A few months ago, in support of a friend’s work project, I found myself performing karaoke for a crowd full of strangers, at the most hipster-y of hipster affairs: A video performance art show in a Brooklyn museum that doubled as a karaoke event. The early part of the night started off rather dull—several people chose moody, “deep” tracks, some obscure (to me at least), others predictable (In the Air Tonight). Most were bad in the way only lame karaoke can be bad—lackluster performances with minimal enthusiasm or overenthusiastic ones with cringe-inducing vocals. The hundreds of people in attendance didn’t pay much attention to the singers or the videos that played behind them; the room was abuzz with a light murmur that didn’t quite drown out the assault upon our ears.
But then my boyfriend and I hopped up onstage to perform. Before the song had even begun, the audience was noticeably excited to see us appear in front of them. The crowd, it should be noted, was mostly White. My boyfriend and I were the first Black people up onstage that night. We duetted on Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule’s 2001 hit, I’m Real (Remix). If you’ve never heard I’m Real before, here’s the deal: It’s a sexy, summery little ditty, and performing it requires little effort and even less vocal talent. This is J. Lo, not Whitney.
Still, the audience loved it—disproportionately so. This is not a humblebrag. We were … fine. Sure, my boyfriend and I danced around and had fun, more fun than anyone else seemed to be having up until that point. We also notably messed up the lyrics and got stuck in a rut of chorus-repeating at song’s end we couldn’t escape. By the standards of live performance, it was pretty tame. But we received roaring applause anyway.
As we said our goodbyes a few minutes later, a couple came up to us to tell us how much they loved our performance. We walked outside, headed to dinner a few blocks away, and ran into a different couple that had also been at the art show—and they gushed over our J.Lo-Ja Rule impressions. An hour later, while waiting for the subway, yet another pair of attendees spotted us and spoke highly of us. The barrage of accolades caught me off guard. And I had to wonder, as Syl Johnson did in his oft-sampled blues song about Black oppression in 1970: “Is it because I’m Black?”