Black Man in a White World (2016)

While in a café today, with an atrocious stream of music playing over the establishment’s speakers, a song called “Black Man in a White World” played. Turns out the song – a typical, modern, black, soul-R&B number – was a 2016 hit by one Michael Kiwanuka. From an article profiling the artist and the album the song is from:

Kiwanuka repeats the title phrase more than 40 times during the song’s four-minute expanse. But his tone isn’t confrontational or angry. It’s ruminative, suggesting someone earnestly grappling with the world as it is. The politicized nature of the song dovetails with a sharp rise in socially-attuned lyrics of late, evident on recent albums by Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and A Tribe Called Quest.

A sharp rise. By the way, the “more than 40 times” part is what drove me to near suicide and prompted me to look the song up on the interweb.

“Black Man” isn’t just a statement on the power dynamics of race, but on Kiwanuka’s specific background. The singer’s parents emigrated from Uganda to the U.K. in the ‘70s, during the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin. In stark contrast to the U.K. of the Brexit era, the country at that time welcomed immigrants. Even so, Kiwanuka felt alienated.

Even so.

“Growing up in North London, in a middle-class white area, we were the only real black African family there,” he said. “It was a good upbringing but we were different. At the same time, when I’d go to Uganda and hang out with my family, we were seen as English guys. They have a word which means foreigner, or white guy. That’s what they called us.”

So, alienation of the foreigner may be a universal phenomenon, with the indigenous of any country never fully accepting the outsider?

There’s also this telling angle:

The cultural divides that have long inspired self-segregation between the races haven’t changed much. “We still like to stay with our own people,” the star said. “We don’t really mix.”

Accordingly, many black listeners still don’t feel comfortable attending shows by artists perceived to play music that appeals to whites, and vice versa. While Kiwanuka said he doesn’t mind that his audience is mainly white, he added, “it would be nice to see a spread.”

So, which side is it, exactly, that is reluctant to mix?

I’ve been low and I’ve been high
I’ve been told all my life
I’ve got nothing here to pray
And I’ve got nothing left to say

I’m a black man in a white world
I’m a black man in a white world
I’m a black man in a white world
I’m a black man in a white world…

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