Black Rock Nation?

Who should have the right to call their music Black Rock? And what happens when black musicians make music that doesn’t fit into conventional definitions of “Black music”?

Damon Dash

The next few weeks are set to see the release of not one but two projects using the name Black Rock. Damon Dash, former partner of Jay Z, has collaborated with the band The Black Keys on ‘BlackRoc,’ presumably seeking to gain cachet from his previous association with Roc-a-Fella records, and featuring a host of rappers such as Mos Def, Billy Danze of M.O.P., Q Tip, Raekwon, Pharoah Monche and the late ODB. However, the veteran hip hop group Onyx have come out as publicly outraged by the title due to their own soon to be released ‘The Black Rock,’ album, which they describe as “mad guitars, hard drums. . .a hybrid album of Hip-Hop and Rock & Roll.”

Dash, for his part, doesn’t do anything to allay concerns that his project is a cynical attempt to capture two musical audiences with one release when he says the project is “a good business model… that kind of protects the artistry, it’s lucrative, but where a lot of people can get [into] it without compromising the brand.”

Onyx have come out saying that the BlackRoc project is “biting” their concept and that they had the idea of a rock/hip hop album first. They are clearly very angry.

Onyx are clearly angry more widely at what they perceive as an attempt to write them out of hip hop’s history, when in fact since they were formed in 1988 they have been very influential. For their role in bringing a certain kind of hardcore rap to a wider audience they were dubbed “a disgrace to blacks” by the NAACP.


But their claim to be the originators of the concept of rap/rock linkups is clearly absurd. From Run DMC’s ubiquitously known ‘Walk this Way’ with the group Aerosmith, through a great deal of the career of the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine or indeed rappers such as Mos Def forming rock projects, it’s clearly hardly something that’s a new idea.

This is of course leaving aside the whole obvious issue of rock and roll’s origins in the blues and black music. Although those reading this article may be well aware, it is always shocking the lack of awareness there is in the modern, white, rock audience that their favoured genre was appropriated by white records companies and groups in order to make money from a musical form which black artists were then excluded from. It’s a pattern that has been repeated again and again throughout the history of African-American musical creativity in the last 100 years.

But I encountered perhaps the most interesting take on the controversy over on Racialicious, which linked to an article by Rob Fields of the Bold as Love blog. He argues that how can the Dash/Black Keys project have the right to call itself ‘BlackRoc’ when all the rock artists are white?

Fields feels that the project had no right to appropriate the name Black Rock when it is already the name of the Black Rock Coalition, an organisation that since 1985 has sought to challenge stereotypes of what kinds of music black people can legitimately make. They say on their own website:

To date, the BRC is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to the complete creative freedom of Black artists. . . The BRC opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which undermine and purloin our musical legacy and deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.

Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.

The BRC embraces the total spectrum of Black music. The BRC rejects the arcane perceptions and spurious demographics that claim our appeal is limited. The BRC rejects the demand for Black artists to tailor their music to fit into the creative straitjackets the industry has designed. We are individuals and will accept no less than full respect for our right to be conceptually independent.

Fields adds in his article:

“BlakRoc” is a slap in the face to those of us who have been working to develop audiences for black artists who don’t fit neatly into pre-conceived categories. It’s an affront to those of us who still face apathy and dismissiveness when it comes to the place of blacks in beyond hip hop and R&B. . .The BlakRoc Project will probably do well. But it won’t be worthy of its name.

The conversation carried on in the comments section of the Racialicious post is very interesting as well, with some defending the BlackRoc project name as merely a merging of the names Black Keys and Roc-a-Fella. Also, they challenge Fields’ assertion that the album is manned instrumentally by white people and vocally by black people by pointing out the work that RZA did composing his contribution. (The RZA in fact is a major talent in this regard, having done really impressive scoring work on films such as Ghost Dog and American Gangster, both of which have really strong soundtracks.)

However, whether the name was a result of ignorance or not, it’s hard to disregard the feeling of being appropriated that Fields, and by extension the Black Rock movement clearly have. Their fight for full freedom for black artists and the black imagination is something that I think we should totally support, despite some of the music involved not being completely my cup of tea.

One commenter on Racialicious made what I thought was a very important contribution, writing:

I still feel the remnants of being the “white kid” for being very much into rock music and then having the actual white kids turn around and call me a poser for being a black person who liked something other than the stereotypical music I was expected to listen to as a black person.

The context is far from comparable, since I as a white child was never a victim of racism, but I remember myself being shocked at the racism of schoolmates who used to ask me why I like hip hop because “isn’t that black music?”

The whole controversy raises important issues about the usefulness of the term “black music”. As a way of asserting the black origins of most of American (and through them, world) popular music of the 20th century, it is obviously important. But what happens when the same term is in fact turned on its head and used as a way of excluding black artists from musical forms that were themselves originally black music (!). It’s definitely something I want to explore further on here.

However, in the meantime this piece gives me as good a reason as any to bring up something I’ve been wanting to mention for a while-The Street Sweeper Social Club, a collaboration between musicians Tom Morello and others from Rage Against the Machine with Boots Riley of The Coup (the group who did the song that this blog is named after!)

Back in the day I was a big fan of RATM, although I was never a great appreciator of the rock side of where they came from. For me they combined rapping with incredible sonic experimentation and radical politics.

The new project, Street Sweeper Social Club, is really what I expected it to sound like (as my brother put it “Rage with better rapping,”) rather than anything radically new or different, but it still sounds pretty good to my ears, and they’re well worth checking out. Tom Morello is an incredibly skilled guitarist who can stand up there with the most amazing user of synths or computers in terms of making strange new sounds. And I don’t think it would be going too far to describe Boots as one of the most underrated rappers of all time. If you don’t know The Coup, get to know! In any case, check out their band’s cover of M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’:

BlackRoc is released on November 27th. Try as I might I haven’t been able to find a release date for Onyx’s project, it appears to have been delayed for some time and is described as coming 2009.


One Response to “Black Rock Nation?”

  1. I think this whole issue is the reason that Rachel Adedej didn’t have much success on the X Factor! I don’t think anyone (judges or public) knows what do with a black woman singer who doesn’t fit into the soulful RnB diva niche No one knows how to categorise or market a punky rock star black woman and so they’ll just pretend it’s because she’s not good enough.

    I also read that she was forced by the stylists on the show to stop being so punk and start dressing more like a ‘normal’ black woman. Argh!

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