felt more like it was a brand—like Apple or Bernie Sanders—with prognosticators that think its presence is charity enough. Anything it does wrong or problematically doesn't matter. And I would add that it's time for the term "DIY" itself to be recast. When we say "DIY," we implicitly mean white artists making a certain kind of art. The so-called black "chitlin circuit" of the past, or the black jazz musicians that traveled the country in fear for their lives because of racism, or Baltimore rappers pressing their mixtapes and flier-ing cars, or Young Moose's OTM store, are all "DIY" too, we just don't call it that. What was normal for black artists throughout history—a dogged, almost self-destructive dedication to their art against all odds, defying the authorities and empiricism and capitalism—became a well-branded badge of honor for mostly middle-class whites during the punk era who just had it way easier.
This conversation about DIY and diversity has to at least begin with white spaces accepting the fact that whether they like or not, they are implicated in Baltimore's devastating apartheid-like policies and benefit from them. This doesn't mean give up and don't go DIY, it just means acknowledge this stuff. I imagine it's tough to want to do because it's tough and embarrassing and, I suspect, there is some resentment brewing because DIY spots are borne out of a kind of madness and drive and it hurts to hear this beautiful thing you've built get criticized at all. But we're not going to change anything until we admit that there's a problem and right now, it seems like even that's too much for major parts of Baltimore's arts scene.