A rollicking rebuke to the idea that rock isn’t Black music
As an English professor, a musician, and a Black person, I’m ready to shred misconceptions about who is and who isn’t fit to jam.
By G’Ra Asim
There are probably a billion, largely unknowable reasons why I began to write songs. But I know for sure that one especially memorable episode of Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete played a primary role.
In the season one finale, Little Pete, a spunky tween ginger who’d yet to develop his own taste in music, takes a shortcut home from school and stumbles upon a band practicing in a suburban garage.
The song the band is playing changes Little Pete’s life. It speaks to him like no other music has and he’s hooked. Unfortunately, he ambles away from the band playing in the garage without considering how he’d ever manage to hear his new favorite song again.
It’s 1994, nearly fifteen years before Spotify’s advent. No combination of savvy keystrokes can help him recapture that incidental magic. He spends the rest of the episode trying to track the band and song down, succeeding only when he returns to the shortcut route and encounters the band in person once more.
That episode premiered when I was in second grade, but it stuck with me. I picked up the electric guitar in high school because I wanted to inspire and energize people the same way that garage band affected Little Pete.
By grad school I had fronted a few different bands and developed a decent body of work as a performing songwriter. When the below message appeared in my band’s inbox, it felt like a cosmic alignment:
I heard you guys on MIT’s student radio the other night and got instantly in love and had to search SO hard to find you guys, but I did, it was right out of Pete and Pete.”
I wrote the fan band back excitedly. I mentioned my own admiration for that Pete and Pete episode, and how her message was no less than the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
And then I made the mistake of linking her to our music video. She’d already seen it, and my appearance was something of a shock.
“Not to be racist but since I heard you guys on the radio,” the fan wrote, “I sort of pictured a completely different person as the lead singer!!”
Of course, by this point, that record scratch moment was only the latest in a lifelong series of them. The implication was obvious: to most, a black person making rock music is a bird flying north for the winter, an hour hand ticking to the left, a Geico car insurance commercial without non sequiturs.
Since rock and roll is about being true to yourself and going against the grain to do so if need be, I always felt I simply understood the assignment better than most.
I call it putting the alt in alterity.
Alt is an abbreviation for alternative, as in alternative rock music or alternative values, and alterity is the state of being a political or social minority.
Black people who use rock music and culture as a compass for navigating life combine the two.
My band Baby Got Back Talk
got our name from combining the Sir Mix-A-Lot song everyone knows and a bell hooks book that more people should know, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.
We thought it was fitting because rock music is one of the most fun forms of back talk, of speaking as an equal to authority figures and daring to disagree.
Blackness, and challenging the narrow conceptions of what it is and isn’t, is baked right into our band’s mission statement. We’re hardly the only ones.
festival has been a transnational hub for alternative black music and culture since 2005.
Last summer’s smash hit film Spider-Man: Across The Spider Verse boasted a character who’s a black punk variant of the wall-crawling crime fighter. NYC’s BIPOC emo nite, led by queer and trans punks, puts on melanated mosh pits almost monthly.
But the might of our movement can escape the eye if you don’t know where to look.
I had this context in mind when Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner got into hot water last year for failing to interview even one woman, person of color or woman of color for his book The Masters. The book consists of conversations between Wenner and legendary rock artists. When pressed to account for this omission, Wenner was matter of fact.
“Insofar as the women
,” Wenner told The New York Times
, “just none of them were articulate enough on this intellectual level
Wenner defended himself by saying he wanted to include “philosophers of rock” and women and artists of color “just didn’t articulate at that level.”
To me, Wenner’s comments bore a not coincidental resemblance to Thomas Jefferson’s words in Notes on the State of Virginia. “...Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration,” the nation’s third president writes, “never even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”
Jefferson is a Founding Father, after all. It stands to reason that an architect of the political structure we still rely upon today might also bequeath racial attitudes that continue to shape our moment.
It doesn’t seem worthy of my energy to get bent out of shape every time a Steadfast Son sings from the hymn sheet that’s been passed down to him.
Nowadays, my life as a writer, professor of English, and punk rock frontperson runs counter to Wenner’s and Jefferson’s claims.
Uttering thoughts above the level of plain narration, philosophizing about rock and roll, and teaching others how to do the same are how I pay my bills.
I’m not saying so just to stunt on the historical haters. Tuning out sentiments like Wenner’s and Jefferson’s, even when they take the shape of friendly fire, has been a condition of possibility for how my life has unfolded.
A few semesters ago, I was meeting with a black student about her creative writing. The student enrolled at our university a year before I was hired, so she had watched my job talk when I was still a candidate for the position.
At the end of our meeting, she told me that she’d been hoping another candidate–and not myself–would be hired for the job. The student said she’d heard me described as “a punk rocker–and well, you know what THAT means.”
I took the bait. What did it mean, exactly? The student didn’t answer directly, but she told me she preferred another candidate because that writer-professor was “more unapologetically black.” The student figured that I was branding myself as a rocker in order to be more palatable to the faculty at the school I was vying to teach at, which is predominantly white. (I have, of course, been a rocker since long before I knew what a search committee was.)
While it hurt to hear that in the moment, I ultimately don’t take it personally.
The notion that rock music couldn’t possibly serve a black person’s authentic self-expression didn’t start with this student, and it’s tied to comments like Wenner’s.
That’s why it’s frustrating how when a public figure says something regressive, blinkered and offensive, social media would have you believe that it’s imperative to pile on that person for the next who-knows-how-long, as if they didn't voice a perspective that the vast majority of us share even though we happened not to say it into a microphone.
As if by flogging the poor sap who got caught in the public square, we atone for our own complicity in the same thing.
I’ve been a rocker since the 8th grade and I’ve been a black intellectual my entire life. My experience is that most people (white, of color, young, old, you name it) think of rock and roll as something helmed by white men, and most people also imagine female and/or black folks as innately less equipped to "philosophize" than white people and/or men. Those people are wrong but they're not exceptional.
They aren’t all dated, or all out of touch, or all racist either. Instead of pearl-clutching in response to comments like Wenner’s, we could use them as prompts to search our own souls. We could consider the ways we're vessels for the same views--and what it would look like to stop propagating those views. It's no revelation that people feel like Wenner, or that fan, or the creative writing student.
The question is really what can be done to disrupt that status quo.
In the wake of Claudine Gay’s resignation from Harvard, it’s hard to ignore the similarity between Wenner’s reasoning for excluding women and artists of color from his book and the popular rightwing talking point that to consider diversity is to sacrifice merit.
Who is fit to claim the mantle of rock and roll “Master” might seem like a less urgent question than who can be president of Harvard, but injustice anywhere emboldens white supremacists everywhere.
It’s essential to vigorously contest the dangerous and wrongheaded idea that lowering the bar is the only way to write rock criticism or staff institutions to reflect the composition of society.
Fortunately, punk is an ideal space to stage a rollicking rebuke of any notion that excellence and equity are mutually exclusive.
It’s not enough to condemn these attitudes. There should be a handy compendium of bands who confound Wenner’s wrongheaded analysis.
With this in mind, Baby Got Back Talk and Los Angeles-based punk label Wiretap Records teamed up to curate a compilation of poc and/or women rock artists who disprove Wenner’s pronouncement.
This Black History Month, we’re dropping Articulate At That Level, a compilation album featuring twelve tuneful dissenting opinions. The artists that we’ve assembled on the album aren’t tokens we scrounged up just to appease some dusty Diversity, Equity and Inclusion bureau; they represent the vanguard of alternative music in 2024.
Late last year, Lenny Kravitz made waves when he touted the importance of celebrating rock and roll music and history as a part of black culture. It’s critical that “black artists are being recognized for their work in what is now being called non traditional black music, which it is not,” the artist wrote on Instagram. “Rock and roll is the music we were instrumental in creating and is a part of our history.”
Releasing Articulate At That Level during the country’s time of collective reflection on black legacies and futures is one step forward in the reclamation Kravitz advocates.
You should buy the album on Bandcamp this February mainly because the songs rip. And as a bonus, if enough people spread the word, tastemakers won’t be able to claim there are no intellectually compelling women or artists of color in rock unless they happen to be living under one.
This essay was initially published on The Boston Globe. You can read the essay here