Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race

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Press:Duke Univ Pr Duke University Press Books (June 23, 2004)
Publication Date:2004-6
ISBN:9780822333173
Author Name:Mahon, Maureen E.
Pages:312
Language:English

Content

The original architects of rock ’n’ roll were black musicians including Little Richard, Etta James, and Chuck Berry. 
Jimi Hendrix electrified rock with his explosive guitar in the late 1960s.
Yet by the 1980s, rock music produced by African Americans no longer seemed to be “authentically black.” Particularly within the music industry, the prevailing view was that no one—not black audiences, not white audiences, and not black musicians—had an interest in black rock.
In 1985 New York-based black musicians and writers formed the Black Rock Coalition (brc) to challenge that notion and create outlets for black rock music.
A second branch of the coalition started in Los Angeles in 1989.
Under the auspices of the brc, musicians organized performances and produced recordings and radio and television shows featuring black rock.
The first book to focus on the brc, Right to Rock is, like the coalition itself, about the connections between race and music, identity and authenticity, art and politics, and power and change.
Maureen Mahon observed and participated in brc activities in New York and Los Angeles, and she conducted interviews with more than two dozen brc members.
In Right to Rock she offers an in-depth account of how, for nearly twenty years, members of the brc have broadened understandings of black identity and black culture through rock music.

From the Back Cover

"Maureen Mahon's "Right to Rock" presents a fascinating description of the meaning of rock music for black artists and audiences. 
Devoted to a form of commercialized leisure for which they are not the target demographic, these committed musicians and listeners write themselves into a story from which they have largely been excluded.
Important as a study of a fascinating cultural practice, "Right to Rock" also makes indispensable contributions to our understanding of larger issues about both the fixity and the fluidity of market categories and social identities."--George Lipsitz, author of "American Studies in a Moment of Danger"

About the Author

Maureen Mahon is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the African American Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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  •     Elvis is Black-or at least everything about his legacy is. Rock is not only black, but black rockers are also white; the problem of sales in the Black Rock industry is not the...
  •     . When we think of rock `n' roll, the first image that comes to mind is the white male guitarist, or the iconic Led Zeppelin. Ironically, it was not this credited white male who invented rock 'n' roll in the 1940's and 1950's, but southern black artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. It is still debated how large of a role these black artists had in revolutionizing the music industry through the introduction of rock. After the death of Jimi Hendrix, a rock legend, black rock music disappeared from the mainstream. In the post-civil rights era, white Americans popularized rock music, and the culture became associated with white aesthetics rather than black. Throughout the past few decades, the music industry has made it inconceivable to embrace black rocker music into mainstream pop culture. During the 1980's black rock musicians and listeners were ostracized by society for falling out of the black mainstream and norm, and were classified as not being `black enough'. In order to survive in the industry, many black musicians were forced to reconstruct their music and tastes based on the racial identities that existed in society. In 1985 Greg Tate, Konda Mason, and Vernon Reid, became aware of this unfortunate situation and founded the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) in New York City, and in Los Angeles in 1989. In the book Right to Rock, cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon takes an ethnographic approach by observing and participating in the proactive organization and role of the BRC. She states, "Their goal in forming the organization was to bring together musicians and their supporters so they could begin to address the music industry's resistance to black rock (pg. 7)." In order to expand the stereotypes of black identity, the BRC further expressed the idea that black rock was anything but an oxymoron. Members of the BRC were mainly middle-class college educated African-American men and women between the ages of twenty and forty. It was common for a BRC member to have experienced integration in their schools during the 1960's and 1970's. As a result, their musical tastes were `culturally contaminated' by non-blacks in their environment. They integrated this wider perspective of music into their own practices, and enjoyed the same musical tastes of some of their white peers. Unfortunately, black rockers were marginalized by producers, record companies, and whites, for not being `black enough'. Mahon explains this choice of `staying true' to one's blackness and the dilemma in producing a crossover album: "Many black artists and audiences see crossover as a choice that requires crossing out aspects of one's blackness to gain mainstream pop chart visibility (pg. 158)." In 1988, MTV aired a song from the black rock band, Living Colour. Many BRC members were discouraged by their success because it was a result of British rock star Mick Jagger, who persuaded Epic records to sign the band. Mahon added, "Most disturbing for BRC members was the fact that a white star had to validate a black band before it could gain recognition (156)." Unfortunately, the group's success was limited and their acceptance never accumulated in mainstream black culture. Even more, these rockers were recognized by other blacks for neglecting their racial roots. In the context of the post-civil rights movement and the racism that continually persisted, many blacks began to emphasize their differences from whites. The author notes that "this process fixed the meaning of black and set the terms of post-civil rights era notions of black authenticity (pg. 117)." Members of the BRC avoided the identities established by this movement and challenged the assumptions of rock and race. They promoted bands such as Bad Brains, Living Colour, and Fishbone, by resourcefully creating venues and opportunities in clubs and bars in New York City for bands to gain exposure and generate a fan base. They not only sponsored events, but they provided outlets for black musicians to produce CDs, expose themselves in newsletters and radio shows, and popularize their message by `word of mouth'. Instead of attacking the institution that had excluded blacks in the rock world, they decided to create their own genre. The coalition discussed a myriad of issues during their meetings each week and allowed people from different backgrounds a chance to voice concerns and organize resolutions for change. One of the most salient issues that Mahon voiced throughout her book was the strict assumption on what constituted authentic black music. Black authenticity is commonly associated with the ethics of the working-class. Lower-class blacks ostracized middle-class blacks because they were seen as neglecting their true blackness by assimilating into white culture. Mahon describes this dilemma when she says "on the one hand their blackness limited full acceptance by whites in situations where integration did not eliminate racialization...some blacks felt that their association with what was perceived to be white institutions and practices compromised their blackness (pg. 58)." Black rockers are torn by the idea of a `double-consciousness' and are constantly questioned about their true identity. As a result of this double-consciousness they are forced to justify themselves because they do not fall under the normal characterizations of black or white. Another important issue that Mahon touches upon is the paradox of black authenticity, or society's `anxiety of influence'. Blacks and whites, in trying to build their `cultural capital', too often forget that culture is learned. They overlook the fact that one's identity is influenced by other races, cultures, and ideas. The author strongly states, "One is black not simply because of ancestry or phenotype but because of practice and consciousness...This perspective reminds us that blackness is created, enacted, and produced through the choices we make (pg. 11)." Black and white authenticities are not exclusive from one another. Black rockers have accepted their multicultural existence and claim their blackness to be defined by more than one race. There is no way to classify black music, and what is authentic cannot be over-generalized within a society. Black rockers questioned the stereotypes of both white rock and black mainstreams and created their own forms of identity through rock music. Throughout Right to Rock, Maureen Mahon effectively uses the Black Rock Coalition to emphasize how society places stereotypical restrictions on groups of people that hold a similar position of race, class, gender, religion, and culture. This book is a profound research study to explore how the BRC redefined the appropriateness of black music. It clearly demonstrates how race has little determination in an individual's musical preference. As the book unfolds, the author brings to surface the limitations of black aesthetics in social, political, and economic contexts.
  •     after reading Maureen Mahon's Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, you will realize, just as I have, that Professor Mahon's work is every bit as much about economics as it is about rock and race. The book is a cleverly crafted critique of the cultural, political, and economic confines that plague African American rock artists and prevent them from achieving success. Mahon not only reveals the pulse of the African American rock scene in the Black Rock Coalition, but also paints a poignant portrait of the business practices that shape the decision-making processes of the major production companies in the United States.Early in her study Mahon defines the term "cultural capital" as "knowledge, influence, and power based on cultural rather than economic resources." (42) This concept appears time and again throughout Mahon's work, and is especially highlighted by her interviewees who constantly refer to an increased emphasis on the importance and necessity for African American's to have the essence of blackness. Blackness is not solely defined by race, but also by persona - by style and poise, by culture and pride, by language and expression. Blackness does not have to include a passion for rap or hip-hop, and likewise does not have to exclude an interest in rock `n' roll. In fact, as Mahon reminds us, "Rock `n' roll's original architects were African Americans like Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Chuck Berry." (7) Thus it becomes apparent that blackness, as most see it today, is a skewed version of its reality - it need not come attached to a particular style of music or a particular way of life - it is engrained in the diversities of the African American mores and serves to provide them with the cultural capital that has become a necessary means to success within the supposedly neo-liberal society of the United States.When questioned by her grandmother about what she had been working on, Mahon responded that she was writing about blacks who were being denied the right to play rock. To this, her grandmother responded, "But Maureen, I thought rock `n' roll was black. Isn't Chuck Berry rock `n' roll?" (92) Herein Mahon obviates the transformation that has taken place not only regarding black music, but how varieties of music are percieved along different racial lines. Why has this occurred? Mahon's study, while not specifically answering this question, certainly offers some explanations for the racial robbery of rock `n' roll.Perhaps the most influential factor in separating black artists from recording success was the bleak economic situation of the black recording artists and the black community at large. The recording industry, like any major business in a capitalistic society, is concerned about one thing - money. This emphasis on profits eliminates the risk acceptance in the industry, thereby eliminating the possibility of an executive taking a chance on a black musician, especially a black rocker, when he can invest his time and money in a white band whose success is far more likely. Once the music video caught fire and became a necessity to any group's musical success, the likelihood of a black breakthrough seemed even less likely - once again due to the economic barriers that shut them out of success. "Black artists faced a Catch - 22: Without a video, they would have difficulty developing an audience and without the audience, they might not get the chance to produce a video." (169) Thus, for black rockers who lacked a loyal audience, the need for an outlet for their music was dire, and the result of this need was the foundation of the Black Rock Coalition. Offering an opportunity to surround oneself with people of similar passions, the BRC also served as a means to cut through the economic red tape that stifled the success of so many talented black entertainers by giving them an audience, as well as offering distribution and performance networks.The hardships that face the members of the black rock community are often not only the fault of the music industry's supply side economic conditions, but in fact are often the result of the dismal demand that exists in the marketplace for music for black rock. Black rockers are not only being ostracized by white rockers and white industry executives, but by black rappers and black industry executives as well. The reason for this is simple. To those in the music industry, black rock was not white enough to appeal to white audiences and not black enough to appeal to black audiences. So, just as MTV and Sun records shunned the black rock movement, so too did BET and Motown records who didn't think the black rockers would be received by either a white or a black audience.As classical economic doctrine has taught us, and as Mahon again reiterates in her Right to Rock, where there is no demand, there will be no supply. For this reason, it seems apparent that the role of the Black Rock Coalition should be not necessarily to increase the supply of black rockers, but instead to increase the demand for such rockers,. Through this increase in demand, a market niche will be formed and will offer an opportunity for black rockers to step up and fill the void that they have long awaited. Suddenly the music companies will be seeking out the artists, instead of the artists desperately seeking representation from the music companies. Suddenly the public will watch black rock videos, go to black rock shows, and buy black rock albums. Suddenly real possibilities replace unlikely dreams. Whether the market is one for goods or for services, cars or candy, rap or rock, a change in demand will cause a change in the market. Herein lays the key to success for the black rock community - increase the demand for black rock and the increased supply of black rock in mainstream media will surely follow.Like Living Colour demonstrated in the mid-1980's, success can be attained in the rock world even if you are African American, but even they, the supposed models of success for black rockers, were not content with what they had achieved. For this reason, among others, the Black Rock Coalition was founded, and for this reason, among others, the Black Rock Coalition still exists today. The organization cannot disappear without the appearance of distinct differences in the music industry, and specifically within the propensity for industry executives to racially classify distinct genres of music. Only once the racial emphasis has vanished from rock culture can all people, regardless of race, experience "the physicality of rock, [the way] it fills your body, reverberates inside you, and entrances you." (263) After reading Maureen Mahon's latest work, for perhaps the first time in my life, I understand that the right to rock exists not in the color of your skin or the style you do your hair - it exists in your blackness, in your whiteness, in whatever sense of pride and self-understanding guides you through the labrynth that we call life. Find that and you can find a way out of the confines of capitalism and limited market shares. Find that and you can create demand and stimulate supply for whatever it is you're selling. Find that - and you can achieve anything.

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