Know what the problem is with black folks? No imagination.
Sounds crazy, I know, but consider black music.
Every significant moment in America’s history has been accompanied by its own soundtrack. And black musicians have often written the music and the lyrics. But what’s our soundtrack now?
The music industry has imposed the same low expectations on black artists and black life that politicians and pundits have imposed on black folks with respect to education, business and simply managing our daily lives. And we’ve let it happen.
Essentially, we’ve let a small group of hip-hop “artists” of limited experiences, education and vision set our cultural agenda. In this age of expanded possibilities, it is time to broaden our musical influences. Hip-hop is out of ideas. If you need convincing, consider this: The best-selling rapper of 2008—Lil Wayne—is doing a rock album. Yes, a rock album.
It’s time to give black rock another look. From artists as diverse as TV on the Radio, Shingai Shoniwa of The Noisettes, Gnarls Barkley, Santigold and The Family Stand, to performers at the recent South by Southwest Music Festival like Ben Harper, Whole Wheat Bread, BLK JKS, Janelle Monae and Ebony Bones, black rockers take to heart the idea that our imagination and creativity are boundless.
Take, for instance, Grammy winner Janelle Monae. She created a dystopian landscape in her album Metropolis: The Chase Suite, that is part Blade Runner, part Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s a radical, yet accessible, departure from the “keep it real” orthodoxy that pervades most of what’s on black radio’s playlist. And having seen hundreds of fans flock to her Central Park SummerStage show in NYC last summer, I wasn’t the only one who saw her bring something refreshing and exciting to music. The tagline on the signs that many fans waved underscored a simple truth: “Imagination Inspires Nations.”
Black rock artists have gotten past the fear that prevents many of us from fully following our interests, even when those interests aren’t seen as “traditionally” black. “I grew up listening to Joy Division, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cure….” says TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone. “I simply identified with something in the [white rock] music.” He took that music as inspiration and, along with his bandmates, created Dear Science, the sharp, angry and euphoric genre-mashing album that Rolling Stone and SPIN unanimously named their 2008 album of the year. It was also one of the blackest albums I’ve heard.
Black rock can change lives. It changed mine. In the 1980s, I was a regular, middle-class kid from the Midwest, who started listening to Top 40 radio in eighth grade as a reaction to the repetitive playlists and limited subject matter on black radio. Top 40 radio introduced me to artists like Journey (“Who’s Cryin’ Now“) and Styx (“The Best of Times“), who moved me with their melancholy and soaring guitar solos. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” gripped me with its signature opening riff. And I found it impossible to ignore the incredible songwriting and storytelling that went into The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” For me, rock was simply more creative and raw than the slick, synthy sounds on black radio. It still is.
To reclaim our place as musical innovators, we need music that’s up to the task. We need artists who have the courage to explore new sounds and ideas. But there’s no way today’s artists can do that if their grasp of music history only extends to the latest ‘80s record Diddy sampled.
Just as Stevie Wonder counted Joni Mitchell and her experimental chord structures as one of his big music influences, Beyoncé now credits Etta James and the roots of rock ‘n roll for helping her to find more expansive ways to be herself.
The Black Rock Coalition’s manifesto says, “Rock is black music, and we are its heirs.” These times call for substance, not swagger. Rock, America’s subversive, anarchic, rebellious gift to the world, is ours, and we need to stop treating it like some bad four-letter word.