Those of you old enough to remember when AM Radio was the ONLY radio – undoubtedly remember the daytime stations. In many areas, R&B stations were limited to broadcasting during daylight hours. At night, the AM station signals would “bounce” – resulting in an ability to intermittently pick up stations hundreds of miles away.
The DC Market had two black stations, WUST AM 1120, and WEBB AM 1390, which were joined by WOL in the mid 60’s. The formats were strictly R&B. Tthe two biggest jocks in town for years were “The Moon Man” and Barry Richards, seen in this video in the 70’s –
And yeah, Barry was a white guy, who dominated black radio for years. I worked with Barry a couple of times in the early 70’s – and the guy’s voice was incredible. R&B music was euphemistically called “race music” at the time, and the airwaves were about as segregated as America.
Move forward into the first decade of the 21st century, and you find that music is still largely segregated. Sure, there are black and white artists who get airplay on different station formats – but the venues still tend to follow the vestiges of that “race music” radio.
Breaking that mold are a whole new group of black artists, who are making waves in country – and many of the variations of rock.
Lisa Kekaula, lead singer of the rock, soul and punk quartet The Bellrays, is channeling Tina Turner. On one hand, it could be the muscular legs that are planted wide and shaking as she sings. But it’s probably the voice: She has this gutbucket growl that’s only getting more intense because she’s becoming increasingly frustrated at the ineptitude of the sound man here at this basement venue, Prague. Mics aren’t working and the mix in the house is way off. Despite this, The Bellrays are delivering the goods. The packed crowd, mostly white and largely male, is enthusiastically behind them. And the handful of black faces in the room are right there, too, thrilled to see this black woman rocker represent.
Here in Austin, Texas at the this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, it’s being underscored again and again: It’s a great time to be a black musician who’s providing alternatives to what’s assaulting listeners multiple times an hour on most radio stations. Call it black rock, black alternative, Afro-Punk, whatever. The fact is that across the country, black artists are making music that doesn’t fit neatly into the either/or boxes of hip hop and R&B. Audiences are noticing, they’re open and they want more.
When asked about The Bellrays’ show he’d just seen, musician Sharif Iman of Nashville, Tennessee, who describes his own sound as “Seal meets The Foo Fighters,” said excitedly, “This just goes to show that black people can do anything. We don’t have to be limited to just hip hop.”
This moment has been at least 25 years in the making, if you count from the formation 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. 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 aughts, 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, MTV News and the venerable Ebony Magazine noted how African Americans artists and audiences were not limiting themselves to hip hop and R&B. Then 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. Those interviewed for this article were encouraged by what they felt the future held.
“Generally, we are encouraged with what we are seeing right now,” says Justin Robinson, one third of American roots trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops. “Even though we have a long way to go, the Chocolate Drops are just one band in a smallish wave of black folks doing something other than the status quo.” He cites artists such as Noisettes, Janelle Monae, Lightspeed Champion, Ebony Bones, Toro y Moi and the oOohh Baby Gimme Mores and others as artists who are leading the way for something different.
Likewise, blogger Winston Ford, who runs music blog thecouchsessions.com, is extremely encouraged. “In the past two or three years I’ve noticed more people of color speaking freely on Twitter and Facebook about their love for non-traditional artists, black and white. The Internet has opened up a new market for those musicians who have been shut out of mainstream television and radio.”
The creativity comes from a place of authenticity. “It’s encouraging to see more black artists who are creating something ‘nontraditional’ not because it’s a gimmick,” says Tony Roopa, member of Houston-based rockers Peekaboo Theory, “but because they are actually passionate about creating unique music.”
But in the quest to escape from narrowly defined boxes, artists caution that they don’t want to find themselves in another one labeled “black alternative”.
“Why do we put black in front of the art? That’s whack,” says M. Sayyid of the alternative hip hop group Anti-Pop Consortium, who feels that blackness is self-evident. “That’s like saying ‘black Jesus,'” says fellow APC member Priest. “It’s redundant.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Atlantan Brittany Bosco, whose experimental sound is both contemporary and a nod to classic sounds from a bygone era. “I don’t believe in ‘black alternative music.’ Why should it be a color?” she asks. “The minute we tag a race on it we box ourselves in.”
Will Johnson, who performed at SXSW music as his alter ego Gordon Voidwell and whose music is a mashup of Talking Heads, Rick James and Prince, thinks this resistance to categorization may be one thing slowing the growth of a bigger black alternative scene. He says, “I think most successful black artists making “alternative” music probably prefer to be seen as artists rather than ‘black artists.’ While I feel strongly about my identity as a black man performing with a black band–an intentional decision–I also prefer my music to be thought of as music rather than ‘black music.'”