How rock became white – part 3
Whitewashing the history of Classic Rock
The story goes like this: on an unseasonably brisk August night in 1964, the Beatles finished a concert in Queens and were invited back to the Delmonico Hotel to meet Bob Dylan. Conversation was awkward until Dylan pulled out a bag of weed. Having never smoked before, Ringo bogart-ed the first joint and collapsed into a “giggling mess.” Paul reached a state of pure enlightenment and instructed one of The Beatles’ roadies to transcribe his every pronouncement. One of the surviving scriptures: “there are only seven levels!” And Dylan, meanwhile, repeatedly answered the phone with a maniacal cackle: “Hello? Beatle-mania here!”
That night at the Delmonico passed into rock and roll legend as the night that birthed the music of the late-60s. After that night The Beatles, who were at the height of their early fame but at a creative impasse, struck out in a radically new, more experimental, direction, beginning with Rubber Soul (1965) and culminating in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Meanwhile, Dylan began an electrified-poet rock-odyssey that continues to this day.
Of course, history doesn’t work like that, but the story gets retold because it captures a real seismic shift that took place between 1965-1967, that once again redefined rock and roll and transformed the racial landscape of popular music. In 1965, the charts were dominated by a group of multi-racial artists, led by Black women, with Diana Ross reigning supreme. Yet by 1970, rock music had been “re-defined as a white-dominated, male-dominated, multi-million dollar industry.”
We will rock you
1966 is the year that usually gets cited as the turning point. The transition that took place is often described as the transition from “rock and roll” to “rock” (or Rock, if you like to growl your R’s). What that transition represented musically has been debated endlessly, but to begin with the symptoms before the disease: the rise of rock describes a shift from dance-oriented singles usually heard on jukeboxes, car radios, or at dances, to more “serious,” formally-experimental albums, increasingly heard on home stereo systems or in large arenas. Put most succinctly by the legendary music critic Robert Christgau, “‘rock’ is rock and roll made conscious of itself.” It is music produced self-seriously with the aim of creating art, as opposed to entertainment.
In this sense, the meeting between The Beatles and Dylan is more symbolic than literal. Dylan has so far been absent from our story, as his trajectory—from the underground West Village folk scene into the amplified world of rock and roll—has largely been parallel to the one we’ve been following. But Dylan’s move from acoustic to electric was a revelation. It showed to countless musicians, white and Black (Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the immediate impetus behind Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”), that you could bring poetry and an intellectual and political literary tradition to bear on the genre and still make lots and lots of money. Of course, there had always been poetry in rock and roll, but it had never been so ambitious and self-referential. No one had ever written anything like, “You used to be so amused / At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.”
The music of the late-60s—what is today branded as “Classic Rock”—pairs musical experimentation that drastically expanded the breadth of musical influences within rock and roll, with artistically ambitious lyrical material. Jim Morrison and The Doors channelled European Romanticism through Bach, Bavarian oompah, Italian wedding ballads, and Willie Dixon. The Velvet Underground melded Beat poetry and John Cage into performance art. And with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the biggest band in the world completely redefined what a rock and roll album could be.
Today this period of incredible creative output from 1966 – 1973 is held up as the apogee of the development of rock and roll. In this version of the story “Stairway to Heaven” is what rock and roll had always been aspiring to—even before it knew it itself. But history is written by the victor and the history of rock and roll is no different. The canonization of what has become known as Classic Rock has meant a closing of ranks around what is and isn’t rock and roll. “Prior to the June 1967 release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” notes music critic Michaelangelo Matos, “‘rock and roll’ meant anything and everything formally tied to the mid-fifties explosion led commercially by Elvis Presley — doo-wop, surf music, Motown, the British Invasion, James Brown.” Raising the boundaries around what would come to be defined as Classic Rock had a profound impact on the racial landscape of rock and roll. So it’s important to look at who is writing and retelling this story.
Tales of brave Ulysses
It’s in this same period from 1966-70 that you had the second big postwar wave of mergers and acquisitions in the record industry. It is really only in 1966-7 that the major labels finally invested fully in rock music and you had a dramatic consolidation of labels and a tremendous increase in their size and reach.
Major labels invested in rock and roll both by signing new acts themselves and by buying up smaller, independent labels. Between 1965 and 1970, many of the names most closely associated with rock and roll (Atlantic, Chess, Sun, Imperial, Elektra) were bought by major labels. And several major labels themselves were taken over by larger holding companies: Paramount in 1966 by Gulf + Western and Warner Music in 1968 by Kinney National, a company that up until that point had made its money managing parking lots.
There remained some mavericks inside the system. Still lurking the halls of Columbia Records was the visionary producer, John Hammond, who had signed everyone from John Lee Hooker to Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin, and was rumored (falsely) to have once been a member of the Communist Party, and (accurately) to have marched for civil rights. And there were The Rolling Stones, who even after they became superstars, continued to draw inspiration from and fight for exposure for contemporary Black artists. But they were increasingly the odd men (and they were all men) out.
Increasingly, decisions about the future of rock and roll were being made in multinational boardrooms. This isn’t to romanticize the independent owners. We’ve seen that they could be ruthless and racist as well, but almost all of them had started their labels because they loved music and (because they had to) were more likely to take a risk on something new. The very size of the major labels meant that records had to sell on a massive scale. As Atlantic producer, Jerry Wexler, described the changes taking place at this point, “Each company must do its best to fill the pulsating needs of mediocrity in order to maximize its potential for success. We might as well be selling hubcaps.” Looking for the surest profits, meant aiming for the mainstream. And looking out from the lofty heights of those boardrooms, the mainstream—like the faces around those tables—looked very white.
At the same time as this was happening, the ragtag community of writers who had actually taken the emergence of rock and roll seriously as an art-form began their own process of consolidation into what we think of today as the institutions of rock criticism.
Prior to 1967, most critical writing about rock music was done in the underground press, in publications like Crawdaddy. As Jordy Cummings writes, “Rock criticism, as form, starts out in the ‘underground press,’ including the newspapers of the far-Left, with smatterings of material in the journals of the intelligentsia, notably the New Yorker.” After the Summer of Love in 1967, when counterculture hit the mainstream, even established media outlets began to see the importance of reviewing and critiquing rock music in order to reach a younger audience.
This happened in two ways. First, critics who up to this point had largely devoted themselves to writing about jazz or blues or other popular styles, began to find outlets to write about rock in major publications. The legendary critic Ralph J. Gleason, for instance, had been writing jazz and blues columns for the San Francisco Chronicle since the 1950s. Most of his writing about rock and roll was reserved for the Leftist magazine, Ramparts. But starting in the late-60s his Chronicle columns became, along with Richard Goldstein’s in the Village Voice, early champions for seeing rock music as something worthy of critical appreciation. The second way this criticism hit the mainstream was in the professionalization of existing writing about rock and roll when the two publications that were to come to define rock criticism were founded: Creem in 1969 and most importantly Rolling Stone in 1967. Rolling Stone, in particular, was founded in response to the underground press, especially Crawdaddy, with the intention of making rock and roll respected as cultural commentary.
The consolidation of the rock-and-roll-industrial-complex accelerated a trajectory that had begun much earlier. It meant that now a significantly smaller group of mostly white (almost exclusively male) businessmen, corporate marketing departments, and professional journalists could retell the origin story of rock and roll from a particular cultural and, of course, racial vantage point.
A hazy shade of whiteness
Canonizing late-1960s rock music meant defining or redefining the qualities that separated it from other forms of popular music. It also meant deciding who was to be beatified. The process can be seen playing out in the pages of Rolling Stone during its first five years of publication. As David Sanjek notes:
Early cover subjects included Tina Turner, Zap Comix, Sun Ra, MC 5, and Captain Beefheart. However, soon it became apparent that [Rolling Stone’s editor, Jan] Wenner identified rock’s authenticity with a limited set of figures who formed the publication’s icons of the rock canon: these include Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles.
Taking these artists as their starting point, rock critics stressed again and again the qualities that set rock apart: originality, authenticity, and a nebulous anti-establishment stance.
Whereas most other forms of popular music and earlier rock and roll had relied heavily on covering other artists’ material, the mythology of rock venerated originality—the unique, creative expressions of individual artists. It emphasized a rupture with the past, even if it meant ignoring the attempts by artists, like Dylan and the Stones, who actively tried to draw attention to the musical influences of their fore-runners.
Originality was intimately related to the idea of authenticity. As Sanjek writes, “one of the central issues to rock ideology is authenticity: the degree to which a musician is able to articulate the thoughts and desires of an audience and not pander to the ‘mainstream’ by diluting their sound or their message.” Rock music was produced for artistic and personal reasons, not commercial ones.
Of course, sustaining this mythology meant performing some artful conceptual acrobatics. Many performers were writing music as part of the political and countercultural movements of the 1960s and fought to protect their personal and political freedom, but the record labels were interested in commodifying this new youth culture as a means of bolstering what was now a multi-billion dollar industry. The labels had little interest in artistry except as a means to an end—to sell records. And even performers like The Beatles, James Brown or The Rolling Stones, who were undoubtedly concerned with their role as artists, were hardly naive about the calculated business side of the industry: creating and protecting an image in the media, marketing, publicity, cultivating and sustaining an audience. This contradiction between the need to innovate and the need to commodify and replicate is something we’ll return to later.
Within the new mythology, the qualities of originality and authenticity came together to differentiate rock music from earlier forms of blues and rock and roll, as well as contemporary trends like R&B, soul, or later funk and disco. Both sets of contrasts reinforced the racial boundaries around what constituted rock music.
On the one hand, as Robin Kelley notes, “Terms like ‘folk,’ ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ are socially constructed categories that have something to do with the reproduction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and the policing of the boundaries of modernism.” Increasingly, earlier movements in rock and roll, especially those most closely associated with Black artists, began to be described as antecedents. As just one example, in his 1969 LA Times column, which is quoted in Jack Hamilton’s excellent history Just Around Midnight, critic Mike Gershman wrote:
We are getting a kind of musical integration, but at the expense of Negro blues, the most honest and meaningful contribution of black people. Blues fans can be thankful that young musicians like John Kay [of Steppenwolf] and Stevie Winwood [of Traffic and Blind Faith] are keeping the faith.
Black artists increasingly became part of the pre-history of rock, so much so that Jimi Hendrix—who reached stardom first in England before returning to the US—could be seen, then as now, as an exception, the Charlie Pride of rock. At the time, his Blackness was very much critiqued in a way similar to what we looked at as the “authenticity trap” in part two: simultaneously being too-Black and not-Black-enough. The Washington Post wrote: “Jimi Hendrix is the P.T. Barnum of rock. He assesses, and fills, the needs of his crowd. His blackness is an Uncle Tom Blackness.” Rolling Stone called him a “psychedelic superspade,” using the slur then-fashionable in “hip” circles. African American columnist Hollie West wrote that Hendrix’s image was “watered down black sexual imagery” mixed with “an absurd mélange or electronic sound and guitar burnings.”
Writing after learning of Hendrix’s death in 1973, African American author and critic Margo Jefferson, in a remarkably prescient article, feared the erasure of Black artists from the history of rock and roll:
Future generations… will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.
On the one hand, Black artists, while still written about, and in some cases revered, by critics were increasingly seen as the precursors to rock music rather than the artists at the very center of its creation and development.
And on the other hand, more popular, dance-oriented rock and roll after Motown—what broadly came to be defined as soul, then funk, and later disco—was seen as something separate from and increasingly counterposed to the evolution and history of rock music, culminating in the grotesque Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979.
But as always, the telling was selective. For every Bob Dylan and John Lennon there were dozens of Monkees, Turtles, and Rascals at the very heart of late-60s rock who were producing well-crafted, but often frivolous, dance music. Left out of the telling were Black artists who were pushing against many of the same limitations as their white counterparts in the late-60s. Marvin Gaye’s majestic What’s Goin’ On? was, then and now, recognized as a great album, but how often is it discussed in the same breath as other early song cycle-based, concept albums like Sgt. Pepper’s or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, with which it shares not only thematic material but also liberal use of interviews, spoken word, and innovative studio techniques? Gaye was pigeonholed both by rock critics and by Berry Gordy himself as a soul artist, and What’s Going On?, although it opened doors within Motown for more political music, was seen as the exception in a genre aimed at entertainment. In its own mythology, rock did not aim to be popular (even when it was selling platinum albums and selling out stadiums). Black musicians might be great entertainers and performers; white musicians were great artists.
One way to look at the writing of this mythology is to look at it through the lens of a single album, to see how Black musicians have been removed from their place in rock and roll’s history.
Paint it Black
Sly and the Family Stone stood at the apex of the multi-racial rock and roll progressivism we talked about in part two of this series. Here you had an act that combined Bay Area-psychedelia with the groove of the Funk Brothers into a band that broke all stereotypes. As critic Dave Marsh (who has always been one of the critics most attuned to the racial politics of rock) observed of them:
Here was a band in which men and women, black and white, had not one fixed role but many fluid ones. The women played, the men sang; the blacks freaked out, the whites got funky; everyone did something unexpected, which was the only thing the listener could expect.
It was the rock incarnation of Summer of Love counterculture utopianism, held down by the thunderous bass lines of Larry Graham.
Led by multi-instrumentalist and musical prodigy, Sly Stone, the Family Stone had rocketed to stardom with the 1968 release of Dance to the Music, but it was their 1969 album Stand!, which included the songs “Everyday People,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” and “Sing a Simple Song,” that cemented them as one of the most popular and commercially successful bands of the late-60s.
Early on, reviewers were quick to note that Stone’s kaleidoscopic influences enabled the Family Stone to shatter musical boundaries: the minor key “Frère Jacques” nod to Gustav Mahler that opened “Underdog,” the passing notes of Coltrane, Sun Ra, The Beatles, Otis Redding, or the jazz harmonies of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Alec Dubro (Rolling Stone) compared their inventiveness to Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention (even as he disparaged their lack of “sophistication”). Ben Fong-Torres (Rolling Stone) wrote that:
Sly’s music will drive ‘acid rock’ critics running for their record collections, so that they can draw comparisons between him and Jelly Roll Morton, and John Coltrane and Otis Redding. That Lambert/Hendricks/Ross scat; that horn section — that’s jazz; that singalong, dancealong melody and beat — that’s Top 40, soul; that polish, that production, that arrangement.
David Henderson (Crawdaddy) called each of their songs “a cog in a larger wheel of tunes that swell a spectrum from blues ballad to bip-bop jazz rock back to hard-up-against-the-wall rhythm ‘n’ blues.” Their music inventiveness combined with their electrifying, theatrical live performances led Dave Marsh to call Sly Stone, “one of the greatest musical adventurers rock has ever known.”
At their height, the Family Stone created a prismatic acid funk trip that refracted all the most important trends in post-1965 rock and roll into a sound that was both commercially and artistically at the cutting edge.
But by 1970, Stone had sunk into a prolonged, drug-fueled depression. Over the course of more than a full year, locked in his home studio, Stone recorded virtually every track of what would become the band’s fifth studio album. In it he crafted an album that fused his personal demons with a generational despair at the political dead-end facing the movements of the previous decade.
The songs still grooved, especially on tracks like “Luv N’ Haight,” “Just Like a Baby,” and “Family Affair,” but compared to earlier albums, the grooves are soporific, and Stone’s lyrics are buried deep in a dense, overdriven mix. The album’s centerpiece is a seven-minute reworking of the single the Family Stone had released just a year earlier, “Thank you (falettinme be mice elf agin).” In “Thank you for Talkin’ to me Africa,” Stone slows down the original groove and against the noise the listener can just make out:
Lookin’ at the devil, Grinnin’ at his gun.
Fingers start shakin’, I begin to run.
Bullets start chasin’ I begin to stop.
We begin to wrestle I was on the top.
The Panthers, King’s assassination, Detroit, Stone’s fame and subsequent fall are all conjured up in a few cryptic lines. It’s impossible to separate out the personal from the political. In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus writes of the album:
The best pop music does not reflect events so much as it absorbs them. If the spirit of Sly’s early music combined the promises of Martin Luther King’s speeches and the fire of a big city riot, Riot represented the end of those events and the attempt to create a new music appropriate to new realities. It was a music that had as much to do with the Marin shootout and the death of George Jackson as the earlier sound had to do with the pride of the riot the title track of this album said was no longer going on.
At the end there, Marcus is referring to the title track, which is simply four seconds of silence. If the album is Stone’s personal divination on the end of the 60s—a question of “What comes next?”—then this is Stone admitting he has no answer.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On was released in November 1971, the titular answer to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, which had been released just six months earlier. It initially met with mixed reviews. John Morthland (Creem) wrote that it was “plodding” and “lethargic.” Robert Hilburn (LA Times) said that “there is little on the album that is worth your attention.” But Vince Aletti (Rolling Stone), while criticizing it as having “no peaks, no emphasis” and describing it as “junkie death,” admitted:
It doesn’t invite an easy response… [But] Sly was laying himself out in all his fuck-ups. And at the same time holding a mirror up to all of us. No more pretense, no more high-energy. You’re dying, we’re all dying. It’s hard to take, but There’s a Riot Goin’ On is one of the most important fucking albums of this year.
And Robert Christgau (Village Voice) declared Riot “one of those rare albums whose whole actually does exceed the sum of its parts.”
Over the years the album has had a revival and is now almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. But in the retelling, Stone’s place in music history has been altered. As late as 1980, Dave Marsh could write that Stone’s music was “a mixture of rock and soul that united white and black audiences as effectively as anything since Elvis Presley’s first recordings.” But when later critics looked back at Stone’s place in history, it was a distinctly Black lineage.
Writing in 1995, Gavin Edwards (Rolling Stone) could write that Sly and the Family Stone “provide a musical bridge between James Brown’s bedrock grooves and George Clinton’s cosmic slop.” In 1994, Riot was ranked number 14 in Colin Larkin’s Top 50 Soul Albums. Larkin described it as “unlike anything heard before in black music.” And in his 1998 book on the Family Stone, music critic Joel Selvin wrote, “there are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.” The Family Stone was quietly moved from its nexus at the convergence of psychedelic rock and soul and funk into an alternate reality of “Black music.” Between 1967 and 1970, Sly and the Family Stone had six top 40 singles and their third album Stand! went triple platinum. Yet, by 2019, not a single Family Stone song appeared on Q104.3’s exhaustive 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time, or the 500 Greatest Rock Songs according to LA’s KLOS or Boston’s B102.7.
Much of the veneration of late-60s rock rests on its lyrical, literary experimentation as well as its ability to fuse diverse musical genres into a period of incredible experimentation. But when the very same things are done by Black artists, it has been relegated to a separate history—that of Black music—or ignored altogether. It’s a history that is, at best, separate and unequal and cannot be defended on musical grounds; it’s a product not of musical history, but of racial imagination. Increasingly artists who didn’t fit the mold of what the industry thought rock artists should look and sound like were written out of the picture.
Not fade away
Late-60s artists like Buddy Miles, who got his start playing with Michael Bloomfield and The Electric Flag before joining Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, disappear from the history of rock, despite recording such memorable tracks as “Down by the River” and “Them Changes.” Eddie Hazel, who really should be recognized alongside Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page as one of the gods of rock guitar, and who had a huge impact on Funkadelic’s brilliant psychedelic rock album, Maggot Brain, seems to get overlooked both in the history of rock and of rock guitar, again relegated to the funk ghetto. Arthur Lee’s brilliant contributions to the band, Love, disappeared. And perhaps most tragically, someone like Shuggie Otis vanished from the history books altogether.
An immensely talented multi-instrumentalist, son of legendary bandleader and producer Johnny Otis, Shuggie released his first album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, in 1970—an impressive blues-influenced rock album. But it was his second album, Freedom Flight, that really broke new ground. The album is an amazing confluence of rock, pop, soul, blues, jazz that includes the brilliant “Strawberry Letter 23.”
With the release of Freedom Flight, Otis garnered a lot of attention within the industry but never broke through to mainstream success. Admittedly, he had a knack for making poor business decisions. He turned down offers to tour with The Rolling Stones, to join Stevie Wonder’s band, and to work with Quincy Jones. But in some ways, that’s the point. Throughout the late-60s the avenues to the mainstream for all musicians, but especially Black rock musicians, were narrowing. Unless your tape fell into the hands of John Hammond, Mick Jagger, Quincy Jones, or a handful of other producers, it just didn’t get made.
Within this narrowing field of gate-keepers, the idea that the mainstream was white wasn’t even really debated. It didn’t need to be; it was “common sense.” White artists were universal. Black artists were “niche.” In the mid-to-late 60s, this meant that if you were a Black artist, you should either be doing pop or soul or funk. If you were white, you were rock.
By the 1980s, the idea that a Black musician would even want to play rock, let alone that they could succeed commercially doing it, just seemed unfathomable to most record industry insiders. Maureen Mahon, in her study of the Black Rock Coalition, founded in 1985 by journalist Greg Tate and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, writes:
[T]he idea that black people wanted to play rock ’n’ roll was implausible to many record executives—and indeed many music consumers—who held rigid opinions as to what constituted authentic black music.
She notes that “a number of BRC members remarked on the bitter irony of having white music executives tell them that their music was ‘not black enough.’” It would take, yet again, the personal intervention of Mick Jagger to get Living Colour’s debut album, Vivid, made. The album went on to sell more than two million copies.
Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud
Trying to sketch out the historical process that transformed a genre of music dominated by Black men and women to one dominated by white men is part of a larger project of understanding how racism (and sexism) works its way through every aspect of modern society, including popular culture. This history is essential to developing a complete understanding of the systematic nature of racism and sexism in this country. Racism is not an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise more perfect union, but deeply interwoven into the very fabric of our society. Any attempt at challenging it will require fundamental transformations of the society we live in.
The fact that “cultural appropriation” is even discussed today in the mainstream press reflects a growing awareness on the part of a new generation of the need to develop that understanding so that we can try to figure out what needs to be changed and how to do it. But while cultural appropriation can describe the process, it fails at providing a framework for understanding how or why it happened, and what it provides in the way of strategy for fighting back is often a step backward.
First, the idea of cultural appropriation places the brunt of its blame on artists and audiences. But as we’ve seen throughout this series, they have had far less power in defining the genre compared to industry executives. Particularly in the midst of the political upheaval of the 1960s, artists and audiences sought out great music across racial lines and, in many cases, it was a small, personal, but distinctly political, statement. Generally, a crossover between musical styles both by artists and listeners has been a positive and progressive response to imagined boundaries. That crossover is related to, but politically distinct from the ways in which white, male artists disproportionately benefitted or how central notions of what defined rock became seen as “white.” As we’ve seen those changes were determined far more by the institutions of music criticism and the record labels.
A better framework comes from understanding how and by whom cultural works are commodified under capitalism, or to put it more simply: how personal expression is turned into marketable products. As I wrote in part one of this series:
Once a new genre is established, capitalist firms are under pressure to commodify it and expand its sales to the widest audience in order to generate the highest profit. This pressure affects all companies big and small, though the pressure increases as firms are consolidated into larger and larger units.
That pressure to consistently reach the widest audience means expanding in ways that offer the least resistance. In industries where the product is a cultural and intellectual product, that means expanding in ways that accommodate to the existing ideas of society.
I’ll add here that this process is never fully complete. From a business standpoint, it is much safer to accommodate, to fall back on what has already been proven financially successful. For proof, you only have to look at the slate of concert tours scheduled for 2021 which will be headlined by rockers now in their seventies. But there is also the need to innovate, to find the next new artists, so there remains openings and cracks in the system. Historically, as firms got larger the relative weight of safety versus innovation shifted and over time the depoliticization of rock was mirrored in its racial and gender composition.
Second, the idea of cultural appropriation essentializes ideas of race in popular culture, misidentifying some styles as “Black” and others as “white.” Although the intent is often to draw attention to artists who because of their race or gender have been overlooked, codifying musical styles along racial lines has often had the opposite effect of boxing artists into lanes deemed “appropriate,” and as a result, it draws attention away from some of the most inspiring music from this period: the very artists who were able to blur or entirely demolish musical boundaries.
Finally, what the idea of cultural appropriation provides in the way of strategies for fighting back are not just ineffectual; they are counterproductive. The idea that artists or audiences should “stay in their lane” is flawed at best. As we’ve seen, historically it has been Black artists who have time and time again been told to “stay in their lane” by industry executives and arbiters of culture as a way of shutting them out of the more lucrative arenas of popular culture.
The Left should not be in the position of enforcing the lanes that were put in place by people we are very often fighting against. The Left has always been most successful when it has based its positions on the foundation of equality, expanding access, the breaking down of barriers, and championing freedom and liberation. That doesn’t mean that questions of race and oppression should be subsumed into larger questions of class (although that tendency in the socialist movement is all too prevalent). Instead it means that the goals of equality and liberation have to be understood as having the fight against oppression at its core.
Rock and roll was born of artists who hoped to break down barriers. Few of these artists were overtly political, but the barriers were real. Rock and roll has become mythology as well as music in part because it captured the voice of a generation—both a generational and political revolt against the stultifying conformity of the 1950s. It was the soundtrack of those who sat down during the Freedom Summer of 1960 and of those who fought to end the war in Vietnam. It was part of a lineage of songs that sang of the cry for freedom. That Classic Rock has today become the soundtrack of the Trump-era, and the white middle-class is a betrayal of its actual history, a history that has been buried in a mythology of white artistry, erasing a much more complicated, exciting story. That story, which runs between Little Richard and Elvis, The Beatles and the Supremes, Dylan and Sam Cooke, Jefferson Airplane and Sly and the Family Stone, is much more relevant to our world today.
One reason for looking back at these histories is that the stories that make up what we think of as “common sense”—the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible—are histories that have been written by someone for a particular reason.
It may be a big leap between the history of rock and roll and 17th-century England, but in his history of radical traditions within the English Revolution, the British historian Christopher Hill writes that the reason for going back and unearthing unknown histories is to remind ourselves that other realities have been considered, some were even attempted. That they aren’t part of our “common sense” is because they were defeated and written out of our histories. But those defeats aren’t permanent. Other alternatives remain possible. Looking to the past can help us raise our sights to the future. To finish with the words of the immortal Nina Simone:
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me …
Well, I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly
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Geoff Bailey View All
Geoff is a director and independent socialist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of "How Rock Became White: the limits of cultural appropriation," “Accumulation by Dispossession: A Critical Assessment,” and “Visualizing Revolution: Revisiting Sergei Eisenstein.”