Rock 'N' Roll

"The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same"

Elvis Presley ain't got no soul
Chuck Berry is Rock 'n' Roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But they didn't come up with that style on their own.

Lyrics from the track "Rock 'N' Roll" which appear on Mos Def's extraordinary album "Black on Both Sides". Lyrics which have landed him, as a black man writing music in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white interests, in hot water. Apparently it's racist for him to say that these icons of rock history stole the music they played. Well how about if you hear it from this white man?

It's fifty years since the creation of rock 'n' roll. Whether you consider it the sole creation of black musicians or a melding of the folk musics both black and white, you can't deny that black artists defined the genre and brought it into controversy simply because of the colour of their skin.

Rock and Roll is a means of pulling the White Man down to the level of the Negro. It is part of a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.
Secretary of the North Alabama White Citizens Council
The effect of rock and roll on young people is to turn them into devil worshippers, to stimulate self-expression through sex, to provoke lawlessness, impair nervous stability and destroy the sanctity of marriage. It is an evil influence on the youth of our country.
Reverend Albert Carter, Pentecostal Minister

These people believed that the music was a menace to society principally because it was black music. To have a virginal white girl go to a Chuck Berry concert was to open her up to all the perceived evils of black culture - perceived evils that through no coincidence were those that Rev Carter felt were the end result of listening to that music. "The white kids had to hide my records 'cos they daren't let their parents know they had them in the house." [Little Richard]

While these black musicians didn't turn the youth of white America into sex-crazed hoodlums - though white culture in the 1950's could have benefited from a little sexual self-expression - it did promote new ideas and views regarding the racial status quo.

I saw the barriers breaking down when I was on tour with Johnny Guitar Watson and Fats Domino in 1957. We were all down in Louisiana and Texas, and Fats was drawing in as many white people as blacks. They had a partition and the white kids had to be on this side and the black kids were over here dancing and having a good time. The white kids could only look and they wanted to dance and enjoy the music - so they tore the partition down. The die hard racists were saying, what the hell's happening? I knew then that things couldn't stay the same way they had always been.
Billy Boy Arnold

Black Rock 'n' Roll musicians challenged the way that white and black people viewed each other. That white audiences would want to dance to enjoy this music, would appreciate black performers in the same way as black audiences, was a landmark in American racial history.

The white Rock 'n' Roll musicians were just as innovative, but in a different way. Though there were no racial bars to keep the white artists from mass promotion, there was still consternation at white musicians playing "black" music. Many white rock 'n' rollers had the patronage of black musicians to help them find favour with record companies (with Elvis it was Ike Turner, with the Rolling Stones it was Little Richard) who were suspicious that a white artist could make it in a black genre. Perhaps the world had truly found a racially integrated "colourless" music, played by whites and blacks alike, receiving equal recognition for their contributions.

Now you know that this wasn't the case. Elvis' music and vocal stylings were grounded in black culture. His dance moves bore close resemblance to those of artists like Wynonie Harris. But once they'd cut his pelvic gyrations from the screens he was assimilated into the white cultural mainstream. It was easier for the entertainment powers that be to contain Rock 'n' Roll as a cultural movement if it idolized white artists playing a facsimile of black music at the expense of black artists. Slowly, Rock 'n' Roll was becoming a "come as a black man fancy dress party" [Charles Shaar Murray] to which black people were increasingly not invited. Although artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had started out as Rock 'n' Roll musicians, when white musicians took to the same music "they was rock 'n' roll and we were R&B." [Bo Diddley] A Stalinesque purge of the musical history books began, which left people able to say that rock was white music, or that Jimi Hendrix didn't really "sound black".

James Marshall Hendrix reasserted that Rock 'n' Roll was a valid arena for black artistic expression. In the "come as a black man fancy dress party" he was the Real Thing. So often you hear people speak of him as a freak of nature, a being without racial heritage, someone who transcended his racial milieu (meaning of course that he was an honorary white man). But Jimi Hendrix was black, and his music while groundbreaking comes from a long line of black musicians before him, musicians that he constantly invoked and paid tribute to. Though it took the white music fans of London to help catapult him to fame as part of the Experience, it was black R&B musicians who first recognized his talent: had he not been taken in by the Isley Brothers, maybe his guitar would have stayed in the pawn shop and the world would never have heard of him. Although there were far fewer black people in his audiences than white, his records were bought by blacks. Having never been registered for the R&B charts, his record sales within black communities cannot be definitively measured. Towards the end of his life Hendrix began work with an all black band, his music foraying further into Funk and Soul rhythms and styles. Who knows what tectonic shifts he would have made to the musical map had he lived?

It's thirty years since Hendrix's death, but still we have trouble accepting the black claim to Rock 'n' Roll. Artists from the sixties and seventies like Sly and the Family Stone, Mandrill, Mother's Finest, the Meters and P-Funk all delved deeply into the genre in terms of style, musical content and production. Not as tourists. Not for novelty effect. As a cultural statement of belonging. Funkadelic said: "Who says a funk band can't play rock music?" Who indeed. And yet the musical mainstreams, both black and white, didn't take note.

It's twenty years since Vernon Reid and a group of black musicians, frustrated by the music industry's lack of vision and history in denying black artists the creative freedom they deserve (MTV saw fit to play the Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" promo, but felt that Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" video wasn't of high enough quality) formed the Black Rock Coalition. It took a crossover song from Aerosmith and Run DMC to break MTV's colour bar. Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" was one of the most requested videos in the history of MTV. Did you see it on "MTV's Greatest Hits"? You wouldn't have. It wasn't included.

It's ten years since Lonnie Marshall and Norwood Fisher, frustrated by the way music that couldn't be easily categorised into "Urban contemporary" or "Rock" was ignored by the music industry, formed the concept of "Nutmeg music". Since then bands of white musicians have grown rich and famous playing music that crosses racial boundaries. You wonder why I don't have a Red Hot Chili Peppers page, or a Limp Bizkit, or a 311, or a Korn, or a Faith No More, or a Kid Rock, or and Eminem page on this site? I figured that you'd have heard of them already. They get the industry's money and promotion time. Fishbone aren't played on MTV "because of their pro-cannabis stance". They've made just one pro-cannabis song, for which there isn't a video. Yet Dog Eat Dog won an MTV award for singing (getting a child to sing) "No guns, just blunts".

Fishbone left Columbia Records because the record company didn't know or care how to promote them
Fishbone got dropped from Arista because the record company didn't know or care how to promote them
David Ryan Harris left Columbia Records because the record company didn't know or care how to promote him
Vernon Reid didn't get his solo album promoted because the record company didn't know or care how to promote him
Corey Glover left LaFace Records because the record company didn't know or care how to promote him
Marshall Law broke up because the record company didn't know or care how to promote them

I could go on, but you see my point don't you? You see Korn and No Doubt and Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on MTV and in all the magazines don't you? Of course you do. Sam Phillips, the boss of Sun records and the man who discovered Presley said: "If I could find a white boy with a negro sound I could make a million dollars." It's as true today as it was then. Vanilla Ice and Eminem are obvious examples, but throughout the music industry, whatever the genre, black artists are discriminated against in favour of the money-spinning whites. "Once I asked Bobby Womack what was the most serious obstacle facing the black artist who wanted to get over to a white audience. He looked at me with some incredulity and replied, 'Bein' black'." [Charles Shaar Murray] Of course, you see plenty of black pop acts singing three minute love songs. You see plenty of black hip-hop acts too, but why is it that the only ones with the industry backing are the ones that affirm a stereotype of the black man as a cold individualistic gangster pimp? "When I worked for Warner Brothers," Ice-T says, "the fact that I was 'street' became a marketing angle - 'Be black. Be street muthafucka: but do it when I say so." Like the white Frenchman Jacques Clark (considered an "expert" on black culture) who demanded that Josephine Baker dance topless, white-owned record companies only seem interested in black artists that conform to their own expectations of what black people should be. Try to challenge those expectations and you'll get shot down.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the obsession of white pundits with the "rootsy", "funky" and "authentic"...seems designed to keep black people (and their arts) at the margins of white society (and its arts). Any attempt to penetrate the walls of the ghetto is frenziedly denounced as a sell-out by whites whose own access to bourgeois privilege had never been under threat, whether or not their whims led them, at any given moment, to choose to avail themselves of that access. [If you feel that this is no longer the case you might like to read the MTV review of the latest Fishbone record: it's a textbook example of Murray's point]
Charles Shaar Murray: Crosstown Traffic

To be a black artist you have few choices: conform to a negative stereotype to keep the arbiters of "cool" happy, challenge that stereotype and be ignored and marginalised, or pander to the saccharin expectations of the pop mainstream. Ozomatli's album is more or less hidden in the World Music section of my local Virgin Megastore. Because although they come from Los Angeles they have the audacity to sing some of their songs in Spanish. Ricky Martin sings some of his songs in Spanish. Curiously he doesn't get hidden away in the "specialist" music room. He's in the pop section, he's on the radio, he's all over MTV. Ozomatli don't get played on MTV, even when they sing in English.

...during the Thirties and Forties white people didn't hear our music. If they had, they would have bought Big Bill Broonzy, Sony Boy, Arthur Big Boy Crudup and all these people too. Those artists would have been just as big as the guys are today if they had played them on the radio where white people could have heard them. But at that time anything that blacks did was sort of pushed down...It wasn't the record companies - it was Jim Crow, racism itself. Nobody consciously didn't listen to black music, it just wasn't promoted and they wasn't about to promote black music 'cause that would have been recognising the power that the black people had.
Billy Boy Arnold

So it continues. Seventy years on black music that falls outside of a strict set of genre definitions "just isn't promoted". Intelligent, conscious, community-spanning hip-hop "just isn't promoted". Forty years since Elvis, and white artists are free to plunder black culture as they please and be rewarded for it. Eminem is eligible for a "Music of Black Origin" Award because he plays hip-hop. Fishbone are not. Because they play rock 'n' roll.


Don't get mad. Get equal. The Black Rock Coalition Homepage has information that can help to redress these imbalances.


Last updated 5/3/2000