SXSW09 Panel Recap: "A Dream Deferred: Black rock"

I had a great first experience at SXSW.  Austin's a great town (at least what I could see of it), the food's good (shout out to Marisco Grill on 6th Street and Ironworks BBQ on Red River), and just about everybody in the music industry was there.

The real impetus for my trip was the fact that Kandia Crazy Horse invited me to be on a panel.  The panel went well.  Or not, depending on who you talk to.

On the positive side, let's celebrate the fact that there was space to talk about Black rock at one of the biggest music festivals in the country.  I was also thrilled to see that 40 or people showed up, given that our was part of the day's first round of panels and there had been a ton of music the night before.  As I've always believed, there is a a growing interest in Black rock, and the audience's presence (as well as their questions) only reinforced that.  It was also great to finally meet the other panelists who, with the exception of Kandia, I didn't know.  What we ended up with was a group that brought different perspectives to this discussion of Black rock.  Kandia echoed a sentiment that she's shared before: That there are few, if any, safe spaces for the Black artist that the dominant culture will respect.  Panelist Daphne Brooks, built on this with some prepared notes that posited that the future of Black rock would be about rockers defining their spaces own spaces and finding places where they can "be".  She went on to frame her remarks in the context of Barry Jenkins' film Medicine for Melancholy, and the main character Micah's quest to find space where he can be both indie and black.  And tis is no small thing, having spoken with Jenkins about his film.  He says he's gotten many messages from Black kids who thank him for putting their experience up on the screen.

Panelist Duane Harriott talked mostly about his life in alt music and how he ended up being the main programmer f the CMJ Music Festival.  Wendy Fonarow spoke about how Black rock is still "unratified," meaning it's not fully sanctioned by those mysterious "powers that be".

The one downside of the panel was that all of the panelists–myself included–focused too much on the challenges facing Black rock.  Part of that was how the panel was framed.  Yes, there have been obstacles.  But the message that I don't think we hammered home enough was that this is an exciting time for Black rock and Afro-punk music.  There are hundreds of bands and thousands of fans out there.  I'm glad my fellow traveller Stone–who writes the fantastic blog, The Couch Sessions–pointed out, for example, that Whole Wheat Bread might be the next breakthrough band.  And, yes, he's right that the tone of our session tended towards the pessimistic.

VM Black of Austin360.com offered a more upbeat assessment of the session.

I do think one of the ways to contextualize this Black rock movement is in terms of the current frames around Black music and Black life, particularly those which many of us have co-signed via commercial hip hop.  It's part of what we need to overcome on a cultural scale.  But the point that I made–but could've made more forcefully–was that it is an exciting time for Black rock.  And the best way to support and grow this scene is for those of us who really care about it to create opportunities for context and music discovery around this music.  By context, I really mean being able to say to someone: "This is what you're hearing.  This is what the artist is doing.  This is how it relates to what you're currently listening to."  This is absolutely critical if we're going to reach audiences who've had limited exposure to music outside of hip hop and R&B.

So here's my promise: Going forward, I'm going to focus on being more upbeat.  Evangelizing is about talking about the good things that are happening.  No, I'm not going to stop being critical where it matters.  But, I think in some ways, our panel missed an opportunity to get people more excited about Black rock. 

So, no more bitchin' from me about how hard things have been, 'cause there's so much to look forward to and so much good and important work to be done.

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  • http://www.lainad.typepad.com Laina Dawes

    Hey Rob;

    Thanks for the post. I was waiting to get your observations on SXSW and your panel expereince.

    While I understand the need for black rock artists to find a safe and creative space, one thing that I’ve been noticing among these discussions is the lack of acknowledgement of black rock, punk and metal artists who are currently performing on the scene. Granted, they are not creating a movement of sorts, but they exist in the predominately white scene – deep in the trenches.

    I’m talking about the symbolic and musical relevance of Doc and Dallas Coyle (note: Dallas left the band last week)the brothers in God Forbid who front a pretty succesful metal band in which 4 out of the 5 members are African-American. I’m talking about Alexis Brown, one, if not the only African-American female front person from Straight Line Stitch. the brothers in Sevendust, The Faceless and the new lead singer for Alice in Chains. Makh Daniels from Early Graves, who has openly discussed being black in the punk / metal scene. These artists are making a name for themselves in the present scene and not waiting for safe spaces. They are placing themselves in sometimes hostile situations and they preservere, regardless of their ethnicity and in Brown’s case, their gender.

    It fustrates me because they are never mentioned on these ‘black alternative’ sites. It’s like their music is considered ‘too white’ for those who feel that they are openminded – and by some of these professed ‘black rock sites’ which is ridiculous. I think that if we are really going to talk about Black Rock, we need to acknowledge the people whom in my opinion, are really in the forefront of creating a movement by entering and existing in these spaces. Instead of creating a hybrid fusion of what is considered ‘black music’ and adding an electric guitar, thes young people e are in traditional genres playing traditional music – ones that we created.

    It saddens me when black media sites who think that they are being revoutionary by writing about Afro-Punk have conveniently ignored – or have not done any research- the people who have been around for a longer period of time.

    Sorry for the rant, Rob but this really irks me. Quite frankly, a lot of the music I hear over at AP doesn’t even consitute ‘Rock’ – just labelled that way to make the young black folks feel edgy and cool.