Rain Perry: What Does It Mean to Be White?

A frank conversation with the acclaimed singer-songwriter

Rain Perry (Image: Facebook)

Rain Perry doesn’t shy away from the truth. The songs on her albums always explore her deepest emotions and come up with provocative insights.

When the COVID lockdown, and the death of George Floyd, led to nationwide protests and brought attention to the BLM movement, she picked up her pen and started writing. The result is A White Album, a collection that looks at America’s racial problems and asks questions that never occur to many white people.

“I consciously called the record A White Album as a double entendre,” Perry said. “The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ is actually called The Beatles. This is an album about being white in America. It’s not Thee White Album, it’s A White Album. I can’t make a definitive statement about being white, or race, so it’s a white album, hopefully one of many. I’m not sad if it gets attention because of the similarities in the title. 

“Two things led me to the subject. First is the idea of interest convergence, an idea put forth by Derrick Bell. (The man behind the idea of critical race theory.) People respond when their own interests align with an idea. In the wake of the BLM protests, white people saw how racial issues impacted them, in a way they may not have done before. Second, our dialogue on race has always been so either/or. The issue has been framed as – ‘You’re a racist or not a racist.’ I don’t think that’s a useful way of looking at it. Although there are people who are happy to be called racist, the more useful question is – ‘How am I racist?’ If we ask ourselves that question, we can always learn something. 

Rain Perry A White Album, Precipitous Records 2022

“I’ve talked to a lot of white people about this. I often get a defensive reaction. I noticed it, when the concept of white feminism was brought up to me. I learned many of the first wave feminists were explicitly racist. I had to grapple with that. It’s important, if we’re going to make progress, to meet people where we are and where they are. We’re all kind of a mess on this issue. There has to be space for acceptance, for looking at where we are and where we’re going, with the intention of learning and growing. My hope is the record will give white people some space to reflect on their lives, and their choices, and grow. I’m not trying to give people any answers. I’m just asking them the same questions I ask myself. What’s next? Where do we go from here?” 

Perry put the album together during the COVID lockdown, with the help of her producer, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hillman. They took a low-key approach that keeps the focus on the lyrics and Perry’s unassuming vocals. A handful of invited guests helped fill out the minimal arrangements. Quiet electric piano opens “Melody and Jack,” a pop ballad that describes an interracial romance her mother had when she was a young girl. “What’s Wrong With You” is a rocker that focuses on “Karens,” white women who make life difficult for the Black people they interact with. “Indian Hill, Ohio, 1967” is a soft ballad that describes white folks enjoying a quiet evening, unaware of the deadly race riot taking place a few miles away. “Lady of the Harbor” is an anthem to inclusion, using a string section and acoustic piano to praise the contributions immigrants have made to the American narrative. The backing vocals are performed by the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus of Maine, a group with young immigrants from Kenya, Egypt, China, Kazakhstan and many other nations.

Perry, who is also a playwright and filmmaker, said the songs on A White Album are part of a larger project she’s planning. “It’s going to be a theatrical musical piece, similar to my album Cinderblock Bookshelves, which looked at my childhood through the lens of class. This one will examine my life as a white person. 

“My mom, Melody, from the song ‘Melody and Jack,’ was from an upper working class, lower middle class family. My dad was upper middle class, lower upper class. My dad grew up in an exclusive suburb. He wanted to be an actor and left home for California. He spent his inheritance at lightning speed. I moved around a lot as a kid. I lived in 23 different houses and went to 13 schools, and had a very small handful of friends, all of them white.  My dad and his friends consider themselves open minded and caring about civil rights, but we lived in white neighborhoods with white friends. That’s not a criticism, but a fact that brings up the questions: Why is that? What caused that to continue? It brings up gentrification and other big issues. If, as a white person, I choose to go live in a mixed community, I’m bringing my whiteness to that community and property values may go up. I’m not saying I have any answers to this, but I want to keep asking the questions.  

“’Indian Hill, Ohio, 1967’ references the Avondale riots in 1967 and 68. It’s a suburb of Cincinnati. A Black man was accused of being a serial killer. It led to a severe police crackdown in Black neighborhoods. That sparked riots. Then, Martin Luther King was killed and that sparked another series of riots, or insurrections. How do I explain to folks who think they have little, that they still have a lot more than many others? The realities of this racial struggle are real. Until my husband heard Obama say Black folks have to keep the receipt when they walk out of the store, he never thought about it. 

 

VIDEO: Rain Perry “Melody & Jack”

“One big question that keeps coming up is ‘white guilt.’ Should I feel guilty about being white? That’s not a useful way of looking at it, but I do feel ashamed of being part of a demographic that routinely calls the police on people who are not white. That’s why I wrote ‘What’s Wrong With You?’ I don’t want to be any part of that. 

“How do you perceive a threat? These women are perceiving threats in the most outlandish situations. That fact that they become memes shows how common it is. It’s part of a long vigilante history going back to Emmett Till and before. It’s a complicated thing, having to do with women and their lack of power and other intricate factors. 

“I included ‘Lady of the Harbor’ as a hopeful note; a reminder that we’re all immigrants, except for the Native people who were already here, who were soon made exiles in their own land. The Statue of Liberty is also known as the Mother of Exile. The words on the base of the statue are lines from a poem called ‘The New Colossus,’ written by Emma Lazarus – a Jewish woman from New York. 

“What strikes me about the poem, is the line ‘your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ It references the hustle that gets you here, fleeing injustice or seeking a better life. That’s the best part of us. That’s our greatest strength as a country, if only we can figure out how to use it and not be so scared of other people.” 

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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