Black rock: The Soundtrack for the Age of Obama

The full text of my first column for Blackpower.com, just 'cause I think it relevant as we head into the new year.

The 21st century in America will officially begin on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.  And, as we usher in a new age, I suggest that African Americans consider a new soundtrack to accompany it.  And there's no better music to underscore the cultural shift that's taken place in the community than Black rock.  Here's why:

Black rock has always been about more than just “Blacks playing rock”.  Granted, the movement started that way in 1985 when, in well-known lore, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, cultural critic Greg Tate and artist manager Konda Mason formed the Black Rock Coalition.  Its purpose was to confront the music industry's limited notions of what constituted Black music, as well as reclaim music that was created by Black folks.  Well and good, right?  But “Black rock” to most people, and they think Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Fishbone, maybe Bad Brains.  I'd bet the sound they think of is one that's very much loud, guitar-driven and male.  But much more exciting is the fact that, over the last 23 or so years, Black rock has evolved into so much more. 

Look at artists as diverse as TV On The Radio, Gnarls Barkley, Santogold, Little Jackie, Kenna, Janelle Monae, MeShell Ndegeocello, to indie darlings like The Dirtbombs, Dragons of Zynth and Earl Greyhound—not to mention the thousands (yes thousands!) of artists coming behind them–you'll see that Black rock is impossible to define by a particular sound.  Rather, it's more useful to define it by an attitude, a state of mind.  That state of mind has always been about breaking boundaries, particularly those limited notions that Black music and, to a larger extent Black life can easily be defined through the lens of  hip hop or R&B. 

So Black rock is, in the larger sense, an invitation for African Americans to break the frame of things we take for granted—what we listen to out of course, avenues through which we can express ourselves, even notions of what it means to be authentically black.

Black rock is an invitation for us to be brave.

And courage is what we need now.  Obama's election shattered a huge and imposing glass ceiling.  Now that new possibilities are open to us, will we take advantage of the opportunities before us?  No doubt challenges remain.  But, in order to for us to collectively and individually reach our potential, we'll need courage.  Not for the doing, which is, I think, the easier part.  No, what we need courage for is the imagining.  The vision to see what hasn't been, and what could be. 

Unfortunately, the global phenomenon known as hip hop isn't going to get us there.  Part of the reason for this is that it's run out of ideas.  A generation weaned on samples has largely known music dislocated from its original context, so its music has become largely self-referential and disconnected from the grand continuum of Black music.  R&B superstar Beyonce recently acknowledged in the New York Times that her upcoming role as the legendary Etta James in the film “Cadillac Records” was important, “especially for my generation.  We don’t know where rock ’n’ roll came from, we don’t know that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got their inspiration from people like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.”  It's critical to know on who's shoulders you're standing because, as she notes, having a sense of history gives you courage to do things you might not.

So, let's take inspiration from people who have left the beaten path, be in in terms of sounds, influences, ideas.  That's where Black rock comes in: It's a direct challenge to the tight cultural frame that's in place around Black music and, more importantly, Black life. 

But the Black rock community—and I include the Afro-punk and Ghetto Metal movements in here—has always been about this.  Ultimately, that's the promise of limitless possibility that Obama's historic victory has offered us: A beacon guiding us, finally, off the plantations in our hearts and minds.  As we head to undiscovered territories, Black rock—that expansive body of Black creative possibility—should be our traveling music.

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