Julian Schaap - Arts and Culture Studies

Julian Schaap studies whiteness in rock music

Elvis has finally left the building?

In 2013 Julian Schaap graduated (cum laude) on the topic of whiteness and rock music. In May 2013, together with Assistant Professor Pauwke Berkers and Professor Koen van Eijck, Julian received a five-year grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) as a part of Doctorates in Humanities ('Promoties in de Geesteswetenschappen') to pursue his international PhD project on the topic. He started his PhD and work as a lecturer in October 2013.

Unmarked norm
What does it mean to be Turkish, Moroccan or Antillean? A great deal of research has been conducted on 'blackness' within sociology. "But the view of sociologists – the majority of whom are usually white men – is hardly ever directed inwards," Julian states. "Whiteness is more or less seen as the default option that is left unstudied, also referred to as the 'unmarked norm'."

In his research, Julian aims to turn this view inwards: "If there is a particular idea about what blackness means, there must also be ideas about what whiteness means, even if these are never explicitly expressed. Little sound, sociological research has been carried out into what unmarked whiteness exactly is and how it is constructed."

Perfect case study
Alongside the fact that as a musician, the rock scene is his natural habitat (he has been a member of death metal band Sephiroth for 10 years), rock music also turned out to be the perfect case study for an investigation of unmarked whiteness. "A rock concert is usually a room full of primarily white people watching primarily white bands," Julian says.

"In hip hop, for example, people are generally more aware of the blackness of the scene."

And whereas a white rock band simply is a 'rock band', a band with non-white members often is marked as a 'black rock band'. "There is an implicit inequality caused by this mechanism. In rock music, people are hardly aware of this unmarked whiteness, while in the case of hip hop for example, people are generally more aware of the blackness of the scene."

Music, the people-segregator
Julian's research focuses on the reception of rock music. He distinguishes between three kinds of reception: rock fans, consumers and music critics. A central area of attention is the identity music grants to people. Julian: "Music is often experienced as entertainment, as something nice and innocent that brings people together. But we aim to show that music also segregates people, even if in a kind of innocent, unintentional manner."

He is researching how people within the rock scene account for this unmarked whiteness. Are they aware of it or not? Julian: "Often, the response is a very indifferent 'what does it matter?' But imagine that you are a non-white person and you want to start a rock band. After you have succeeded in finding members for your band, which is difficult as it is, the chances of you being successful are fairly small. To say the least, the path to your potential breakthrough will not be a smooth one because  these kinds of symbolic boundaries make sure that you will probably not be taken very seriously."

Sounds like....
For example, among music critics there seems to be a clear difference in evaluation based on the degree of whiteness of the band, Julian says. "On a scale of 100, bands with non-white members score on average 7 points lower than all-white bands." Music critics rarely talk explicitly about race and ethnicity, but bands with non-white members are readily compared to other non-white bands.

Julian: "'It sounds like Jimi Hendrix or Bad Brains', you hear then, while this opinion is based on what they look like, and not on what they sound like. There’s a link there that is completely illogical, but which everyone thinks is logical and adopts uncritically."

International research
The research is not limited to the Dutch rock scene. In 2016, Julian is going to Atlanta, Georgia – an American city with a big Afro-American community and a proper rock scene – for a second case study concerning unmarked whiteness. "In the US, unlike in the Netherlands, people tend to talk more explicitly about race and ethnicity because of high social inequality, particularly in the south," Julian says.

"These big differences make it very interesting to compare these three countries."

A third case study is formed by the rock scene in Germany. Julian: "Rock music is big in Germany. Because of the past, race and ethnicity are extremely sensitive subjects: any stereotyping leads to a suspicion of Nazism. These big differences make it very interesting to compare these three countries."

Zwarte Piet
Julian’s aim is to show how the unmarked norm works. He does this by examining it calmly and from a distance, without being quick to judge people. Julian: "It's about learning more about others and ourselves, without angrily forcing people into a corner and shouting 'racist'. We are very careful about that."

As an example, he cites the recent discussion in the Netherlands on 'Zwarte Piet' ('Black Pete'). "This is characterised above all by the hostility from all sides – both parties felt they were not being heard. This is not what we are after. We know there is an issue, but simply verbally attacking people doesn’t help one bit. We want to be able to discuss this in a serious, respectful and – if possible – friendly way."

This was possible last year, for example, in Rotterdam's WORM club where Julian organised a symposium with his co-supervisor Pauwke Berkers to create a platform for their research in the city and get people involved. Not only the high turnout – people even had to be turned away at the doors – but also the responses reflected the relevance of the subject.

Julian: "Artists, pop professionals, academics and music lovers were very happy that this subject is being highlighted and were able to discuss the issue critically, but with humour – and it was rounded off by a swinging set from a Rotterdam band."

50/50 contract
Julian's PhD project brings together the things he likes most: music, bands and research. His 50/50 contract means he has to spend 50% of his time teaching, however, and he has split this up into six months of teaching and six months of research.

"I teach a small group of highly motivated students. And because of the English-language Bachelor’s degree, it has become very international."

"I find a whole year with a bit of teaching much harder and more difficult to combine with my research than six months of full-time teaching. For the past six months I taught, so now I can really get my teeth into my research."

Not that Julian doesn't enjoy teaching, however: "Arts and Cultural Studies is a small department. Instead of 800 people, I teach a small group of highly motivated students. And because of the English-language Bachelor's degree, it has become very international, which makes it even nicer – especially for a sociologist."