I Was a Weird Black Emo Teen in a Misery-Obsessed White Subculture

The return of My Chemical Romance has led me to rethink my place in emo, and emo's place in Black culture.
February 11, 2020, 4:41pm
My Chemical Romance, Emo
Left image via author. Right image via 'My Chemical Romance' 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

As a former emo kid who still spends at least one hour a week listening to emo music—in particular, My Chemical Romance—I’ve been following the trail to their inevitable reunion. For over five years, I’ve creeped on their personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, searched Google News for an inkling of information that they would return, and in recent months, learned that they were gearing up for a reunion: they changed their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures to cryptic images; in May, Joe Jonas spilled the tea on a reunion to which MCR guitarist Frank Iero fired back, calling the Jonas Brothers a “Disney Band”; and Warner Records prematurely released new merch. All the while, MCR vehemently denied they were getting back together, crushing our collective dreams. But not me. In the office where I work, I’m the official town crier of My Chemical Romance news.

So last month, after learning that My Chemical Romance was returning for its first tour in eight years, I called my mom, the woman who saw me through my embarrassing outfits and loved me enough to be seen in public with me. “I thought this was a phase,” she said, like all mothers of emo children. “You haven’t grown up at all.”

Truthfully, I haven’t. Emo faded out by the mid-to-late 2000s (and for many of us, with the November 2010 release of Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys) and while we all inevitably moved on and grew up, many of us weren’t ready to say goodbye.

I wasn’t just an emo teen—I was Black emo teen. If anyone was angsty, misunderstood, and slighted, it was me. By 14, I had moved from my pop-punk phase of listening to Good Charlotte, Gob and Sum 41 on my walkman—my clothes held together by obnoxiously large safety pins, my Converse scribed on with black marker, and rainbow socks—to black band T-shirts and rubber bracelets, bows in my hair, and skull jewelry. All throughout ninth grade, I roamed the halls of high school alone, carrying around a photo album of printed images of my favorite emo and screamo bands—MCR, From First to Last, The Used, Panic at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, Weezer—which I’d spend classes admiring as dumb jocks threw pennies at my head. After school, I blasted From First to Last’s “Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count” as I applied pink eyeshadow and eyeliner tears to take overexposed photos for my MySpace profile. At night, I became MsGeeWay, writing From First to Last and MCR band crossover stories on the now-defunct fandomination.net. (By 13, I became one of the most popular fanfic writers in the category.) Hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, I didn’t have to worry about being the sole Black emo. But at my Toronto high school, where everyone was obsessed with hip hop, Ice Creams, and Air Jordans, I was the weird Black emo girl who no one—not even the boys—wanted to be around.

I wasn’t in denial that I was out of place. From the bands I liked to who was featured in their music videos to the people I saw around the city and online, emo was definitely a white subculture. I felt that exclusion profoundly: while white kids were trying to look dead—a common theme of the genre—there were no “pale” foundations for dark-skin. I couldn’t get my thick, curly hair into a mullet-esque haircut, and red and pink dyes wouldn’t take on its dark color (which I solved by delusionally putting burgundy yarn in my hair). My grandfather looked at me, eyes wide, as I tried to leave the house in ripped clothing and studded belts—“You’re going out— like that?” In public, both white people and other people of color stared at me with amusement and confusion. And worst of all, when I tried to talk to other emos—like the few emo kids at school or the ones who worked at the mall—they outright ignored me. I was the epitome of what our beloved music was about—getting subbed. Though I loved the music, I was getting tired of being a subculture within a subculture; by 16, I was listening to Top 40 and hip hop, switching out my dark makeup for more natural tones, and my Vans checkered slip-ons for boots with the fur. I made friends, started dating, and blended in with other teens. I became basic.

Now in my late 20s, I’m still a diehard emo lover, and though this confession still elicits shock from white people, it isn’t much of a surprise to the dozens of other reformed emos of color I’ve met. They had been hiding all along, crying emo tears to Dashboard Confessional albums in the privacy of their rooms because they knew that emo culture was reserved for white kids, not us. I wonder if, like me, they still listen to the music because no one longs for emo culture like the kids of color who didn’t get the chance to experience it fully.

Our treasured nostalgia about emo music has always been teetering on the brink of resurgence. BuzzFeed listicles about emoness have been published as recently as last May. Homesick: Emo Night is a regularly occuring event across Ontario, and Emo Nite LA’s parties and two-days festivals draw a huge emo-loving crowd; it even brought Sonny Moore (now known as Skrillex) back together with his band From First to Last. All the while, we’ve been inundated with memes about emo culture, listening to mash-ups of emo and anthems with big name artists and singing our black hearts out at emo karaoke.

And so it feels that My Chemical Romance’s triumphant resurrection is indicative of what us emo kids always knew: emo never truly died, and outcasts will always be outcasts. It’s even more evident with the band’s U.K. tour selling out in minutes, along with its whole North American tour selling out within hours, breaking record sales numbers at some venues. As the New York Post said, us “Aging Emo Kids” have returned to revisit a childhood that was collectively nightmarish yet comforting thanks to MCR’s music. I’ve been following my favourite emo bands into the 2010s, watching how they’ve recreated themselves in a new decade that belonged to hip-hop music and culture. Along with teenagers and their parents, I’ve continued to head-bang to Panic at the Disco, Fall Out Boy and Weezer, all of which have been influenced by pop, hip hop and R&B. As Weezer says in “Beach Boys,” a track off its 2017 pop-rock departure album “Pacific Daydream,”: “It’s a hip-hop world and we’re the furniture.”

Hip-hop surprisingly bodes well with emo: both share the theme of the “come-up” and being slept on. Both steep in dark and brooding self-pity about being slighted by the one that got away, paving the way for more emotional expressions of pain and longing for men—Black men in particular. (Think: every Drake song or The Weeknd, whose album My Dear Melancholy and Coachella performance were labelled as super emo.) Unlike other untouchable misogynistic genres of music like country, emo and hip hop have had their fair share of credible accusations of being violent, especially towards women—in the past few years, several emo bandmates have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Merging with mainstream hip-hop artists is one way that Fall Out Boy have arguably remained the only successful mainstream emo band. With collaborations with Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, Makonnen and the late Lil Peep—who was known as “the future of emo,” FOB has managed to successfully tour and make albums. The emo/hip-hop crossover has even birthed emo rap, made famous in the 2010s by Soundcloud rappers like Peep as well as Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD and Princess Nokia. In 2018, emo rap became the fastest-growing genre on Spotify. In interviews with all these artists, they’ve credited emo as a major influence on their aesthetic and music, debunking the myth that Black people weren’t into emo culture. And as we’ve also seen through essays by former Black emo kids on sites like Pitchfork and Gal–Dem, we were more common than assumed. Emo should have been ours just as much as white people’s.

While accountability for emo’s lack of racial and gender inclusion was weak in the early 2000s, emo simply can’t survive today without acknowledging that it’s been exclusionary, both to women and people of color, and that a major part of its resurgence is thanks to Black artists and a diverse fan base. In a climate that is increasingly right-wing, anti-immigration, and anti-woman—many of us have been made to be outcasts again. This is where emo’s celebration of the outcast’s angst and isolation, of wanting to protest and burn the world down, feels more relevant than ever. More bands have been taking a political stance at their concerts, declaring they don’t want sexist, homophobic, transphobic or racist fans, or using songs to make statements—for example, Fall Out Boy’s track “G.I.N.A.S.F.S.” spells out “Gay is Not a Synonym for Shitty.” If emo can use its own straight white privilege against the very thing it claims to despise—an unjust world—then it will maintain its fanbase in an era where progressive celebrity beliefs are rewarded with loyalty. While I’ve never felt that emo represented me as a Black woman, it certainly had my back as an introverted, weird teen (and a sometimes angsty adult); for that, I will always stan.

As I write this, I just scored my tickets to see My Chemical Romance. Even my mother, who never let me listen to emo in her dancehall-only car as a kid, endured the dreaded Ticketmaster line. Though I’ve long set aside my wardrobe and gotten over not having a pre-Justin Bieber hairdo, I still feel just as emo as ever. I listen to MCR loud on the subway while ignoring shocked looks that once bothered me. Fall Out Boy albums are my shoulder to cry on during breakups. I join other fans on Twitter in raving about our favorite emo songs and albums, no longer worried about hiding behind a profile avatar. Since most people I now meet were scene back in the 2000s or are fans of the 2010s emo rap, I straddle the line between a culture that never included people like me, and one that was created by people like me.

I can’t wait for all of us aging, raging emo kids to be reunited to experience the final missing piece of our loner youth—an MCR concert. In that space, regardless of race, we’ll get to be righteously angry at the world, one much different than when we deactivated our Myspace accounts. In that moment, it won’t matter what color we are. And for that one fleeting moment, we will forget about the Danger Days ahead.

Follow Eternity Martis on Twitter. Her new book "They Said This Would Be Fun" is coming out in March for Penguin Random House Canada.

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