Saturday, April 18, 2009



I think Erick Holder had it right when not long ago when he said, in essence, that Americans were cowards when it comes to talking about race. It’s ironic that this assertion would come from another “first” person, the first black attorney general in the U.S., appointed by the first black president. One would think however, that we had eclipsed the issue of race on at least one issue in this country – music. In all probability, there is not a field of endeavor where race has played as critical a role, yet is almost never honestly discussed, as is the music industry. In fact, one can argue that with respect to art in general and music in particular, candid dialogue and interchange among the races has actually regressed to a polite acceptability. Acceptability (going along to get along) has replaced spirited debate. And where there’s no debate, there’s no truth. This “separate but equal” façade defines the media cultural landscape in America. In this landscape, white music and culture are superior to all others.

Throughout U.S. popular music history, African Americans have had to accept the mainstream media’s anointing of a white as the “king” or the “greatest” practitioner of a form or style of music created in black music communities. Paul Whiteman was labeled the king of jazz in the 1920s, Benny Goodman, the king of swing and of course, Elvis Presley the king of rock and roll. They are few and far between who would not attest to jazz’ black origins or at least acknowledge that black musicians played a paramount role in the music’s development.

However, over the past thirty or so years, the majority media and in particularly, a white journalistic elite, have systematically hewn a theme that rock and roll is and has been a genre that was born in white communities, with blacks having peripheral impact and nominal contributions. In other words, both the nomenclature and the music was hijacked. Ironically, like the selection of Mr. Holder, this too has been a first.

Roughly, since 1975, rock and roll has been proclaimed by elite journalists as the exclusive domain of white folks, allowing for black inclusion on rare and intermittent occasions. In the minds of the elites, black popular music (so-called rhythm and blues) is not seen as seminal to rock’s creation and they consider it almost tangential to rock’s development after 1960. Their narrative regarding the history of rock and roll primarily begins with Elvis (and Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry – pioneers of rockabilly) in the mid-fifties but rarely is it conceded that rock existed in the forties in the persons of Louis Jordan (the father of rock and roll), Big Jay McNealy, Wynonie Harris, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown. Nor do white journalists give appropriate credit to the hugely popular vocal and doo-wop groups of the late forties and fifties that were every bit as prevalent and integral to the rock scene as rockabilly. After the British invasion of the sixties, a credible alternative to a “black sound” for rock was established and ever since the mainstream media has focused its attention on the “white” music alternative.

For many of us, the commonplace manifestations of our musical apartheid system are palatable. No one will get too bent out of shape when some yahoo declares (on the front of TIME and Newsweek magazine) that an unknown, mediocre musician from that hotbed of artistic innovation – Asbury Park, New Jersey – is the future of rock and roll. We’re similarly undisturbed when Rolling Stone decides Kurt Cobain is the greatest artist of the 90s and in the same issue declared that the “future of music” would look like Caucasian female folk singer, Beth Orton. We don’t seem to care that white rock radio stations won’t even play Prince let alone funk bands, jazz fusion, etc.

Rock and roll stations play their brand of the genre – metal, punk and the interminable gradations of folk or indie – in other words, music by white men for white men. And of course, the media presents this as mainstream, essential, universal, popular music – crossing and including boundaries, ethnicities and races. The black music industry dutifully takes its place off of center stage, comfortable with the commercially viable space it is allotted. That one will never hear the protest anthems of Gil Scott Heron, Gary Bartz or even Marvin Gaye will barely raise an eyebrow. After all, we’ve got Sasha Fierce.

Things get a little more dicey when MTV refuses to play any black artists, as it did during its first few years of operation. Or, after listening to Lauren Hill’s groundbreaking album, The MisEducation of Lauren Hill, Washington, D.C. shock jock, Doug “The Greaseman” Tracht exclaimed “no wonder they drag them behind trucks” – a sick reference to the racist attack and murder in Texas of James Byrd.

Notwithstanding the more outrageous expressions of racial bias in music, in general, the popular music scene is comfortably segregated. It’s as If American culture is now about deferring to a white male consciousness or aesthetic, a strange thing given the election of Obama. One would think blacks would be more willing to step out of the box and take control of the polemic with respect to art and music. Instead, we confine our thoughts and commentary to our own communities and music, because we’re conditioned to do so. This is the case despite the fact that black music has been the most impactful and dominant in the world in the last century.

What are we to say about this new American aesthetic? Once upon a time in America, to be a cutting edge musician (black or white) you had to be able to play jazz. Everybody danced the new steps being created in black communities. And, corner boys from all ethnic groups harmonized about love and romance – up on the roof. Now dancing isn’t part of rock and roll. John Cougar Mellancamp is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Rick James, Lionel Ritchie and Anita Baker. And Rolling Stone declared Bob Dylan a greater singer than Stevie Wonder. What are we to say about this new, post-racial American aesthetic?
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