What Is Black ROCK...Whose ROCK Is It?

Rock has its roots in the blues and its derivative rhythm and blues forms. Even though performers such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner, and Jimi Hendrix were central to the creation and popularity of this genre, the history of African Americans artists in this tradition has been obscured by generic boundaries established by media industries to market Black (rhythm and blues, soul, and hip-hop, etc.) and white (pop and rock) music to these respective culture groups. Moreover, these racially constructed boundaries have resulted in the dominance of rhythm and blues, soul, and hip hop in academic and popular literature on Black popular music as well as the association of rock music with white musicians and the white experience.

Through musical experimentation in the post-Civil Rights era, Black rock musicians reinterpreted and extended the aesthetic of Blackness. In the process, they produced distinctive artistic and cultural identities that positioned them on the margins of both the commercial rock and Black popular music industries. Similarly, their musical productions fell outside the boundaries of the narrow labels used to classify African American artists and their music. The combination of these developments has led to the omission of Black rock musicians (with the exception of Jimmy Hendrix) from most forums and other scholarly endeavors on both African American and American popular music. These musicians, for example, have been excluded from or merely footnoted in the histories on rock music, omitted from collection development activities of libraries and music archives, and thus the systemic critique of scholars. In essence, Black rock musicians have been made invisible to a musical tradition in which they were pioneers and innovators.

During interviews with the Black Rock Coalition (BRC), rock author and scholar Maureen Mahon discovered that many artists, including the well-known group Living Colour, received considerable pressure from record labels, audiences, and Black community members to drop rock and switch to genres deemed more appropriate. The BRC was founded in 1985 primarily as a support network for Black rockers, providing them with better access to venues, advertising resources, and potential audiences. Other groups, such as Death, a proto-punk group active in Detroit in the early 1970s, eventually followed industry and audience suggestions and crossed over into genres traditionally marketed as Black music—in this case funk and reggae.

Although funk and soul have declined in popularity, genre biases remain prevalent in the music industry. The continuing pressure on Black artists to switch from rock to R&B or hip-hop have caused some critics, most notably Rob Fields of the “Bold As Love” rock blog to redefine Black rock as not just a musical genre but as a social movement aimed at overcoming the stereotypes and obstacles currently faced by Black artists. A similar emphasis on self-definition and free expression drives the underground Afro-Punk movement and the works of artists such as musician Tamar-kali and film director James Spooner. The result is a rich and dynamic arena of musical activity that will be explored during the Reclaiming the Right to Rock conference and related conference events.