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Reclaiming rockExperts urge education and support for Black artists

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“Rock music has its origins in the African-American tradition.

Because the music industry has historically used labels to separate music perceived to be created for and by African-Americans. That has brought about separations and assumptions about what Black music sounds like and what it should be,” said Portia Maultsby, director of archives of African-American music and culture, and professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

When you think of rock music, don’t think of The Killers, Nirvana, Metallica or Aerosmith. Instead, think Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Ike Turner and TV On The Radio.

Unbeknownst to many, it was Blacks who gave birth to what is known as rock music. Early forms of rock originated from Black southern spiritual practices and manifested itself as electric blues. Even the distortions of the guitar, a centerpiece to Black expression, are a part of the African-American culture.

“Black musicians have always been fantastic guitarists – it comes from the blues tradition. If you think about it, whites’ only guitar tradition is around country and western. It was the blues that gave it flavor,” added Maultsby.

Although blues musicians, primarily from Mississippi, developed their styles, Maultsby states there were many reasons behind Blacks loosing their stake in the cultivation of the sound. She goes on to say Blacks moving from the south to the north was a major reason behind the separation of Blacks and rock music.

Additionally, other forms of music, such as R&B, became popular.

As new forms of music came into place for Blacks, rock was being embraced, marketed and altered by white musicians, one example being the “British Invasion.” Musicians like Chuck Berry or Little Richard were also separated from Rock N Roll, a more excitable, rhythmic form of R&B.

As time passed on, many believe Blacks’ roots have been forgotten in a massive way. Kandia Crazy Horse, a freelance rock critic states that she doesn’t understand the current resistance among Blacks with rock, such as Jimi Hendrix, even though hip-hop artists flirt with rock in their music.

One of the most notable and early fusions between rock and hip-hop was among groups such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. DJs also perfected the art of finding radical beats and were hungry for creating new sounds.

The crossover movement aided in Blacks moving further from their musical roots in rock but brought forth people such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

“Today’s youth have always had access to those sounds. Even the advent of iPod – it’s natural for kids to be shuffling a manner of things without value or judgment,” said Crazy Horse.

Despite changes in Black musical tastes, there were artists such as Living Colour, Fishbone and Lenny Kravitz who created music based on modern sounds of rock. Crazy Horse states there are many Black rock bands that exist today, but is unsure whether they will gain the popularity and mass appeal they may deserve.

“I go to these festivals and there’s not many Black influences. There’s a wasteland of acts that have come out that has excited avid watchers of that theme, but most of them haven’t been able to sustain themselves,” said Crazy Horse. “Even I’m seen as unnatural for paying an inordinate amount of attention to (rock music).

“By now we should have had a certain critical mass of self sustaining Black artists. Either the audience doesn’t grow or people treat Black artists as an anomaly.”

Rock music has had quite an evolution yet Maultsby and Crazy Horse urge Blacks to educate themselves on Black’s stake in rock music and to fully support today’s Black rock bands or alternative groups who are striving to keep that tradition alive – exposure is the key.

“We should reclaim that tradition so that we understand how it fits within the continuum of Black music. Rock to me is a reformulation of a variety of elements and Black styles into this new expression,” said Maultsby.

The Black Rock Coalition

The Black Rock Coalition was founded in 1985 by guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour, journalist Greg Tate and producer Konda Mason in reaction to the constrictions that the commercial music industry places on Black artists.

The coalition is a collective of artists, writers, producers, publicists, activists and music fans assembled to maximize exposure and provide resources for Black artists who defy convention. To date, the BRC is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to the complete creative freedom of Black artists.

For more information call (212) 713-5097 or visit www.blackrockcoalition.org.

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