The Black-Rock Revolution, and How We Rebooted It

Using YouTube to beat back critical malaise and bullshit race-baiting arguments

DISCUSSED
Anything Greg wants to talk about.

In my experience, there are two kinds of coloured folk: Black Rockers and Blackies Who Rock. The distinction is between those who'd gladly join the Black Rock Coalition or openly claim Afro-Punk affiliation, and malcontents who're such badass renegade punk-rock futhermuckers that they'd never join the only club that would have them, and would rather badmouth your mama in print.

I've had to think about this again recently for two reasons. First came Ann Powers's astute and timely L.A. Times response to Sasha Frere-Jones's mock-lament in The New Yorker about the whiteness of indie rock, wherein Ann informs us that the indie "scene"—largely defined as the five bands that at any moment five paler-skinned critics say matter—has never been more integrated, more infested with people of color who all serve as some critic's "darkling": Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, M.I.A., Santogold, Lightspeed Champion, Apollo Heights, Earl Greyhound, Saul Williams, Dragons of Zynth, the Dears, the Noisettes, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Hell yeah, I'm even claiming Karen O's half-Korean, half-glamazon behind, just because.) Now, most of these people I would say fall into the category of Negroes Who Rock: Black people whose rock trip is more aesthetically than racially motivated, identified, or contextualized. Being a Black Bohemian Nationalist Libra from the '70s, I'm down with whatever kinda pro-racial, aracial, transracial rock 'n' roll negroid you wanna be, so long as you're out there spanking that ass.

Because the world deserves to know about Me'Shell Ndegéocello
photo: Julie Hasse
Because the world deserves to know about Me'Shell Ndegéocello

Howsomever: The second reason I've been musing about race-rock of late is because of good brother Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jennifer's recent interview in Stop Smiling: a far more problematic text for this pundit than Frere-Jones's coy teapot tempest. This would be the one where Frere Jennifer gets drawn into some low-rent divide-and-conquer slamming of the BRC and Afro-Punk, where he says he's always considered himself more punk-rock than Black. Cool, all good, if that's your thing, man. But yo, Darryl: Claiming the BRC and by default any African-American self- determination movement evinces a "slave mentality" seems roughly akin to claiming that the '60s set Blackfolk back 400 years. WTF, Darryl? So solidarity and pan-African collectivism in the pursuit of justice is okay for Rasta, but not Rastus? Furthermore, why even bother claiming Jimi Hendrix didn't directly influence you like these "black-rock type dudes" you now disparage? So what? At this stage of history, that's like saying you're not affected by the air you breathe. You live in the same post-Hendrix noise continuum as the rest of us, bruh. And there's no escaping it.

But whatever, I was about to let it all pass—water under the bridge and all that—because it's Darryl, and Bad Brains are the sonic symphonic architects of hardcore, and Dr. Know played on BRC events from damn near the giddy-up—except then the low-rent bee-atch bushwacker interviewer, one Daemon Lockjaw or some such, decides that Darryl's given him license to proclaim that the BRC has put on bands only because they were Black—as if the history of rock, like the history of America, isn't the history of mediocre Caucasoids being put on just because they weren't coloured. Now never mind that both BRC and Afro-Punk ain't no cult-nationalist social clubs, but just a means to present Black bands who rock to Black people who care worldwide—never mind that I've yet to see much advantage to anybody's career come from being associated with either group. Attack the cultural politics of BRC all you want, but don't even try and diminish damn near a quarter-century of music and struggle with some offhand, unsubstantiated, random race-baiting piffle. I'm like, "Give me names and dates, you low-rent sniveling neo- colonialist wankster, then let's go settle this like gentlemen down a blind alley somewhere." But then I thought, no, in this year of the Obama, I want to be a healer, not a death-dealer/fearless vampire killer—I want to be audacious with my hope for the future of all Black Rockers and Negroes Who Rock Out, divisive diseased duppy conquistadors be damned! And thanks to YouTube, I have become very optimistic about the prospects for same.

People frequently ask me, "Greg, how do you do it—how do you keep up with all this new music, you crusty, 50-year-old Harlem hermit, you?" Well, having hip, wide-open-eared young people in your life—like 27-year-old daughter and prescient, erudite Vibe staffer Linda "Hollywood" Hobbs—helps, but what helps even more is YouTube. Verily, I declare that 2007 will go down in Tate musical history as the year I spent more time with YouTube than my iPod. The beauty of this site—and I drop this pearl more for my fellow Net-aphobic quinquagenarians than anyone else—is that anytime anybody said some newjack was hot to death (Lil Mama, Lil Wayne, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Estelle, Santogold, Silversun Pickups, Lupe Fiasco), I could just click in and do a quick, discerning survey. Because for sure, who but Davids Byrne and Bowie (along with my man Christgau) have maintained the time-consuming desire or inclination after the age 47 to obsessively seek out reams of whole new music albums? On the other hand, who doesn't have time to dip into a music video? For all those getting up there in dog years like moi, you can now go down the Top 20 list of all those artists and albums in this year's Pazz & Jop that you ain't never heard of, run 'em through YouTube, and in 20 minutes be straight for the year so far as being caught up on "new" music goes.

That said, I've also pursued other, more nostalgic, more classical passions at the site: vintage clips of Marvin, Curtis, Gladys (with and without the Pips), Phyllis Hyman, Marilyn McCoo and the Fifth Dimension, the Friends of Distinction, the Delfonics, and Chic. Plus Inner City (see "Good Life"), and 2 Puerto Ricans, a Black Man & a Dominican (see "Do It Properly"). Plus Otis Rush, Son House, the Bar-Kays, and Ronnie Laws. I was also glued to 10-minute chunks of hour-long Cecil Taylor solo piano concerts, and 10-episode Miles Davis concerts in his '69 Bitches Brew prime. Not to mention the Coltrane Quartet killing "Vigil" in '65, or Charlie Parker grinning at Buddy Rich. Or Ella, Sarah, Andrew Hill, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams with Stan Getz in '71, Don Cherry with Sonny Rollins in '59, the entire Les McCann/Eddie Harris Swiss Movement concert, and yeah, Jimi Jimi Jimi James James James, plus 40 years' worth of the P-Funk All-Stars, Bad Brains (still my heroes), Fishbone, and the Wu-Tang Clan in Paris. In a nutshell, YouTube is where Real Black Music still lives, people: all kinds of Black music, in the most high-tech, 21st-century frame imaginable.

Of course, YouTube also has that clip of two girls gone wild for feces, but what could define American democracy more than Marilyn McCoo and Cecil Taylor sharing the same space as that shit? This is the best justification yet for the very invention of the Internet.

That said, Black Rockers (or Negroes Who Rock) need our own Pazz & Jop, and really our own Village Voice and our own Grammies, and of course our own extraterrestrial galaxy far, far away. If only because I'd love to show and tell the good news to all those other Black people who don't rock, but are maybe open to hearing something musical from American-raised coloured folk other than Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jay-Z, or Soulja Boy. Because such folk need—nay, deserve—to know how stupendously, consistently genius MeShell Ndegeocello's The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams is, or how tantalizingly terrifying Game Rebellion's (FYI: the heir apparent to the Bad Brains/Living Colour/Public Enemy/RATM mantle) In Search of Rick Rubin mixtape is, or what a galvanizing comeback the Family Stand's Super Sol Nova became. Or what a stone-cold genius freak singer–songwriter Lightspeed Champion must be to have crossbred Elvis Costello, Arthur Lee, and Jim Henson. Or what a super-stylish punk-rockitude stage animal Noisettes bassist/singer Shingai Shoniwa beez, or what a noisefest Trent Reznor cohort and word magician Saul Williams devised for The Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (with all due praises to local guitar hero Jerome Jordan for that pun, tho'). Finally, praise those fools Apollo Heights for finally getting that album out and going head to head with MeShell for album title of the year with White Music for Black People, maybe the best Zen koan to come out of the whole rock 'n' roll nigra experience, like, ever. (Speaking of Zen, somebody toss ECM a bone for finally, 33 years late, re-releasing Bennie Maupin's gorgeous Afro-Buddhist gem The Jewel in the Lotus, featuring his Herbie Hancock Sextant bandmates; ditto to the Norwegians for also rebooting Dewey Redman's The Struggle Continues, both of which, alas, still sound like the future of jazz rather than the jazz of Xmas past. Honorable mentions need also go out to Maya Azucena's Junkyard Jewel, Imani Uzuri's Her Holy Water, and Felice Rosser for her band Faith's A Space Where Love Can Grow.

Finally, there's Feist, neither Black nor a non sequitur here. Like Joni Mitchell back in the day, she came into my life through other Black people—not Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, or whatever. Specifically, she came through my partners/bandmates Jeremiah (a New England Conservatory–trained opera singer turned 21st-century soul man) and D-Maxx (a Brooklyn MC turned interdisciplinary performance artist), both of whom threw Feist on the van system during a Burnt Sugar road trip and chatted her up like she was the second coming of something, and made me reckon with her wry, jazzy, and whimsical (no easy combo) storytelling prowess. Then, just today, as if to prove my suspicion that Feist is so white she's black (as my aceboon AJ once said about Andy Warhol), our MySpace page just got a friend request from one Joseph Démé, a singer in Burkina Faso who has Feist high up in his otherwise quite Pan-Africanist list of friends. Like Joni before her, Feist's strange charms also extend to soothing the Original Man.

Now, I'm still trying to figure out the hoopla over LCD Soundsystem, but I remain quite comfortable holding down the minority opinion on that one up in this piece. Maybe I'll give those YouTube testimonials one more shot. . . .

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