Do we have to call it "Black" rock?

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Yes, and here’s why.

It tends to be Black folks who ask me this question the most.  The follow-up is usually an attempt at refining the question: "I mean, why can’t it just be rock?"  Unpacked, this means they are exploring genres and modes of expression outside of what is typically understood to be Black music, i.e., it ain’t straight up hip hop or R&B or some combination thereof.  Since their Blackness is self-evident, they imply, there should be no reason to use what amounts to a kind of double subject. They’re Black and they "rock", both in sound and attitude.

But the "Black" in Black rock has its uses.  First, much in the way James Spooner talked about the term Afropunk, Black rock is a great banner around which likeminded folks can gather.  A beacon on a hill, if you will.  Once you find us, you can come and go as you please. 

Second, it is important for it to be political.  What I’m really interested in is challenging those African Americans who are comfortable, complacent even, in the status quo of what it means to be Black and help them out of that straitjacket.  The more of us who "get" Black rock–and attitude and aesthetic is way more important than a particular sound–the more it’s going to matter.  The more it matters, the more we can pull our culture away from the self-aggrandizing and hyper-materialistic impulses that are running rampant. 

When you say "Black rock," it fires the imagination, and that’s what I want it to do.  After all, you can’t really be sure of what you’re going to get, in the same way that you can when someone says "hip hop".  Black folks need to be clear that rock’s got everything to do with them.  Every artist that falls under this banner is drawing on a history that’s complicated, complex and rich, one that encompasses our experiences in this country, our connection to whatever motherlands we’re from, and the unique ways that we synthesize our interactions with others. These are people who are not afraid to embrace the fullness of both their humanity and their American-ness. They become examples for the rest of us.

In that regard, the black in Black rock is highly political: It’s about challenging us to embrace our cultural power and claim our humanity, and exercise our right to full participation.   Which brings me to my final point.

I’m slowly making my way through Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era.  If it sounds like an academic treatise, that’s because it is.  There are a lot of good and thought-provoking ideas about the role of popular culture and its actors (writers, artists, filmmakers, etc.) in politics, but here’s an idea I found illuminating:

The black in black fantastic, in this context, signifies both a generic category of underdeveloped possibilities and the particular "always there" interpretations of these. . .visions and practices generated by subaltern populations.

So, for me, the black in Black rock is about the underdeveloped and, I’d say, unexplored, possibilities of our imagination, our creativity and our identity. 

Until we max out in these regards, I’m calling this music Black rock.

What do you think?

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14 Responses to “Do we have to call it "Black" rock?” Subscribe

  1. Mazz August 8, 2008 at 07:47 #

    I think you hit the nail RIGHT on the head.

    Thanks Rob!

  2. Rob Fields August 8, 2008 at 09:47 #

    Thanks, Mazz, I appreciate the feedback. All this is a work in progress, so it’s great to get some validation that I’m at least headed in the right direction.

  3. Diana August 8, 2008 at 11:33 #

    I agree. It’s about identity beyond the margins of what is deemed to be mainstream, as well as being able to define our experiences as we see fit.

  4. Onome August 8, 2008 at 11:52 #

    Wherever you have underdeveloped communities, you have underdeveloped possibilities.

    And wherever you have OVERdeveloped/overprivileged communities, you have an overabundance of uninspired music. Hence the pattern of the overfolks emulating the underfolk’s shit and flipping it with the overfolk’s technology (for example, the electric guitar).

    Meanwhile, the African American rock experience strikes me as the best of both worlds, building upon the innovations of the underfolks (uh, subaltern folks? All the unknown Delta bluesmen, chain gang chanters, ringshouters, worksongers, etc) AND the innovations of the overfolks who actually manage to create something inspired/exciting (Radiohead, Bjork, etc).

  5. Rob Fields August 8, 2008 at 15:16 #

    Thanks, Onome. Part of that equation, too, is that now many of us have the time, inclination and wherewithal to build on those Black innovations. It’s something that has come–and will continue–with greater parity in society.

  6. Rob Fields August 8, 2008 at 15:23 #

    Diana, thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right. And, in both cases, what’s required is bravery. Black rock is the invitation to be that.

    http://www.boldaslove.us/2007/02/what_is_black_r.html

  7. Garrett August 11, 2008 at 14:17 #

    …Labels are both limiting and useful. The most important thing is the art or experience being referred to; and that it be complexly, fully, sensitively appreciated; and that it be described as accurately and as richly as possible…The work of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, of U2 and REM, of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, of Radiohead and Bright Eyes, does not survive because it is called rock. It survives because it is different and good and the people who love it celebrate it and describe it enthusiastically and well…

  8. andre August 11, 2008 at 21:13 #

    I’m not all about labels, honestly. If someone says, ‘oh this is a black rock band’. I’m like , ‘Well, they play rock and their a band’. It should be normal that their are people that happen to be black , and they play rock. I know where you are going with this, but I dont know if it will end the way you want it to end. EIther way, its your choice. My choice is just to get as many cool bands off your site, and listen to them,not worrying if they are black or white.

  9. PurpleZoe August 21, 2008 at 04:11 #

    Agreed.
    We do have to call it Black Rock. At least until the mainstream acknowledges that the true roots of rock sprouted from the African-American experience, and the inflated support of criminalized and boxed in stereotypes in the Black community are relieved of their hot-air.

    This is a necessary article.

    Thankyou for shining the light
    -PZ

  10. supermondo April 29, 2009 at 09:51 #

    I came across this post through The Root piece about Lil’ Wayne (great piece, btw).

    But I’m a little confused – if Black Rock is “about the underdeveloped and…unexplored, possibilities of our imagination, our creativity and our identity”, where does Lenny Kravitz fit in all this?

    Is Mr. Kravitz the exception to the rule, or one of the very few “black rockers” that managed to transcend it?

  11. Raquel Wilson May 7, 2009 at 13:27 #

    Although, I think you made a great argument for why we should preference our music with “Black” (or “Afro”), but I still can’t see the value of not just referring to it as music.

    I think giving music such divisive labels continues to put us in a box. Instead of opening us up to genres not widely considered part of our culture, we end up being even more exclusive.

  12. Mike September 22, 2009 at 13:25 #

    Hello all! I’m against the term “Black Rock’ for a few reasons:

    1) If the person playing the music is black, then that should halt the need for it to be called black rock.

    2) If the music is good, then people will listen and understand the style of music even more. Sometimes a catalyst is needed to set the spark.

    3) There should be a new tag line developed to encompass the term black rock.

    Just my thoughts.

  13. Baratunde Thurston December 13, 2009 at 16:38 #

    very very well said

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