The night the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, I was at a karaoke bar on the Berkeley/Oakland border called Nick’s. On the TVs, Lincecum pitched a no-hitter. The actor who plays Finn on Glee was found dead in a hotel room. News poured in about protests in Oakland, and it was impossible to tell to what degree the violence of the protests was being exaggerated, whether or not incidents were being taken out of context. A mixed-race group of people on one end of the bar seemed to be getting pretty contentious: a guy slammed his hand down on the bar and I thought I heard the woman accompanying him say, “You have to stop it.”
Most nights the crowd is like any other karaoke bar: there are regulars performing the same songs they always perform, and there are dates and birthday parties trying out new songs, either confidently or fumblingly. But I’ve heard people say Nick’s used to be a primarily African-American hangout, and sort of a swanky one, back when the times and the neighborhood were a little different. An older black man in a brightly-colored three-piece suit once told me in the bathroom that he would wear such an outfit to Nick’s 30 years ago and be underdressed. One wall of Nick’s features images of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, and some nights a jazz band performs.
The plan on this particular night was to perform “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G. — I would rap, and my cousin Theo would sing the hook. We had discussed this days ago, but now I had some minor reservations. I rap at karaoke to be funny. It’s cultural appropriation, but in the name of making fun of myself — it highlights what a dork I am, and whites and African-Americans at Nick’s find it amusing and tell me so.
The karaoke jockey, or KJ, working that night looked like Huell from Breaking Bad and has a grumpy demeanor. A few minutes after I turned in my request for “Juicy,” Huell’s look-alike approached me and simply said, “You can’t do this song. Pick another song.” I didn’t ask why. I was sure it had to do with the use of the “n”-word in the chorus. Of course I wasn’t going to say that part, but maybe tonight the idea of someone like me going up and acting like a slain black cultural figure for a laugh felt like too much for the KJ. I understood, but I was still hurt.
Because I’m a narcissistic brat, I kept thinking of songs I could sing that might serve as needling responses to this rule: “Without Me,” by Eminem, say. I wouldn’t really do that either, except nothing I thought of was more offensive than when someone went up and sang, I kid you not, “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” by The Offspring. “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” is actually a scathing take down of cultural appropriation, but it still seemed a much more insensitive choice than “Juicy.” I was upset, but my anger subsided when a friend said “Juicy” specifically had been banned because white kids a week or so ago performed it and wouldn’t stop singing the “n” word part.
Being white in this country (and just about every country, for that matter) means you can do pretty much anything you want — the Zimmerman case made that disturbingly clear. When white people are urged not to do something, it is typically because it would be insensitive to other human beings. And sometimes, as a white person, you just have to suck it up and contend with the actions of horrible people who came before you, because literally everyone else has it worse than you.
Throughout the night, most of the singers were white and sang songs almost comically exemplary of stereotypical square white folks. “My Sharona.” “What I Like About You.” Not just “Time Warp” but ALSO “Dammit Janet,” both from “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The strangest moment came when two men of color from the formerly contentious group got up and sang “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song,)” popularized in white America by Harry Belafonte. The song has a weird dual status in my mind: it is a traditional calypso song, and Harry Belafonte has always been a civil rights advocate. But it’s also an upbeat song about harvesting bananas, and in context, it felt charged. Nevertheless, the same group of people who had made the night primarily a cavalcade of Rocky Horror songs and ’80s one-hit wonders got up and flailed their arms arythmically above their heads to the song as if Beetlejuice was compelling them to.
At last call, someone sang “Me and Bobby McGee,” in the style of Janis Joplin. “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” the song goes. If that were true, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, the San Francisco Giants, a Canadian actor in a hotel room, and a crowd of revelers in a karaoke bar would all be on the same level, but this night illustrated how big the gap between us, between those with freedom and those with nothing, keeps getting.