I have written before about how in the past I was kind of embarrassed and even a little ashamed of the fact that I was a black guy who liked hard rock ‘n’ roll music. I got over that years ago. Life is way too short to worry about things you cannot control – namely what other people think about you.
I recently saw a wonderful documentary on Netflix called “A Band Called Death.” It was about three black brothers from Detroit who in the early 1970s made a rock ‘n’ roll band called, well, Death. The protopunk music they created was unique and visionary. It is truly an inspirational and compelling story.
In the 1980s, when I was listening to heavy metal bands like Dio and Judas Priest, there were very few people who looked like me making that kind of music, much less fans attending concerts. I didn’t care. I liked what I liked.
Then in 1988, Living Colour exploded. I remember seeing the video for their song “Cult of Personality” and being blown away. Here were four guys, black like me, who got off on the same thing I did: intelligent lyrics, inventive musicianship and blaring music. I was home.
I went through a phase in the 1980s where I wore a T-shirt with the words “Rockin’ Negro” on it to concerts. It was partly to embrace who I was and partly to assure other concertgoers that the big black guy in the crowd was not a security guard, but there to enjoy the show as well.
I used to feel . . . I don’t know, less than black or something for my musical tastes. In fact, my late brother Ken would sometimes derisively call me “white boy.” I later had a friend from Oakland, who was half-black and who loved the Doobie Brothers and Elton John and other rock artists, but referred to them as, believe it or not, “forbidden music.”
Who do people think invented rock ‘n’ roll? Elvis Presley? Please.
Vernon Reid, the guitarist for Living Colour, once said that the roots of rock ‘n’ roll are undeniably black, so why shouldn’t some of the branches be? In 1985, Reid founded the Black Rock Coalition, a nonprofit with the stated purpose of creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of black alternative music. Part of the organization’s manifesto reads as follows:
“Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is black music and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and international airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.”
Last year, through Facebook, I learned about Unlocking the Truth, a band from Brooklyn, N.Y., made up of three African-American seventh-grade boys. As I watched them on YouTube blaring chunky guitar-laden rhythms and loving it, my soul was touched.
According to their website (www.unlockingthetruthband.com) their goal is to become one of the world’s best heavy metal bands and encourage their fans to be themselves and not be intimidated by what people say.
In interviews, they have talked about being bullied for their musical choices, but instead of reacting, they channel that negativity into musical creativity.
It used to anger me that white people could embrace hip-hop or soul and that was OK, but I was looked at like I was a Martian because I liked Metallica. Now, I do like many different kinds of music – funk, pop, soul, folk, hip-hop, country – but my first choice will always be music with a cranking guitar.
I still listen to bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Scorpions and Deep Purple, but you probably won’t pull up next to me at a stoplight and hear me blasting them. That’s not because I’m ashamed, it’s because I want to preserve my hearing to be able to rock on for years to come.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].