Jimi Hendrix, the Patron Saint of Alt-Blackness

by Mark Reynolds

11 November 2010

artist unknown 

Raise Our Freak Flags High

Roby and Schreiber recount a story from Brooks about one of Hendrix’s run-ins with Little Richard. Just before a gig, Brooks outfitted the future guitar hero in “a white, puffy, Errol Flynn type of blouse to wear, with the big sleeves and pointed collar. I also gave him a bolero, like a vest.” The bandleader informed Hendrix after the show:

“I am Little Richard, and I am the King of Rock and Rhythm, and I am the only one who’s going to look pretty on stage… will you please turn in those shirts or else you will have to suffer the consequences of a fine.”

One reason Hendrix found such favor in the Village was because he got no love whatsoever for his emerging artistic vision in Harlem, where he’d lived upon arriving in New York (no, you didn’t know that he once won an Apollo Theater amateur night competition). The authors serve up this quote:

“In the Village, people were more friendly than in Harlem, where it’s all cold and mean. Your own people hurt you more. I always wanted a more open and integrated sound.”

Every black pop artist that dares stretch out from the established paradigms of his/her genre – and that includes hip-hop (think Janelle Monae, not Nikki Monaj) – owes a debt to Hendrix.

Thus was the world of black pop culture in the mid-‘60s. It was an insular, nurturing cocoon, where one could count on its support as long as one stayed comfortably within its confines. But to imagine a world beyond that cocoon, to incorporate influences not previously known to it, would court the cocoon’s scorn and disapproval.

Jimi Hendrix changed all that. He integrated black pop culture from the outside, prodding R&B to expand upon its age-old tropes and three-minute song limits (Sly Stone, working concurrently in Oakland and having had his own chitlin’ circuit adventures, also expanded black pop’s boundaries, but he was savvy enough to do it without totally leaving the terra firma of the black pop mainstream, which is why black radio played him and not Hendrix). As Hendrix became a global star, and as the politics and culture of the era moved leftward, black pop got the hints and moved leftward too, if only enough to keep pace with young audiences. 

Producer Norman Whitfield reinvented the Temptations from supper club crooners to erstwhile street preachers, arming them with trippy album tracks like “Take a Stroll through Your Mind”. George Clinton switched the emphasis of his operation from the Motown-esque lead singers, the Parliaments, to their backing band led by guitarist Eddie Hazel, and rechristened the unit Funkadelic.  In an era of extreme afros, Isaac Hayes flipped the script by going bald on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul (1969), an album with three songs stretching out for 10 minutes or more. The Isleys themselves declared their liberation from the black pop plantation with their self-produced hit “It’s Your Thing” (1969).

Black pop music, in short, was finally given permission to do what pre-fame Hendrix wasn’t allowed to do: rock out. By the height of the funk era, bands routinely eschewed the matching outfits and choreography of days gone by and let loose with it. Musicians, long relegated to the shadows, took center stage. Bands jammed on the funk, bringing in African and Afro-Cuban percussion, jazz-like horn and keyboard solos, and plenty of lead guitar. No doubt Hendrix would have loved the stuff had he lived to hear it.

The black pop universe expanded, but didn’t quite explode. Artists had unprecedented creative freedom within the cocoon, but the sense of the cocoon was still there. Black pop incorporated rock, but black pop audiences were still a little leery of the idea of black pop actually being rock. Funkadelic, the hardest-rocking of all the funk bands, is Exhibit A on that. They had their share of underground jams (“Maggot Brain,” “Cosmic Slop”) and the occasional chart hit (“Can You Get to That,” “I Bet You”), but by the mid-‘70s they were something of an acquired taste in the ‘hood. It wasn’t until Clinton, with the crucial help of Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley and other James Brown ex-pats, made the funk crystal-clear on Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1976) that the P-Funk enterprise got completely over the hump and became a mega-selling juggernaut. Even then, they still had to fight for the right to rock, as on Funkadelic’s “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!” (1978). A decade later, Prince still had to argue the case, on tracks like “I Rock, Therefore I Am”.

Hendrix looms as a guiding spirit over the very notion of black rock (or rock music as played by black people, since no two black rock bands ever did sound alike).  It would become its own mini-genre, acknowledged by some white rock fans and some black pop fans, but never fully embraced by either. The people who did embrace those bands, like the musicians themselves, sought forms of expression and validation that simply weren’t going to be available through mainstream black pop. The Black Rock Coalition created a space for that community in the ‘80s, as does the more recent Afro-Punk scene. Tate’s American Legacy essay name-checks the bands Living Colour, Fishbone and Bad Brains, each of whom has fans in both those communities, as the leading followers in Hendrix’s wake.  But they are just the usual suspects in this discussion; the actual tree extends from groups like Mother’s Finest and Death back in the ‘70s, to modern outfits like Game Rebellion and Earl Greyhound. Indeed, Stew’s semi-autobiographical musical Passing Strange is simply a new version of the quest to resolve long-simmering cultural identity issues through song and rockin’ beat.

Hendrix’s cultural influence ultimately branches out past rock. Every black pop artist that dares stretch out from the established paradigms of his/her genre – and that includes hip-hop (think Janelle Monae, not Nikki Monaj) – owes a debt to Hendrix, for making it possible to dream up and realize a vision that makes a little more room within that black pop cocoon – or, if necessary, to leave the cocoon behind and go for self. Even hip-hop itself owes Hendrix, who used the cutting-edge technology of his day (the studio and the electric guitar) to revolutionize the way pop music sounds just as hip-hop did with the cutting-edge technology of its day (turntables, drum machines and sampling).

All the fans and followers of those acts owe Jimi Hendrix, a debt too. Those who came along in the post-civil rights years and took advantage of the cross-cultural opportunities made possible by integration, or who just couldn’t be the way the grown folk in the church wanted them to be, draw strength from Hendrix’s example. They can point to him as someone who was authentically black, even as he embraced influences from Delta blues to science fiction. Where once his music and life were thought to be alien from the black experience, we now know that they were both fully rooted within it. Beyond the majesty of his music, the very example of his all-too-brief life says that those weird-looking black kids with the puffy sleeves and wild hair are just as much a part of this grand and glorious tribe as the politicians and the preachers and the brothas on the corner and the sistas in the beauty shop.  They’re not necessarily rejecting blackness – they know good and damned well they’re black, thank you very much - they’re just carving out a space to be simply who they are in this world, not beholden to any preconceived notions of how blackness is supposed to be done.

So before Basquiat or Charles Burnett or Sapphire or Betty Davis or David Hammonds or any other quote-unquote outlier from the prevailing black cultural paradigm, there exists Jimi Hendrix, the patron saint of alt-blackness. Besides his music, this is his other contribution to the living, elastic definition of blackness, his other claim to the pantheon of our cultural icons. He made it possible for people who don’t and/or don’t want to be like the black mainstream to make real a world where they can dream their dreams, bring to life their ideas, and still embrace their blackness. He made it safe for one and all to raise our freak flags high.

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