Isolation, and why representation truly matters.

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Isolated by Sarah Encabo via FreeImages.com

Isolation is dangerous, and it seems to take many forms. A lack of support from your family, a lack of people around you who understand you and share your interests, even a lack of representation of people like you in the media. It is easy to truly start believing that you do not belong anywhere when you’re isolated, even doubting that you should be alive, and that’s where the danger lies.

Black Women In Rock was a project that sprang up from my own experiences with isolation. When I first got into rock music, a lot of people had opinions about it, and those opinions tended to be negative. I was told that I was not really Black because I liked the music and that it, along with how I talked and even some of the ideas I had about religion and the world, was all about me trying to “act White”.

I also have bipolar disorder, which emerged around the same time I started listening to rock music, and was often made to feel that my disorder was the direct result of (and fed by) my liking the music. This was a few years after Columbine, where people still believed the now disproven lie that the shooters were fans of Marilyn Manson. To a lot of ignorant people, all rock music is Satanic and leads to people being crazy and violent, and this is unfortunately also what my family believed.

I had family members, psychiatrists, preachers, school counselors, society at large telling me, in so many words, that me liking rock music was a sign of illness. This was in addition to the stigma I already faced for having bipolar disorder in the first place, since in the family I grew up in, mental illness was basically a lack of faith in God and nothing more.

The psychiatrist I had as a teenager wholeheartedly supported that idea, and I can remember him increasing the dosages of my medicine based on my continuing denial of a belief in God, and also on if I was willing to change my interest in the music that spoke to me most, and that I loved. His response to everything, including the premenstrual dysphoric disorder that I would eventually also be diagnosed with, was that I just needed to pray harder.

The harassment and abuse I was getting for loving rock music did get to be too much, and I spent a couple of years pretending to be what people wanted me to be. I tried to be Christian like people wanted me to, changed how I talked, and stopped listening to the rock music I loved. I kept this up until the night of my suicide attempt, where I deliberately overdosed on some of my bipolar medicines and actually managed to stop my pulse. It has been a long, difficult path of recovery since that night almost ten years ago, and a big part of my recovery was reclaiming my love for rock music.

Another big part of my recovery was starting this blog, which was created solely with the purpose of proving that I wasn’t the only one out there who was like me. I was aware of the Afropunk scene when I created Black Women In Rock, but wanted to focus solely on women because I am, after all, a woman. I wanted to be able to look in one place and see all of the women like me. This was a deeply personal project that grew the more people began to follow it, and as I began to learn about the wide world of black women musicians.

It has always been interesting to me to see the trend of some black folks adopting rock music and rock culture, and makes me wonder how this would’ve played out for me if I’d been born five or ten years later than I was. The way mental illness is handled and treated has also changed since I first sought help, and I’m glad to be able to say that I did eventually find responsible and caring mental health professionals to help me along the way.

Though the stuff I went through as a teenager isn’t the only trauma I have to heal from, there was still a lot of damage done then, particularly to my self-image and self-expression. It is still very hard for me to be open about my interests, about what I think, and about who I am, though thankfully it’s not as hard as it was before. Again, having this blog has helped tremendously in that, and continues to help me.

Representation matters, I can’t stress that enough. I’ve seen people try to downplay how important the success is for black women rock artists like Cammie Gilbert from Oceans of Slumber, or Alexis Brown from Straight Line Stitch, or Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. Seeing these women make it in this genre, which for all intensive purposes was started by a black woman to begin with, means so much to people like who I was before I started this blog. Where I thought I was the only one, and had no female rolemodels to look up to.

I can already tell you that things would’ve been so different for me if I’d known that there were more women like me, black women who actually make music in the genres I love. I wouldn’t have been so willing to give up on myself, in every sense of the word. Isolation is dangerous, but representation truly matters.

———-

Jaleesa Leslie is an Atlanta, GA native who loves metal, dive bars, her blue Volkswagen Beetle, and Shahid, her guitar. You can find her on Instagram @staysp0oky, and on Tumblr.

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