Vol. 6, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2010

Reclaiming the Right to Rock

by Jeremy Shere

Through performances, guest lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and film screenings a ground-breaking conference investigates the African American experience in rock music.

If you were asked to list the top 10 rock bands of all time, chances are—if you’re at all into that kind of music—it would probably take several hours to sort through the various groups, debating their relative merits and ranges of influence. And although 100 different people would likely come up with 100 different lists, it’s reasonable to assume that many would include some combination of the most obvious candidates: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, maybe U2, possibly The Kinks, The Police, and so on.

Such a list might seem pretty reasonable. But it’s also utterly peculiar. Because all the bands on that list (and many more that didn’t make the cut) consist almost exclusively of white men. And that’s odd, given that rock ’n roll began as black music with roots in blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and other traditionally African American musical genres. Many of rock’s earliest and most prolific and influential performers and songwriters were African American. Yet asked to rank the top 10 black rock performers, beyond Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Living Colour, you might very well have a hard time coming up with enough acts to simply fill out the list.

Which raises some troubling questions. Why have white groups come to so thoroughly dominate the rock landscape? Why are there so few black rock bands today? What happened to the distinctly African American ethos that so thoroughly infused rock ’n roll in its early days?

Those questions were at the heart of “Reclaiming the Right to Rock” a two-day symposium hosted last November by the Archives of African American Music and Culture at IU Bloomington. Including film screenings, guest lectures, workshops, and panel discussions, the conference broke new ground by investigating the black experience in rock from a variety of angles.

“I think the value of the conference is that it involved not only academic experts but also artists—people who are in the music industry and living what they’re talking about,” says June Evans, an IU graduate student in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

For Portia Maultsby, IU professor of folklore and ethnomusicology and organizer of the conference, the variety of perspectives was a good fit with the College of Arts and Sciences themester theme “Evolution, Diversity and Change.” “We explored how rock evolved out of pre-existing black musical genres, how the African American influence and experience in rock has changed over time, and how that experience is diverse, and thus difficult to define as a collective,” she says.

The conference’s central goal, Maultsby says, was to explore the phenomenon of the invisibility of the African American experience in rock music—a problem most famously exemplified by the global popularity of Elvis Presley and the lack of acknowledgment of Little Richard as one of the true pioneers of the rock ’n roll sound.

“Richard took his drummer, Charles Connor, down to Macon, Georgia, and had him listen to the rhythmic sounds of trains on the tracks, chuga-chuga-chuga, and said, ‘I want you to play like that,’ and that sound became the backbeat of rock ’n roll,” Maultsby says. “But to this day Richard constantly has to make the case that he’s the true king of rock ’n roll, not Elvis.”

The ascendance of Elvis and other white rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly at the expense of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and other black rock musicians, Maultsby says, was due largely to marketing schemes that kept black records from white audiences. So-called “Negro music” was banned from many jukeboxes in stores and diners frequented by white teenagers, especially in the south. Yet Elvis and Lewis and other white rockers wouldn’t have enjoyed such astonishing success, Maultsby says, without the musical innovations of their African American contemporaries. For example, two of the most iconic rock ’n roll hits of the period—“All Shook Up” and “Great Balls of Fire”—were written by Otis Blackwell, an African American songwriter who despite having penned many hit songs and been inducted into the Nashville and National Academy of Popular Music’s Halls of Fame, remains largely obscure to the public.

The events surrounding the conference, alongside two days of formal panels, aimed at bringing to light and reexamining figures like Blackwell and many other African Americans whose contributions to rock have been large obscured by the music’s rise to global popularity.

“It’s only within the African American context that ownership is debatable,” Maultsby says. “We openly acknowledge the European roots of classical music. So when we play or listen to rock, why can’t we simply say, ‘this is African American music’?”

The days leading up to the conference featured several special events, including showings of the films White Lies, Black Sheep (about a black rocker trying to make his way in a white-dominated New York music scene) and Passing Strange (a Spike Lee–produced documentary of a Broadway musical about a black rocker who escapes the confines of his middle-class upbringing by moving to Europe, which features a variety of African American musical styles).

Students in professor Andrew Hollinden’s class, “Music of Frank Zappa,” were treated to a visit from Ike Willis, a former singer and guitarist in Zappa’s band. Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, Willis told stories about Zappa’s musical drive and ambition. Although Willis did not talk directly about race or about his identity as a black rock musician, Hollinden says that his presence in the classroom made a strong statement about the place of African Americans in the history of rock ’n roll.

“Most students are surprised to learn that rock started as black music,” Hollinden says. “Even many African American students think of rock as white music. Meeting and talking with Ike was an eye-opener.”

Pre-conference events also included several workshops, including one on Negro spirituals led by pioneering rock vocalist and percussionist Linda Tillery. Nearly 50 students and faculty filled the Collins Living-Learning Center coffee house to hear Tillery and an accompanying pianist play and sing a medley of spirituals and talk about the songs as a distinct form of African American cultural expression.

“It was the most energizing event I have attended in many years,” says Ellen Dwyer, Collins director and professor of history and criminal justice at IU. “The Collins coffeehouse literally rocked with wonderful music.”

Tillery did not lecture, instead teaching by example and pulling the students into the music. “The students were totally caught up in the presentation, responding eagerly to her questions and following her lead in singing,” Dwyer says. “By the end of the evening, the audience was singing rounds and about a dozen students were doing a traditional dance step taught by Tillery.”

Although somewhat less interactive than the workshops, the panel discussions were equally exhilarating. The first session, titled “What is Rock?: Definitions and Roots,” featured rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse, singer-songwriter and playwright Stew (the brains behind the stage version of Passing Strange), and Frank Zappa alumnus Ike Willis. The panel’s purpose, Maultsby says, was to get a sense of how musicians involved in the early years of rock music understood the term “rock ’n roll” vis-ŕ-vis “rock.” “It’s confusing,” Maultsby says, “because people often confuse the two or use them to mean the same thing.”

During a free flowing discussion, the panelists explored how rock ’n roll was marketed as black music for black audiences, while “rock” eventually emerged as music marketed to white audiences. “The question is, what made the ‘roll’ drop out of rock ’n roll,” Maultsby says. “The panelists seemed to agree that from a black perspective, the ‘roll’ is something like an aesthetic, the rhythmic drive and unique groove that made the music distinctly black, which was removed when it become ‘rock.’”

While there may not have been a deliberate transition from rock ’n roll to rock on the part of musicians, the panel’s central point was that such a transition did in fact occur, and that it’s had ramifications for African American rock musicians ever since.

The second panel, “The Politics of Rock: Race, Class, Gender, Generation,” explored those ramifications in depth. The panelists—guitarist and songwriter Tamar-kali, underground punk musician and activist Moe Mitchell, writer and cultural theorist Greg Tate, and singer Linda Tillery—talked about their experiences as black performers and writers in the white-dominated world of rock music. Mitchell and Tamar-Kali were especially revealing about their struggles to succeed as rock musicians without subsuming their racial and, in Tamar-kali’s case, gender identity.

Talking about his early years in the Long Island punk scene, Mitchell recalled how the only other African American kid frequenting the clubs would avoid him for fear of being “outed” as black. “He was obviously black but that was somehow overlooked or ignored,” Mitchell told the audience. “But if the only two black kids started hanging out together, it would have drawn attention to race in a way that neither of us wanted.” Mitchell later went on to form the band Cipher, a multiracial hardcore punk group whose songs examine social issues, including racial politics.

“The value of this panel was the range of perspectives and experiences both regionally and generationally,” Maultsby says. Alongside Mitchell and Tamar-kali’s contemporary take, Tillery and Tate related anecdotes and views rooted in the 1960s and 1970s, by which time African American performers had been largely pigeonholed as R&B, funk, or soul artists, and had become an anomaly in rock.

The third session, “The Face of Rock in the 21st Century,” looked to the future of rock and the evolving role of African Americans in the industry. The discussion quickly became heated, as panelists Suzanne Thomas (a noted blues singer and guitarist) and Netic (founder and lead singer of the Brooklyn-based band Game Rebellion) argued about the responsibility of African American rock musicians to identify and give back to the black rock community.

“Netic is very capitalistic in his approach as an artist. He is driven to succeed and make money as the ultimate goal, whereas Suzanne felt more of an obligation to the community,” Maultsby says. “I’m not saying that one approach is right and the other is wrong, but I do think the discussion further illustrated the complex history and diversity of the black experience in rock.”

While the conference may not have come to many definite conclusions about the black experience in rock music (other than the realization that there is no one, defining experience), for Maultsby and other participants, it succeeded in broaching many important questions and in sparking dialogue.

“Our objective was to make this history visible through the lens of the artists and critics who are part of it, and I think we did that,” Maultsby says. “Personally, I learned that there are multiple ways of looking at the history of African Americans in rock, and that we must consider the variables of region, gender, generation, and class to understand and interpret this history. We came away from the conference with a definitive rationale why black artists should reclaim and reestablish rock music as an African American cultural expression in the historical narratives on rock history and American popular music.”

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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