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Say It Loud

The White Washing of Rock 'N' Roll

2002-08-10 13:37:39

I think this post is appropriate on this day of the so-called King of Rock's death.Long but worth it.

The Big Picture aka "How Rock was White-washed..."

The particular conflict noted by the article Extreme vs the Funk Nazi's....Funk vs Rock...actually represents a much larger issue and series of historical precendents. Funk (as well as R&B and Hip-hop) has been traditionally a musical form of Black America. Rock, (as well as Country) on the other hand, has been since the late 60's and early 70's, the traditional musical form of White America. But this is not the way it started out.

It's difficult to say exactly when the change occured. But several factors were definately involved, many of whom were overt and deliberately racist.

Rock 'n Roll in the 50's was a form of music which was largely if not predominantly created and formed by Negro artists. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Fat's Domino, Little Richard , Chubby Checker, The Isley Brother's, and many more...were leaders in Rock 'n Roll along with white artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, The Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly. Latino's such as Richie Valenzuela were also involved, but in his case his name had to be modified to Richie Valens in order to hide his enthicity (despite that, the song "La Bamba" made it quite obvious what his roots were).

At any rate...everybody had a piece of it. At least originally.

The Switch Play

In the late 60's, songs released by black artists were often re-recorded by white artists and released so quickly that they were actually in competition with each other on the same charts. The simple fact that then, as now, the majority of American radio listeners and buyers are white, and the interpretations of these original songs of black artist by whites were more palatable to a white audience.

One example is the fact that Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog", was originally recorded by blues artist, Big Mama Thornton. The influence of black music on Elvis is quite obvious. Much of the initial resistance to him was because he was seen at the time, as making "Negro" Music. People weren't reacting so much to his "pelvic thrust" as much as to what that pelvic thrust represented beyond just sex -- but sexual (and even racial) freedom.

Elvis himself was a phenomenal performer, but not a very good musician. He could only play guitar and sing in the key of "G", and he never...ever, wrote a single song of his own. He performed other peoples songs, or had them written for him. Gradually Elvis became all image, all hype...with little substance or true significance other than looking good. A hollow God. His looks and charisma helped him greatly in his movie career, but his musical career was practically over by 1959. His soundtrack albums charted well, but many argue that he had nothing left to say in music, had no impact, and had become completely marginalized by the Beatles.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a "Hollow God" though, is Pat Boone's rerecording of Little Richard's "Tooty Fruity", which charted simultaneously (and higher) than the original. Pat didn't even understand what the song was about, he didn't think it made sense.

When faced with multiple versions of the same song....many radio stations simply stopped playing the "negro" version and gradually those versions dropped off the charts and the career of many of those artists, ended.

The Hair Thang

Another blow to the continued exploration of Rock 'n Roll by black artists was the arrival of the Beatles on the shores of America. The Beatles were clearly influenced by the music of artist such as Little Richard , and the Isley Bros' (releasing a cover of their song "Twist and Shout"), and they admitted this readily. However, coupled with the appreciation of the Beatles songs and musicianship was also a fever and hysteria over their *Hair*, as it was long and straight. The "Look" became a crucial element of Rock n' Roll and a prerequisite for Rock and Roll artists. A look that was shared by many other artists who also plumbed the depths of black blues and rock n' roll, such as The Animals, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Just as with Elvis, the Beatles hairstyle and it's incorporation into their popularity created yet another barrier for black artists who certainly did not have that kind of hair. Many of them attempted to create that look using chemicals James Brown , Little Richard , and Prince... but many found this coupled with the increasing barrier of radio as insurmountable, especially with the extreme long hair requirements of with the Hard Rock faze of the 70's and 80's.

Additionally, the 70's was the period of Black Consciousness in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, it was an reawakening...a rebirth...where the "Natural" hair texture and style of black people was prized and proudly worn. Deliberately making your hair look like the hair of white person...was not in vogue. But at the same time, few american blacks - especially with their wild kinky hair found themselves accepted among mainstream hard rock fans who were listening to groups like Zeppelin, KISS or Sabbath. (The only exceptions I can think of are Hendrix and Phil Lynot of Thin Lizzy...Hendrix had to go to England, even though he was from Seattle, and Lynot is Irish, thus they both avoided much of this stigma of being black-american's, by also being "foreign". Arguably, there was (and is) less resistance in America to black foreigner's than there was to black natives.)

Many blacks today simply shave their head and thus, avoid the entire "hair" issue competely.

The End?

Gradually as a greater and greater percentage of white artist began playing rock in response to the (black american inspired) british invasion - most blacks stopped seeing Rock as being a form of music that related to them. They increasingly became to think of it as "white" people's music and not theirs. At least, it wasn't "their's" anymore. Rock had originally been a blending of blues and honkytonk, decidedly black and white forms respectively...but by the late 60's and early 70's, that was pretty much over. Rock had split away from blacks, and blacks had split away from Rock.

Jimi Hendrix 's career is a good example of how strong this barrier had grown by the late 60's Jimi was a sideman guitarist with the Isley Bro's, Little Richard and James Brown ...playing the Blues/R&B "chitlin'" circuit. . But because his own personal style could most appropriately be described as Rock, he had to go to England in order to truly begin his career and persue the what he wanted. Eventually with the aid of a former member of The Animals, Chas Chandler, he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Noel Redding and Mitch Miller. Arguably, this band might have never been formed, or been nearly as successful, if it had originated within the U.S.

Although Jimi had many black fans, he had far more white fans and many blacks found that intimidating. They thought that Jimi, by eschewing R&B or traditional Delta or Chicago blues...was pandering to a white audience. Jimi found himself under pressure, especially during the growing Civil Rights and Black Power movement to distance himself from whites....and eventually he split with Redding and Miller to briefly form and all black group, the Band of Gypsies.

Years later Tina Turner, after spliting with Ike Turner in the 70's aslo had to go to England, and leave America in order to pursue a Rock career, or else be limited and pigeoned holed within the ghetto of R&B. She struggled for some time trying to begin a Rock career and resisting the tendency of American Record companies to try and limit her to R&B. In the years following Tina's breakthrough with "What's Love got to do with it", the same situation occured with Neena Cherry, an American who tranaplanted to England to enable her carrer.

The Legacy

Today, artists such as Vanessa Williams are finding themselves dealing with the same struggle. They typically find a great deal of resistance to any effort by them to deviate away from what is "acceptable" for them to perform..simply because they are black. (Vanessa wanted to do some "Easy Listening" and more atmospheric music, her record label told her "No, keep making R&B records")

In short, the message is...stick to R&B or Rap. That's "black people" music.

Yeah, it is...but a lot of things used to be "black people" music too.

Although jazz was pioneered by black artists...who is the most well known "jazz" musician today?

Kenny G?

(What happened to Coltrane and Miles Davis?)

Although blues music was pioneered by black artists...who is the most well known blues musician today?

Stevie Ray Vaughn?

(What happened to Muddy Waters, Albert King and Robert Johnson? Even Robert Cray?)

And although rock was pioneered by black artists...who is the most well loved and respected rock group in the world?

The Beatles?

(What happened to Little Richard , Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley?)

Fishbone and the Untouchables were major influences on the Ska scene of the 80's....but where are they now when Ska has made a massive resurgence (via "No Doubt" and "Sublime")?

Only the British band, Madness has reappeared, even though Fishbone is still together and playing - they toured with Lollapollooza in 1994 - they continue to release new albums - yet they are rarely noticed.

The Answer? (BRC)

This - the shutting out of black artists and a black audience from Rock n' Roll - a musical form that was mostly invented by black people - is one of the cornerstone principles behind the creation of the Black Rock Coalition (or B.R.C). Originally formed in New York in 1985 (with another chapter added in Los Angeles in 1991) when guitarist Vernon Reid of the band Living Colour, Village Voice and Vibe writer Greg Tate and artist Manager Konda Mason - joined with others, some of whom happened to be black and some who were not - and attempted to address what appeared to be a very large barrier before the viability of Black (or Urban) Artists and musicians who wanted to explore alternatives to strict R&B and/or Rap.

Deviating from the "Norm" was frowned upon and openly oppossed at every level in the industry.

It still is.

With sponsorship by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones - who produced two of the tracks on Living Colour's debut album - and their own raw talent, Vernon's band went on to have an illustrious career before the group folded due to creative differences. Not that they didn't face difficulties...the original cover of LC's first album "Vivid"...did not include a picture of the band on it. The record labels apparent reasoning was that a Rock station seeing what the band looked like - wouldn't play the record and a black/R&B station might listen to it - but wouldn't play it on the radio. Living Colour's first video "Open Letter to a landlord" didn't feature the band either. It wasn't until "Cult of Personality" - which finally unveiled who was playing this music that the group began to get some recognition - although I think that some of that may have been the novelty factor.

"Black guy's playing Rock? How'd that happen? Wow...let's watch..."

Be that as it may, the BRC was never ment to be Vernon's personal support group, it was intended and continues to strive to bring many different artists to the awareness of the general public. For a time, nearly every record label had to get their own Living Colour...just as years later they had to get there own Nirvana. It may be possible that the success of Living Colour presented somewhat of a problem for these bands, who were somewhat like Living Colour, but also somewhat different. (Much like the difficulty Stone Temple Pilots and Silverchair delt with for being so "grungy"). Fans and Critics would compare any Rock Group with black members to Living Colour first, and evaluate them as individuals second, if at all. Sure, the music was "Good", right? That should have been the end of it...but, rarely is. Groups like 24-7 Spyz, Follow for Now, (Tom Morello of RATM's original group) Lock Up and Civil Rite found themselves in constant comparison to Living Colour - because like LC, they also mixed Rock and other forms of music - notibly R&B and Funk - but they were not the same.

Musical artists survival depends on the partronage of fans. But people don't often buy music because of it's quality, or the skill of the performers. They buy it just as often on the basis of brand recognition. (It could be argued that most popular artists during the 90's actually play very poorly - they are the exact opposite of skilled performers...but I'll leave that subject for another time) People buy music for social and cultural either confirms and legitimizes their own social/cultural perspective, or offers a window into the culture/perspective of someone else that resonates with their own experience in some way, or they simply find interesting. Thus, the frustrated white middle class urban kids of england found themselves resonating with the pain and passion of black rural blues artists of america during the 60's. During the 80-90's the pains and frustrations of urban (primarly black) youth are resonating with the suburban and rural (primarly white) youth of America via Hip-Hop and Rap.

Same 'ole game/Different players

It could be argued that the rise of Pseudo-Funk by bands like Extreme, Slamming Gladys, and Ugly Kid Joe may have also contributed to the difficulties faced by these groups. Like Elvis and Pat Boone, in repeat of the "Switch Play", they kept the audience whose appetities may have been whetted by Living Colour or the Red Hot Chili Peppers...satiated. Pacified by a set of Unfunky placebo's and meaningless pablum like Hootie and the Blowfish, who it must be noted, have been the biggest selling Rock band featuring a Black member and a prominent position since Living Colour. (and yes, that means I don't count Dave Matthews Band - since most people don't realize it has three black members). Neither of these groups has offered a dynamic challenge to the Paradigm that rock is "white people's music"). Now, I'm not saying that any of these artists were part of any conspiracy to keep rock n' roll "Lilly-white". No, I believe that something far more sinister than that, was at play...


People didn't care, they didn't pay attention to what was going on, they didn't take a stand...they supported what was "safe", "common", "predictable", "expected"...just like Living Colour's record company did with the cover of their first album...they didn't and dont' challenge the "presumed wisdom" of the day...and so much of this music has died. They largely did this because, they were comfortable and complacent in the cultural resonances they were receiving from the dominant artists at the time - and the fact that the music industry was successful in keeping them pacified in this way.

They were content with their "Bread and Circuses"...

The 60's are over, and few people want their entertainment to have political overtones or cultural significance. Or are they? Political Overtones and cultural significance are largely what artists like Marilyn Manson offers to his fans - as did Tupac Shakur. But it could also be argued that both of these artists also pander to their fans most purient voyeaurism.

It's hard to say.

Many of the afformentioned groups (Follow for Now, Civil Rite) have broken up in the intervening years and their members have mostly been forced by the circumstances to return to "Traditional" black music...such as Follow for Now's, David Ryan Harris and Civil Rite's Tory Ruffin who both worked as sideman for former Arrested Development singer, Dionne Farris, on her debut album "Wild Seed, Wild Flower". Although the album does have many elements of Rock, especially on the songs "Passion" and "I Know", - it is primarily an R&B record. Inspite of Dionne's pedigree with A.D., she still found that many black radio stations refused to play her biggest hit - "I know" - solely because of it's use of Rock Guitar, even though it still basically an R&B/Pop song.

It's almost like what Hendrix went through in reverse....from frontman to sideman.

Here's a sample of the kind of rock that Tori was doing without Dionne, from the Civil Rite song "Corporate Dick"....a tune which gives their explicit opinion of the music business.

David Ryan Harris has since released a traditional R&B Solo album, practically eschewing Rock altogether.

[This is an authentic posting from (Registered User)]
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