Those lyrics are from “Fight the Power”, Public Enemy’s explosive song that rocked the equally dynamite Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing. Chuck D’s obvious animosity towards white rock artists that built their careers on the talent of black American musicians isn’t propaganda set to a beat, it’s a documented fact. I don’t have to get into a lengthy diatribe about the origins of American popular music. That’s been done before, by writers much more knowledgeable than myself. What I do want to talk about is rock today, its perceived “whiteness”, and the black people who gravitate to it despite making themselves a minority within a minority.
This summer I interviewed first-time filmmaker James Spooner, who produced the acclaimed documentary Afro-Punk: the Rock and Roll Nigger Experience. In the film, black American punk rockers discuss issues such as self-identity, racism, relationships and community, and the double edge sword they face being a punk fan of color. Spooner himself came of age during the New York punk scene of the early ‘90s and decided to make a film to validate his experiences and finally give black Americans something that talked candidly about the scene through their eyes.
Not that black rock fans of any sub-genre, whether punk, heavy metal, emo or pop, are an over night phenomenon. There are many online communities dedicated to people whose interests make them “too white” for the black kids, but still “too black” for the white kids. Some of these so-called outsiders identify themselves as “Weirdos of Colour”, or in an ironic twist, they reclaim the word “Oreo” to define themselves. One of the common threads that link them all together is their choice in music. They crave social commentary, creativity and unadulterated anarchy when hip-hop is giving them party anthems, the same production, and too many Nelly ballads.
For the hip-hop genre this is the dawning of the “age of delirious”, where the music’s overwhelming popularity produces artists at a dizzying pace who simply pop onto the charts, drop a few singles, and then disappear as quickly as the snap of a thong. Sorry Sisqo, but I’m calling you out, baby. If these nonsensical throwaway artists are making “black music”, isn’t it time for black people to start looking elsewhere? For a great explanation of what I mean, check out the song “Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show” by The Cocker Spaniels. The Waco, Texas outfit is actually only comprised of Sean Padilla, a New York transplant and one-man rock band:
I ask my black friends to try out something new
And come with me to the show
They’re so reluctant to go
There’s more to music than rap and R&B
But they say rock is a white man’s game
I know Chuck Berry wouldn’t feel the same
I told a white friend the opening band was “crunk”
He didn’t understand the slang
He asked if I was in a gang
I wonder if I will live to see the day
When I see rock bands on BET
And black girls dance to GBV
. . . and I wonder if white folks who like Jay-Z
often feel as alienated as me
Like Spooner, Padilla’s interest in rock started as a young teen. One year his mother bought him a cassette multi-track and a drum kit as a Christmas present. “I had already been playing guitar, bass and piano for a couple of years before that. I had songs stockpiled all the way from when I was five years old, singing the lyrics into a boom box”, says Padilla during our interview, “So all of that, combined with the fact that I had a broken ankle at the time, meant that I had a lot of time to commit to all of the songs I’d been writing to tape”.
His newfound interest in indie rock (he used to be a hip-hop fan) was at first considered “strange” by his family, but that soon subsided. “Anything that kept me off the streets was something they’d support!” he jokes. “My stepfather was the only member of my family who really criticized it. He called it ‘crazy white people’s suicide music’”.
Whenever a black guy puts a few guitar licks on his track he’s accused of doing “white music”. If white music is influenced by black music, can’t black music be influenced by white? If Eminem is a product of his environment, so too is a black kid in a suburban garage band. For every Avril Lavigne there’s a FeFe Dobson. Uh, maybe that wasn’t the strongest of comparisons . . . but you get my point.
Still, even today, with all that history behind us, black folks are accused of jumping to the other side whenever their music veers off the beaten track. We already know the plight of Lenny Kravitz, who refuses to let critics stop him from doing what he does best: rocking out. Although Kravitz is the most well known black rocker, many black bands like Fishbone, The Beauty Pill, and Bad Brains are making just as many waves as their mainstream brothers. Also, hip-hop groups like The Roots, Outkast, and N.E.R.D have pushed the limits by bringing listeners of all races soundscapes that aren’t concerned with “keeping it real”, but instead with “making it great”. The current formulaic hip-hop and R&B of today is a great way to make an “Overnight Celebrity” as Twista says, but where are the Public Enemies and Jimmy Hendricks’ and Aretha Franklins? When is black music going to have its renaissance and leave the bling bling behind?
“Hip-hop is just waiting for its own nirvana to completely flip the script on everyone”, says Padilla. Whether this revitalization is led by returning to rock is still up in the air. Don’t get me wrong, hip-hop is still hip, but Lord knows it’s lost some of the spring in it’s hop. Besides, we live in a culture that has 85 ways to order to coffee, obviously we want our music to come in just as many flavours, even if we are “straight-up” black ourselves.