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Black Rockers Are Not Being Sold to You (And You’re Not Listening to Them)

Small pictures of Black rock artists Arlo Parks, Shamir, Shungudzo, and Yves Tumor beneath much larger images of White rock artists Olivia Rodrigo and Wet Leg
@yvestumor, @shungudzo, @arlo.parks, @shamir326, @wetlegband, and @oliviarodrigo/Instagram

Once 2023 rolled around, out of the blue I was in a rock-heavy state of mind. Perhaps it was a mental response to the wringer the preceding year had put me through, and I felt the need to let off some steam, even if — if not even more so — mentally.

I’m a mostly intuitive listener, listening to whatever or whoever comes to mind at the given moment. After an extended period of binging on Radiohead, I found myself delving deep into the untapped end of the British rock spectrum: the London punk rock trio Big Joanie. They also happen to be an all-Black, all-female group.

There’s something hypnotic and mantra-like about “New Year,” the opening track from their 2018 debut Sistahs: “It’s a new year / And I’m still here / It’s a new day / I’ll be OK,” frontwoman and guitarist Stephanie Phillips intones over Estella Adeyeri’s ominous bass lines and Chardine Taylor-Stone’s jagged drumming, in all of its discordant glory. The track, and pretty much the rest of its parent album, greatly endeared to me despite (or perhaps because of) its rudimentary quality.

I had spent the past couple of years luxuriating in dense lyricism and intricate songwriting; unwittingly, something more direct and simple yet rowdy and chaotic seemed to be just the antidote that my psyche needed in the thick of my mental turmoil.

Much has been said and written about how rock music is indeed Black music, but it does seem to me that, aside from the obvious, long-deceased, oft-regurgitated talking point, there hasn’t been a lot of reckoning with contemporary Black rock artists, even in the age of identity politics. Making matters worse, rock music simply hasn’t enjoyed the cultural cachet it used to bask in at least until the tail end of the 2000s.

The year 2021 was a primary showcase. In the space of fewer than two months, Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith released new albums (the former’s debut, the latter’s fourth but first foray into a full-on rock sound).

We know how things turned out for both artists. Sure, Rodrigo may be of Filipino descent but her entire shtick is textbook White adolescent wholesomeness (lest we forget her Disney background!) and as such, was able to appeal to wider demographics, specifically those more accustomed to her brand of wholesomeness. 

Inevitably, this stood in stark contrast to Willow’s Black girl cool. Never mind that she’s the offspring of a Hollywood power couple (one of whom formed and fronted an all-Black nu metal band in Willow’s formative years), had her record backed by 00s-era mall punk vanguards Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne, and, most importantly, made the better record, a more authentic and out-and-out “emo revival” than Rodrigo’s Sour — a collection of mostly limp, downtempo pop ballads — was lauded to be.

Sour debuted at the summit of the Billboard 200 and became the year’s longest-reigning number-one album by a female artist, while Willow’s Lately I Feel Everything peaked at #46 and didn’t linger for long on the same chart. It’s not just the commercial reception either — the number of publications that reviewed Sour was over twice more than that which ran reviews on Everything. Also, where was all the meme-generating, breathless geriatric millennial fawning over Willow?

***

Listening to Sistahs and its 2022 follow-up Back Home had me pondering: For a revolutionary musical act, why isn’t Big Joanie getting more high-profile coverage? Why aren’t they gaining mainstream traction like their all-White contemporaries such as Wolf Alice and Wet Leg? More importantly, why do the race and identity of non-White musicians in rock always come before the actual content of their music?

“Recognizing white people as individuals while acknowledging nonwhite people only in relation to collectives is a hallmark of racism across all areas of culture: You could argue that the entire history of white supremacy rests upon it,” remarks Jack Hamilton. Similarly, a persistent exotification of non-White individuals in predominantly or historically White spaces despite their incontestable excellence figure as well.

Kele Okereke could readily attest to this. As the frontman and main songwriter of the indie rock outfit Bloc Party, he has written some of the most thoughtful and emotionally resounding songs in modern indie rock.  And yet, during the group’s mid-Noughties rise to stardom, he was constantly asked “what it felt like to be a black musician making indie music – the subtext always being that this was not a genre for the likes of people like me.” 

“When Bloc Party started, we were told that things would be hard for us because indie rock was a predominantly straight white male world, so we were as surprised as any that our records charted and our tours sold out,” Okereke writes. “We realized that the fans of music didn’t seem to have a problem with the color of my skin or sexual orientation, it was rock journalists, always white male rock journalists that seemed to have an issue with it.”

Okereke’s “quiet, queer” revolution did not exactly come without precedence. Before Bloc Party — whose original lineup also included British-Chinese drummer Matt Tong, all the more resonant given the unbearably White indie rock landscape of the 2000s — Skin, who fronted the 90s British rock trailblazer Skunk Anansie, was raging against those who “intellectualized her blackness.” Before her, Tanita Tikaram entranced the Brits with her mystical, bewitching ode to entering adulthood. These acts’ lineage can be traced all the way back to Joan Armatrading and Labi Siffre, all of whom are far from being vaunted in the grand scheme of British rock. (Interestingly, American iconoclasts have shown more appreciation for the latter two.)

“The world of indie rock is a world that prides itself on fetishisation: bands refer to bands past, who in turn referred to bands past, from the Beatles to Oasis to the Arctic Monkeys, everything is part of a lineage,” argues Okereke. “Rock music is one of the few areas in music where it seems diversity is not to be encouraged. Can anyone remember the last time a major British music magazine put a non-white face on its cover?”

***

In the US, things do not seem to greatly differ either.

“Even now, when Black artists manage to break into the indie realm, they are often misunderstood and measured by a different standard than their white peers,” observes Matthew James-Wilson. “The often misleading economics at play in the white-dominated, do-it-yourself narrative of independent music, as well as a segregated understanding of genre, feed into the systemic racism that has long plagued indie culture.”

Take Shamir as an example. Despite originally starting out as a dance-leaning act (at the height of the mid-2010s queer pop boom to boot) with 2015’s Ratchet, he abruptly switched gears to abrasive, skeletal punk rock to muted, if not largely non-existent, critical reception. “My influences lie more in things that aren’t pop, like punk and post-punk and rock music and grunge and all that. I wanted to get to a point where I could combine all that but still make it modern and accessible,” he reasons.

And that’s exactly what Shamir has been doing over the course of seven albums, including last year’s gobsmackingly lacerating Heterosexuality, a record replete with personal manifestos in the vein of “I don’t wanna be a girl / I don’t wanna be a man / I’m just existing on this God-forsaken land” over big drums, shrieking guitars, and of course, those towering vocals (see also: the delicious call-outs of 2017’s “Straight Boy”) — all of which were either self-released or released on small labels, none of which have managed to reach even a modicum of Ratchet’s indie-sized success.

On the other hand, there’s Shungudzo. Having been active in the music industry since the early 2010s, she has written songs for Little Mix and The Chainsmokers, among others, prior to the release of her debut LP I’m not a mother, but I have children in 2021. Tackling pressing modern-day themes (interracial dating, police brutality, America’s inherent racism, et al.) over hooky melodies and guitars and drums galore. I consider Mother to be the best protest album of our times, but it’s a wonder if you even heard about it in the first place – its immediate pop sensibilities and sexy talking points aside, the record flew under the radar of esteemed music publications despite being championed by the likes of Zane Lowe and Samantha Bee.

Often times it does seem to boil down to what I like to call “canonized coolness,” with standards long tainted “by sexism, racism, homophobia and mythology that largely served to bolster their authority” as Jessica Hopper astutely puts it. As decades-long socialization goes, a White rocker’s magnetism is essentially only rivaled by a Black rapper’s swag in dictating the ultimate cool — and it’s not just any White rocker or Black rapper either; to embody the ultimate cool, said rocker or rapper is preferably male and heterosexual. 

Taken in the context of race alone, what does it say about our culture when a White rapper is the most commercially successful rapper of all time, once again in a genre born and raised by Black people? To put things into perspective, when it comes to rock music, arguably no Black (or indeed, any non-White) solo act or group comes close to the sales figures let alone the global impact of The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

Further problems arises when Black artists perform music that’s traditionally deemed non-Black (e.g. rock music): aside from not quite being embraced by White media and public, their own people might brand them a traitor (yes, not even Lizzo is immune to this characterization), or worse, render their existence unacknowledged altogether.

***

So what do we do after learning about this? I am of the staunch belief that decolonizing is as much communal and structural as it is cerebral and personal. In other words, it starts with the mind

“When we talk about decolonization, we are making an effort to think and articulate the results of colonization we want to dismantle without saying what should replace a colonized existence,” argues Steven Newcomb. “Yet where is the clear image of a decolonized society we are to emulate? There isn’t one. Yet if we are to free ourselves, we need practical steps.”

As music listeners, buyers, and fans, I believe that we are as responsible to dismantle colonialist states of mind and practices as the players within the music industry ecosystem (artist, label, management, press, awarding body, etc.), and it could start as simple as just listening to as many Black artists in rock music as possible — and they are in no short supply either.

You don’t even have to dig into your parents’ record collection and start obsessing over, say, Jimi Hendrix and Tina Turner or Lenny Kravitz and Tracy Chapman (although it would be cool if you did!). Simply going beyond the social media and streaming algorithms would immediately help you discover that in the past couple of years alone, there have been incredible releases by acts like Nova Twins, Melissa Laveaux, MorMor, Fousheé, KennyHoopla, Arlo Parks, Yves Tumor, Special Interest, Meet Me @ The Altar, and countless others. 

“Is music streaming making listeners smarter or complacent?” asked an article in 2018. Five years down the line, the answer does indeed point to the latter. Then again, it must be argued, were the masses any less complacent in the heyday of MTV, CDs, magazines, and terrestrial radio? 

Huffing and puffing aside (and yes, streaming services absolutely need to get on with fairer pay for artists), I do believe smartness is as much a choice as complacency. Apps are merely tools, how we use the tools is what truly matters at the end of the day.

I, for one, listen to bodies of work instead of playlists on Spotify or Apple Music as a matter of principle, doing so while reading the lyrics, perusing the artist’s and the album’s Wikipedia pages, and browsing their latest promotional interviews. If anything, streaming services have made it far easier for me to discover and learn about artists in ways that would have been unimaginable in the physical release era.

There are so many ways beyond listening to support an artist too: Buy their releases on Bandcamp (or on physical, if they still put those out). Go to their gigs. Purchase their merch. Recommend them to your nearest and dearest. Post their music on your social media. Really, only going ga-ga over their latest looks or reinvention in a tokenistic, virtue-signaling spirit does not cut it anymore. 

If we’re serious about visibility, representation, and ultimately equality, I believe we must demand more from ourselves as the music-listening public and exert the same energy for the very people that we allegedly wish to be more visible, more represented, and more equal as we do for the Olivia Rodrigos of the world. 

Just as I do not need Beyoncé to be my beacon of queer dancefloor escapism (especially when actual queer artists put out excellent records in their own right), we as a culture can — and should — look beyond what’s force-fed to us by the mainstream and never stop fostering our sense of curiosity and justice, even in our musical enjoyment. 

Similar to how these rockers refuse to be boxed in by their race and dare to exist and thrive in a system that’s hell-bent on making them “the other,” it is imperative that we stop boxing them in and othering them to begin with. Now plug in that aux cord and crank the volume all the way up.

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