Written by Rob Fields –
It’s blazing down on the field at Central Park Summerstage. On this hot June day, there’s partial shade in the bleachers, but those aren’t at all close to the stage, and who really wants to be that far from the action?
The growing crowd gladly suffers through the heat. On this day, they’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Black Rock Coalition, the progressive arts organization that was formed in 1985 by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, journalist and cultural critic Greg Tate and artist/manager Konda Mason. Yes, folks are here to check out local rock favorites Pillow Theory, London-born, day-glo electro artist Ebony Bones, and innovative DJ and sound sculptor CX Kidtronik, but the main draw is the Black Rock Coalition’s flagship band, Living Colour. It’s a meeting of the trailblazers and the new jacks, all coming together under the flag of black rock. And it’s all happening at a time when black rock is gaining momentum as a cultural force.
”There’s so much cross-fertilization going on along with the use of aesthetics from other genres via Rihanna/Lil Wayne with down right references to rock/rock culture,” says Tamar-Kali, whose own rock-driven, hard-core warrior soul will be on display when her new album Black Bottom releases in mid-July. ”Moves like this by major label artists are prepping the palates of the mainstream audience and sparking curiosity. It’s a good thing.”
And that’s just it: It’s a great time to be a black musician providing alternatives to the dreck that assaults listeners multiple times an hour on most ”urban” radio stations. Call it black rock, Afro-punk or black alternative music. Across the country and around the world, black artists–Janelle Monae, TV on the Radio, Santigold, Gnarls Barkley, BLK JKS and Earl Greyhound, to name only a few–are making music that doesn’t fit neatly into the either/or boxes of hip-hop and R&B. Audiences like what they’re hearing and they want more.
According to a survey I conducted earlier this year of over 300 people via my black rock blog Boldaslove.us, 74 percent say their feelings about hip-hop have become indifferent or more negative. A similar percentage say that the amount of hip-hop they listen to has decreased over the past two years, as has the amount of commercial radio they consume. Over two-thirds say that black rock or Afro-punk is now a bigger part of what they listen to on a regular basis. And 9 out of 10 say that they consistently, if not regularly, seek out black artists who defy convention.
Based on the 30,000 people who attended last year’s Afro-punk Festival, co-founder Matthew Morgan also notes the expanding audience. ”Every year, more and more bands sign up for afropunk.com and want to play the festival,” he told me. ”More and more kids sign up that want their voice heard, so from my perspective, it’s growing.” (This year’s Afro-punk Festival takes place this weekend, June 25-27.)
This moment has been at least 25 years in the making, if you count from the formation of the Black Rock Coalition. But it’s been only in the last few years that the idea of a black alternative experience has been showing up more and more in the culture. In the early 2000s, there was James Spooner’s film Afro-punk and Raymond Gayle’s Electric Purgatory, both of which highlighted blacks in the punk and rock scenes. By 2007, major media outlets such as the New York Times, the New York Daily News, MTVNews and the venerable Ebony noted how African-American artists and audiences were not limiting themselves to hip-hop and R&B. Then the black rock musical Passing Strange won a Tony Award in 2008. Barry Jenkins’ film, Medicine for Melancholy, about two black hipsters in San Francisco, was released to critical acclaim in 2009. Kiss The Sky, journalist Farai Chideya’s debut novel that’s set in the world of black female rocker, came out that same year.
And that’s on top of the growing number of artists who are charting their own path with sounds not usually associated with African Americans.
Yohimbe Sampson is one black rocker who is feeling encouraged. Sampson is the guitarist with Game Rebellion, a rock/hip-hop band that will be performing again at this year’s Afro-punk Festival in Brooklyn. ”Now it seems folks are more open and able to embrace the limitless nature of their blackness,” he says. ”Nowadays nobody’s going to call a young brother skating through Bed-Stuy ‘white boy’.”
Or, as Walt Chastang, a member of Atlanta’s The 54 and another Afro-punk Festival performer, points out: ”The black/urban ‘counter-culture,’ if you will, is not quite as counter as it used to be even five years ago.”
However, amid the bubbling up of new black rockers, some see a potential danger of substance giving way to style. ”I see many young artists wanting to expand the boundaries of the music and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Jimi Hazel of 24-7 Spyz. ”What I don’t see is a desire to put the work in to learn and understand the craft of songwriting or the art of musicianship.”
Part of the problem is technology, notes Boston Fielder, founder of the URB Alt Festival and bandleader of the MuthaWit Orchestra.
Now that production tools like Autotune can fit onto a laptop, virtually everyone thinks they can be a rock star. And that, Fielder says, is not such a good thing. ”Technology has put so much limited knowledge into the hands of the average person that we’ve forgotten that the label of genius has to be earned … through the grace of the universe, hard work and consistency,” he says.
The $64,000 question: What’s it going to take for this new wave of black rockers to have staying power? First, learn the business, says Moon, a singer-songwriter who’s on this year’s URB Alt lineup with her D.C.-based band, Uninterrupted. ”When it comes down to it, the issue isn’t white or black, but green. If you know how to make the business work for you, then no one can stop you,” she says. And Tamar-Kali echoes others when she says that artists can’t just adopt the style and poses of a scene. ”Just do your art,” she says. ”Without fail, you will wake up black every morning. In the context of music, you are a musician first.”
Back at the Black Rock Coalition show at Central Park, Living Colour, an inspiring example of staying power, has taken the stage. The packed audience is rocking out, hands in the air and grooving and dancing to the band’s catalog, from their big hit ”Cult of Personality” to newer rock grinders like ”DecaDance.”
Earl Douglas, the Black Rock Coalition’s executive director, surveys the crowd, smiles and notes that scenes like this are being replicated around the world. ”Twenty five years and this thing of ours has gone global,” he says. ”There are extraordinary things [in terms of bands and audiences for black rock/Afro-punk] happening in England, France, Germany and South America. If all of these scenes can come together and more importantly, work together, the sky’s the limit,” he says. ”That’s what I envision the BRC doing in the next 25 years–connecting all of the dots.”
Rob Fields blogs about black alternative music and culture at Boldaslove.us.