When I first saw Fefe Dobson, it was 6:00AM during MTV’s early morning music video block.
I had to have been in 10th grade, and was in the midst of meticulously altering my school uniform to my tastes: safety-pinned tie, knee high tights with matching skirt, sharpied Chuck Taylors, and—of course—putting on layer after layer of eyeliner to achieve the perfect “racoon eye” look.
If you hadn’t guessed it, I was at the peak of my cringey emo/pop-punk phase. And what better time to be a baby bat? It was the golden age of pop-punk, emo, and rock; the era of scene kids and emo bands: My Chemical Romance, Three Days Grace, Tokio Hotel, and Paramore—just to name a few—ruled my life. One of my biggest idols though? Avril Lavigne, who since my earliest middle-school days had achieved—in my eyes—the epitome of the carefree skater-punk gal who was too cool for school.
What I didn’t want to admit to myself though, was how hard it was to fit into the standards of a typical kid in the alternative community. How my natural hair protested each time I took a flat-iron to it in an attempt of a perfect side-swept bang (bless the hair gods I never got heat damage). Or how in school, I was mildly alienated from my black classmates, but eerily scrutinized by my white friends. Caught in the middle of two sides of an identity I just wanted to inhabit in peace.
I guess that’s why Avril was such a fave of mine. She had me hooked from the moment she crooned her infamous “he was a boy, she was a girl.” lyric. Had won me over instantly with her cute, spunky, don’t-take-shit-from-anyone persona. If I exuded my own Avril Lavigne, I could make it as an alternative black kid without too much grief, and learn to embrace my quirks with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
And it wasn’t just Avril—Haley Williams, Cassadee Pope, Amy Lee, and Lacey Mosely all took turns vying for my admiration; they were beautiful, creative, and everything I admired about both the alternative aesthetic, and the community. Deep down however, I was frustrated with the choices I had at my disposal. All these girls were well-known and unique, all of them were goth/pop-punk/emo enough…but not “black enough”, for me. Wasn’t there anyone else out there like me, and into the same things I was?
As if on cue, Fefe came on the TV screen.
“So what if I came clean…” she crooned.
I listened, wide-eyed and intrigued as the song enveloped over me, stirring excitement and disbelief. A black girl? Singing like that? When the song came to a close, I made a beeline to the internet, and listened to some more. And more. And more.
And for the first time, I saw myself in the music. I felt represented.
Though I hadn’t known it then, what Fefe Dobson had been doing was extraordinarily brave and important. Here she was, a black girl rocking out with the best of them in a genre that for the longest time had been nothing but pale faces and traits I didn’t completely connect with.
And in a time where alternative black kids were still side-eyed in our communities, it was refreshing to hear an artist that didn’t even attempt to fit into the “safe” genres of RnB, Hip-Hop, or even Pop. Fefe’s music was as pop-punk as it got, and it seemed that with her voice and attitude, she was also throwing a giant middle finger to the alternative community itself, daring it to gatekeep and deem her unworthy of sitting with the cool kids. This gatekeeping was certainly something I’d always felt myself—not necessarily in harsh, blatant rhetoric of “you don’t belong in this space!” or “go away!”—but more so in the silent rule that ordered spectating, instead of fully participating. Watching, but not being seen.
Fefe—and her music—said screw all that. I’m here, and so are others like me. And we’re just getting started.
Fefe’s music would carry me through the rest of my high school career, and her influence played a positive impact in how I navigated the alternative community from that point forward. No longer was I timid, apprehensive, and walking on eggshells between these two identities of mine. Now, I had evidence of someone who resonated with me—someone who was both goth enough and black enough—to connect with, and look up to.
Even at the height of her popularity, media here and there were quick to label her music as “soul-influenced” or “pop”, even when the sound she was exuding was nearly identical to the waves of pop-punk that were being put out during that era. And even when it was acknowledged the genre of music she was singing in, Fefe didn’t even brush the level of visibility that Paramore or Taking Back Sunday achieved; and that’s honestly a huge disservice. Why wasn’t she as mainstream as other artists were? What would I have known if I hadn’t been watching MTV that morning?
Whether she realized it or not, Fefe Dobson broke down racial barriers with her music, and inspired many black/PoC girls out there with the unabashed authenticity of her personality. It was unreal to me, back then, to see a black girl like me belting her heart out to some killer pop-punk jams. It was encouraging really, to see what an effect she had on both the music scene and alt scene during a period when alternative black kids were just coming into themselves and finding each other.
And the great thing about her music was that it didn’t have to necessarily be heavy to have a meaning. There didn’t need to be a deeper message in any of her lyrics in order to get her point across; she was just another teenager like me, belting out her adolescent angst to the beat of her own drum—and some killer guitar riffs.
All in all, she made me feel seen. And during a time where I was a girl aching to find herself in the music she loved, Fefe Dobson let it be known that anyone—especially black/PoC Girls—could make it big in the alternative scene, and music industry.