I often find myself wondering how rock n’ roll left Black people behind.
In the 1950s, artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Big Maybelle and Big Joe Turner turned the world on with the creation of a new form of expression. It would be hard to name another art form in the last 100 years that has been as impactful on American culture. In a dramatic cultural upset, “race music” was embraced as pop music, and white people were listening. They may not have necessarily heard, but they were listening, and buying. Over the next decade, rock n’ roll was a primary agent of change in transforming America. It showed the power of music.
Then, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and rock n’ roll was never really a Black art form again.
In 1970, the Black musician Jimi Hendrix died of a drug overdose. While he was respected then and today as a powerhouse of the medium, his obituary described his guitar playing as “unusual”, “alien”, and “miraculous,” even though he was carrying on the blues styles that had given rise to rock in the first place. In only 20 years, Black people in rock had become outliers. Alien. Unusual. In 1973, Margo Jefferson wrote in Harper’s Magazine. “The night Jimi died, I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites. Future generations, my dream ran, will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.”
The first rock song I ever heard was “Chameleon” from Patti LaBelle’s glam rock group Labelle. Their gospel harmonies repeated “come with me, if you believe” over a syncopated piano, and believe I did. Ms. LaBelle crashes in belting, whooping and wailing before all three ladies’ voices converge into a cacophonic rock choir. Nona with her rock rasp, Sarah’s sound swoops like a bird, and Patti brings it all together with her unmistakable voice. They were the first Black vocal group to make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine … in 1975.
Rock music — like so many other things in this country — has been influenced for decades by systemic racist forces to erase Black originators from the form in an effort to make it more palatable for white consumers. Take a moment and picture what a rock musician looks like. I’d bet anything that it doesn’t look like me, and I am very much a rock musician. Rock is considered the music of the “everyman,” the music of the (raceless) proletariat, but it most certainly is not raceless, and it’s not for every man.
Black people have been so thoroughly erased from rock that it’s even considered “white music” by our own community. Black rock performers are novelties; visitors in our own house. It’s not right that rock performers — genius innovators — such as Labelle, Funkadelic, Betty Davis, and Black Merda were woefully miscategorized and poorly promoted. Those guitarists like Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel, and even Prince, are footnotes in a book they helped write.
But I’ve been given the chance to do something about it.
“Rock Opera 101” is a new project created with the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS). As a part of their community outreach initiatives, we are developing a three-part online concert series that will look at the role of people of color, women and queer influence in rock music and rock musicals. I believe its divine timing that this concert series — which has been in development since 2019 — is happening during a social and cultural shift when so many are declaring that Black Lives Matter. We recognize this fight against systemic racism is not a trend or a fad. It is ongoing and multifaceted and will require brave and consistent work.
This project, for me, is a part of my protest. Reclaiming space stolen and hidden, as well as making sure Margo Jefferson’s dream — and nightmare — can end. It’s important to pass down a legacy to all the young Black rockers so they can know they are exceptionally important and profoundly relevant, and that they are the inheritors of music that shook the world. I want those future Black rock stars, listeners and critics to know you are not weird, acting-white, strange or different. You are deservedly tapping into your rich heritage — and the ancestors are proud.
Jonathan Gilmore is a Baltimore musician, the lead singer of Jonathan Gilmore and The Experience, and the lead performer and curator of Rock Opera 101, presented by Baltimore Rock Opera Society. The next installments of Rock Opera 101 are on August 22 and September 10 online at facebook.com/baltimorerockoperasociety/live.