The perils of being black and liking alternative rock
Truly Indie Fans -- by JESSICA PRESSLER/NY Times
WHEN Douglas Martin first saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a teenager in High Point, N.C., “it blew my mind,” he said. Like many young people who soothe their angst with the balm of alternative rock, Mr. Martin was happy to discover music he enjoyed and a subculture where he belonged.
Except, as it turned out, he didn’t really belong, because he is black.
“For a long time I was laughed at by both black and white people about being the only black person in my school that liked Nirvana and bands like that,” said Mr. Martin, now 23, who lives in Seattle, where he is recording a folk-rock album.
But 40 years after black musicians laid down the foundations of rock, then largely left the genre to white artists and fans, some blacks are again looking to reconnect with the rock music scene.
The Internet has made it easier for black fans to find one another, some are adopting rock clothing styles, and a handful of bands with black members have growing followings in colleges and on the alternative or indie radio station circuit. It is not the first time there has been a black presence in modern rock. But some fans and musicians say they feel that a multiethnic rock scene is gathering momentum.
“There’s a level of progress in New York in particular,” said Daphne Brooks, an associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton. She was heartened last summer by the number of children of color in a class she taught at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, where kids learn to play punk-rock standards.
There is even a new word for black fans of indie rock: “blipster,” which was added to UrbanDictionary .com last summer, defined as “a person who is black and also can be stereotyped by appearance, musical taste, and/or social scene as a hipster.”
Bahr Brown, an East Harlem resident whose Converse sneakers could be considered blipster attire, opened a skateboard and clothing boutique, Everything Must Go, in the neighborhood in October, to cater to consumers who, like himself, want to dress with the accouterments of indie rock: “young people who wear tight jeans and Vans and skateboard through the projects,” he said.
“And all the kids listen to indie rock,” he said. “If you ask them what’s on their iPod, its Death Cab for Cutie, the Killers.”
A 2003 documentary, “Afropunk,” featured black punk fans and musicians talking about music, race and identity issues, and it has since turned into a movement, said James Spooner, its director. Thousands of black rock fans use Afropunk.com ’s message boards to discuss bands, commiserate about their outsider status and share tips on how to maintain their frohawk hairstyles.
“They walk outside and they’re different,” Mr. Spooner said of the Web site’s regulars. “But they know they can connect with someone who’s feeling the same way on the Internet.”
On MySpace, the trailer for Mr. Spooner’s new film, “White Lies, Black Sheep,” about a young black man in the predominantly white indie-rock scene, has been played upward of 40,000 times.
Rock was created by black artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and Elvis Presley and other white artists eventually picked up the sound. In the ’60s, teenagers were just as likely to stack their turntables with records from both white and black artists — with perhaps a little bit of Motown, another musical thread of the time, thrown in, said Larry Starr, who wrote “American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MTV,” with Christopher Waterman. But that began changing in the late ’60s. By the time Jimi Hendrix became the ultimate symbol of counterculture cool, with his wild wardrobe and wilder guitar playing, the racial divisions were evident.
Paul Friedlander, the author of “Rock and Roll: A Social History,” noted that Hendrix became popular just as the black power movement emerged. Yet his trio included two white musicians and his audience was largely white. That made him anathema to many blacks.
“To the black community he was not playing wholly African-American music,” Mr. Friedlander said, even when Hendrix formed a new all-black band.
By the early ’70s, “you began to have this very strict color line,” Mr. Starr said. Music splintered into many different directions and, for the most part, blacks and whites went separate ways. Black musicians gravitated toward genres in which they were more likely to find acceptance and lucre, such as disco, R & B and hip-hop, which have also been popular among whites.
The next few decades saw several successful and influential black musicians who crossed genres or were distinctly rock, such as Prince, Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz, and rock melodies and lyrics have been liberally sampled by hip-hop artists. But rock is still largely a genre played by white rockers and celebrated by white audiences.
THE recent attention given several bands with black members — like Bloc Party, Lightspeed Champion, and the Dears — could signify change. “Return to Cookie Mountain,” the second album by the group TV on the Radio, a band in which four of the five members are black, was on the best-album lists of many critics in 2006. Around the country, other rock bands with black members are emerging.
On an evening in December, at Gooski’s, a crowded dive bar in Pittsburgh, Lamont Thomas, sweating through a red T-shirt that read “Black Rock,” played the drums behind the lead singer Chris Kulcsar, who was flinging his skinny frame around the stage, and the guitarist Buddy Akita. The bass player, Lawrence Caswell, dreadlocked and gregarious, introduced the band, a punk quartet from Cleveland with the name This Moment in Black History.
“The funny thing is, a lot of people assume from the name that we’re just white kids being ironic,” Mr. Thomas said.
This may be because their fans, like the ones who attended the show at Gooski’s, tend to be white, although there are usually one or two people of color, Mr. Caswell said.
Nev Brown, a photographer and writer from Brooklyn, said that at the indie rock shows that he has covered for his music blog, FiddleWhileYouBurn.com , he is almost always the only black person in the room. Some fans are curious about why he is at the show and try to talk to him about it.
“And then you get idiots, like people who think you’re a security guard,” he said.
Damon Locks, a Chicago-based publicist and singer in a hardcore band called the Eternals, said he is frequently mistaken for “one of the other three black guys” in the city’s rock-music scene. “We joke about it,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about getting together and starting a band called Black People.”
That kind of isolation is one of the reasons Mr. Spooner, the documentary director, regularly showcases black and mixed-race rock bands at clubs. For a band to participate, the lead singer must be black. This caused some friction early on, he said. “A lot of white people were offended that I was saying, ‘This is for us,’ ” Mr. Spooner said on a recent evening at the Canal Room, a club in downtown Manhattan, where he was the D.J. between sets for multiethnic bands like Graykid, Martin Luther and Earl Greyhound.
But, he added: “Almost every black artist I know wants to play in front of their people. This is bigger than just rocking out or whatever.”
Mr. Thomas, of This Moment in Black History, said that white fans sometimes want to know why he is not rapping. “It’s the stupidest question,” he said.
Just as often, it is African-Americans who are judgmental. “There’s an unfortunate tendency for some black people to think if you listen to rock music or want to play rock music, you’re an Uncle Tom,” Mr. Thomas said.
LaRonda Davis, president of the Black Rock Coalition, an organization co-founded by Vernon Reid of Living Colour in the mid-80s to advocate for black rock bands, said the resistance is rooted in group-think. “Black people were forced to create a community,” she said. “We’re so protective and proud of it, like, ‘We have to protect our own,’ and why should we embrace something that has always excluded us?”
Nelson George, author of “Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Boho’s: Notes on Post-Soul Culture,” suggested that the rock ’n’ roll aesthetic had been a major deterrent. “Black kids do not want to go out with bummy clothes and dirty sneakers,” Mr. George said. “There is a psychological subtext to that, about being in a culture where you are not valued and so you have to value yourself.”
But lately, rock music, and its accouterments, are being considered more stylish. Mainstream hip-hop artists like Kelis wear Mohawks, Lil Jon and Lupe Fiasco rap about skateboarding, and “all of the Southern rap stars are into the ’80s punk look, wearing big studded belts and shredded jeans,” said Anoma Whittaker, the fashion director of Complex magazine. At the same time, the hip-hop industry’s demand for new samples has increased the number of rock songs appearing on hip-hop tracks: Jay-Z ’s latest album features contributions from Chris Martin of Coldplay and R & B artist Rihanna’s current single samples the New Wave band Soft Cell.
“Hip-hop has lost a lot of its originality,” said Mr. Brown of Everything Must Go, the East Harlem skateboard shop. “This is the new thing.”