It was while perusing Twitter on a Sunday afternoon that the reality of this sad fact struck me. @Just_deng, a film critic living in South Sudan, tweeted that a girl he’d met went “bananas” after he told her he was a punk rock fan. Sieta Majok responded with her own story about being “dissed” and called “white girl” for liking rock music.
Their accusers, whether people of colour or white, are letting their own musical prejudices influence their prejudice of entire ethnic groups. Casual racism yet again spawned by ignorance.
This frustrates me to no end, because music history tells us that we have not reached the mishmash of genres present in popular music and the underground today thanks to those who conclude that rock music should be ‘by white people, for white people’, hip hop should be ‘by black people, for black people’ and ‘never should the two mix’.
That’s not the way Jimi Hendrix thought. Yet, in his day, he was considered a freak by his black peers for his love of guitar and rock music. Bobby Womack, who started as a gospel singer, composed and recorded the Rolling Stone’s first UK number #1, ‘It’s All Over Now’ – something he still feels he wasn’t recognised or compensated for fully. And, of course, the Beatles covered the Shirelles copiously during their early career, as did many of the Merseyside bands of the early 60s.
All of these are instances where the art of black and white musicians has collided for better or worse. In the case of Hendrix, the man is lauded as one of the greatest guitarist of the 20th century and is held in high esteem by rock fans – regardless of their colour. And in the case of Womack and the Shirelles, it is a matter of recognition and money. This was rock repurposing soul and R&B as original music of its own – or, in other words, ‘white people plundering the hard work of black musicians and composers’.
Only, it’s not as black and white as that. For starters, the genre we call ‘rock music’ can itself be considered of black origin, as Shane Thomas points out. And I’d add that rock emerged out of the blues, jazz and folk era that preceded it, which fragments its origins further as well as any claim that it was created by one nation or people.
Such narrow thinking also sidelines the white teens of the 60s and 70s who were getting down to the sound of black music in clubs and, as BBC journalist Paul Mason says, somehow felt a connection with African-Americans living thousands of miles from them, eventually coining the term ‘northern soul’. It also overlooks the likes of the Clash, white punk rockers that were heavily inspired by ska and reggae, and whose own experience of life in London and being unwanted by the middle class society of the day, led to their revolutionary sound. When black kids are bumping to Gorillaz’ ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ they’re listening to rhythms of Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, pioneers of the punk era. I shouldn’t even need to go into the Specials, whose anti-racism stance led to their formation.
So to assume white people’s relationship with black music has only been to steal and exploit it for their own gain is to overlook years of history that says otherwise.
And that’s not all. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of white people that have had a hand in progressing and evolving black music as musicians, composers, producers, DJs, label founders and more. For instance, Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, founded Stones Throw Records, the US label that championed projects from MF Doom, Madlib, J Dilla and, more recently, the Stepkids and Aloe Blacc.
In the UK, Tom Brown set up Lex Records, the label that introduced Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys) to the world, and has gone on to release alternative and left-field records from black and white artists, such as Jneiro Jarel and Scroobius Pip. Music that blends, breaks and recreates genres as skilfully as a soup chief armed with exotic ingredients, condiments and a mixing blow.
In both cases, the work of white founders, who have a respect for music of all descriptions and an appetite for breaking the mould, has given many black artists the chance to express themselves and connect with all kinds of people – regardless of ethnicity or nationality – that they may not have otherwise.
If @Just_deng and Majok’s accusers were more worldly, they’d know that ‘rock music’ has borrowed from ‘black music’ many times, and vice versa. They’d know that the likes of Stones Throw, Lex and other independent labels are the result of blacks and whites refusing to conform to the negative social constructs about music and race. And they’d know that black people, such as female bass player Shingai Shoniwa and guitarist Nate Wonder, make bloody terrific rock music.
Ultimately, black people who look down on their peers for enjoying rock music, or music of any kind that they do not considered ‘black enough’, are guilty of the same ignorance that certain white people hold about hip hop.
They may wish to cling on to a backwards society, where entire genres are out of bounds simply because of their prejudice, but the rest of us will go on appreciating a wider variety of music – and feeling better for it too.