Music is universal. It is an art form with roots deeply grounded in almost every culture in the world. With Korean Pop (K-pop)’s rise in popularity, the last few years have taught people that music knows no language or nationality. No one group has a claim over a certain genre of music or the ability to gatekeep others from partaking in the production of the genre. Despite this, many people assume that black people do not and cannot enjoy Rock n’ Roll.
This belief is confusing because Black musicians played a pivotal role in the development of the rock genre we know today. Due to racial socioeconomic issues typical for the 1950s (the period in which rock music was born), the talent and genius of musicians such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry were exploited and subsequently forgotten.
As a result, a consensus was established: Rock music was a “white” genre. Both Black people and non-Black people agreed. Of course, in modern times, there is more dissent against this belief, but strands of that segregation still linger in the rock community.
Like any other genre, pinpointing the exact origin of rock ‘n roll is tricky. However, it is widely agreed among music circles that rock truly kicked off in the 50s. Gaining its influences from R&B, a music genre popular in the black community during the 40s, rock music slowly evolved into its own genre.
One pioneer of rock and a renowned rhythm-and-blues singer, Fats Domino, once said “Well, what they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues.”
Even though R&B had an influence, early rock ‘n’ rollers’ unique style made it undeniable that rock was not a modified continuum of the base genre. Chuck Berry’s (another legend) guitar licks strung together blues, hillbilly, and swing-jazz. Boogie, gospel, and jump blues frequently appear in quite a few of Little Richard’s hits. Another common trend with all three musicians, and among other influential 50s rock stars, is their identity as Black men.
For a while, Black musicians dominated the rock and roll scene. Since the rebellious genre started with R&B, it was only natural that Black people gravitated to a genre that held rhythms and riffs similar to the tones they hold dearly. As rock music spread throughout cities, so did the crowds. Eventually, it was not uncommon to see more than one race at performances. A progressive occurrence for the 50s, but period-typical racism did not let rock and roll flourish the way it could have.
With rock rising from local clubs to references in the media, more musicians began to join in. Noticeably, more white musicians like Elvis and The Rolling Stones started exploring the genre. Many theorize this moment as the transition of rock music being for the passionate to rock music for white people only.
The Kollection, a community dedicated to all things music, proposes that once white musicians started to saturate the scene, potential Black rock musicians were turned away due to lack of representation. Rather than giving credit to the core of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the media painted white rock stars as the face of rock. The latter gained mainstream attention, leaving the former in the shadows.
However, white musicians are not entirely to blame. The Rolling Stones often paid tribute to the black musicians that influenced their work. Rather, the race-based prejudice of the time influenced people’s views on rock ‘n’ roll before Presley’s debut. Rock music was labeled as sexual, dangerous, and aggressive—the same stereotypes applied to black men. Due to this black musicians did not share the same liberties as white musicians in terms of having ample time to experiment and the ability to present themselves in whatever image they wanted to. If a black man so much as whistled (or was accused of whistling) at a white woman, they risked being lynched. Presley’s gyrating hips, on the other hand, were celebrated.
In an interview with Global News, cultural critic Lisa Tomlinson spoke about Little Richard’s song ‘Tutti Frutti’ and its later popularity following Pat Boone’s, a white musician, cover. “We couldn’t have a Black man shaking his booty, the sexuality of it, or any other stereotypes associated with Blackness. Boone’s image was much more tame and family-like, much more softened, compared to Richard’s gyrations.”
She later went on to say that the record company used sexual images featuring white men to appease white people since the group had an influence on the music scene and what was considered socially acceptable.
Although white artists dominated the scene (and still do today), there are a few exceptions. Black musicians such as Prince, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz made substantial splashes in the community. One of the most notable is Jimi Hendrix, a rock legend whose race is not always included in his legacy but plays a bigger role than people know. Hendrix’s career is a good example of how both white and black people enforced the ‘Rock is for white people only’ stigma.
At the height of his career, Black radio stations refused to play his music. They viewed Hendrix as a token who rejected his Blackness to rub elbows with white people. After his Woodstock performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hendrix returned to Harlem to play a free concert for his people. Despite his kindness, fans heckled Hendrix as soon as he stepped on stage.
On the flip side, white fans applied the hypersexual stereotype onto him. It elevated his popularity, but it reduced him to just that, a stereotype. Many claimed that race did not matter to Hendrix, but it did. Regardless of his legacy, Hendrix was a Black man of the sixties and experienced life in that fashion.
After his rendition of the national anthem, the media heavily criticized him. In an interview with Dick Cavett, Hendrix reported being told about the performance last minute despite being told it was canceled numerous times. When asked about the controversy, Hendrix simply said, “I’m American, so I played it.”
At the time, many thought Hendrix had no place playing the song. These critics completely ignored the fact that Hendrix was a veteran. Due to his race as a Black man during the 60s, his service to the country was overlooked. This same situation would not have happened to a white man.
Jimi Hendrix would not have wanted to be remembered as that black musician, but he would not want his race to be erased.
Racism still influences people’s views on musicians today. Yet as society gets more progressive, more people are speaking out against the backward assumption that a genre belongs to one group of people. In doing so, they are also calling attention to pioneers like Little Richard that should have received recognition from the beginning.
The Black Rock Coalition (BRC) is a notable force in the movement. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to the creative freedom of Black artists. The group started in the fall of 1985 by guitarist Vernon Reid, journalist Greg Tate, and producer Konda Mason. BRC provides Black artists with educational resources, performance outlets, recording opportunities, and more.
Independent educating, discussion, and support of underrated Black rock musicians can change the long-standing flawed narrative. Next time you picture a rock star, try to expand your view past the standard white man.
Author Caroline Peacock, and Caroline Peacock. “The True Story of Rock and Roll: How Whitewashing Let Down the Black Voice.” The Kollection, thekollection.com/the-true-story-of-rock-and-roll-how-whitewashing-let-down-the-black-voice/.
Black Rock Coalition, blackrockcoalition.org/.
Blake, John. “How Jimi Hendrix's Race Became His 'Invisible Legacy'.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 Oct. 2014, www.cnn.com/2014/10/18/showbiz/jimi-hendrix-invisible-legacy/index.html.
Browne, David. “Little Richard, Founding Father of Rock Who Broke Musical Barriers, Dead at 87.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 31 Dec. 2020, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/little-richard-dead-48505/.
Carter, Bobby, et al. “We Insist: A Century Of Black Music Against State Violence.” NPR, NPR, 26 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/26/883334741/we-insist-a-century-of-black-music-against-state-violence.
Jancelewicz, Chris. “The 'Whitewashing' of Black Music: A Dark Chapter in Rock History.” Global News, Global News, 29 Jan. 2021, globalnews.ca/news/4321150/black-music-whitewashing-classic-rock/.
“Jimi Hendrix on Performing The National Anthem at Woodstock | The Dick Cavett Show.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGf9PTYyJ4A.
Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 4 Mar. 2020, www.rollingstone.com/feature/the-50s-a-decade-of-music-that-changed-the-world-229924
Pareles, Jon, and William Grimes. “Fats Domino, Early Rock 'n' Roller With a Boogie-Woogie Piano, Is Dead at 89.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/25/obituaries/fats-domino-89-one-of-rock-n-rolls-first-stars-is-dead.html.
Pareles, Jon. “Chuck Berry, Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer, Dies at 90.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/arts/chuck-berry-dead.html.