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The True Story of Rock and Roll: How Whitewashing Let Down the Black Voice

Black musicians built rock ‘n’ roll. 

Without men like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, rock ‘n’ roll would be nothing. Little Richard–“a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll whose fervent shrieks, flamboyant garb, and joyful, gender-bending persona embodied the spirit and sound of that new art form” (Rolling Stone Magazine); Chuck Berry–“the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll” (as proclaimed by Bob Dylan). It’s thanks to these men that rock ‘n’ roll exists in all its guitar-driven, raw, revolutionary glory. They are the core of rock ‘n’ roll. 

All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry

Leonard Cohen

And yet, rock ‘n’ roll has mutated over the years into an almost entirely white genre of music. Though the history of rock is undeniably the history of black musicianship, the genre has somehow forsaken the same people that created it. 

But, why? Here’s a theory. Appropriating the R&B sounds of black musicians like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Ike Turner, white musicians like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones garnered mainstream acclaim, and in doing so, became the standard against which every subsequent rock ‘n’ roll band was compared to and tried to live up to. Instead of seeing men that looked like themselves achieving popular success with rock ‘n’ roll, little black boys saw men that looked like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. This, in turn, depicted rock’s role in pop culture as a role to be fulfilled by white men, and that’s who was inspired to try to pave their own way in the genre. And it’s for this reason that I’d need twenty hands to count the number of white rock bands since the genre’s inception in the 1950s, but would only need two hands to count the number of black rock bands since that same time. With few exceptions, most notably Jimi Hendrix, rock ‘n’ roll was, and continues to be, saturated with white musicians. Essentially, when Elvis Presley and then the Rolling Stones became the face of rock ‘n’ roll, the face of rock ‘n’ roll became white.

Adopting and copying the musical style, the persona, and the dance moves from Little Richard, Elvis Presley set the stage for what would become mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. He was slick, he was rebellious, and he was the hardest rock act the 1950s had seen hit the mainstream. He inspired lust in girls and envy in boys, becoming the epitome of the rock icon we still know today. 

 If Elvis set the stage for rock ‘n’ roll,  the Rolling Stones cemented it. When the Rolling Stones—a group of good looking, white, British men–came onto the musical scene, they became rock ‘n’ roll. Since they began, the Stones have been vocal about their love for black rock musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and with this love came inspiration. The Stones incorporated the sounds coined by Berry and Little Richard and turned them into the sound that the mainstream recognizes as rock ‘n’ roll. But though the Stones always made known their respect and love for their black predecessors, their own earth-shattering fame is one of the reasons that rock ‘n’ roll became a white genre. The byproducts of black R&B artists before them, the Stones’ rebellious attitudes and rebellious sound became the definition of rock ‘n’ roll. 

But their sound was not only black-influenced–it was black-backed. The Rolling Stones, for all their attempts to respect and integrate black musicians, failed at truly paying due respect to the black, female backup singers they so relied upon. Take their song ”Gimme Shelter” as an example. With lyrics discussing rape, war, and violence, the song leaves a lasting impact, largely due to the vocals of Merry Clayton, the black female backup singer. Without her, the song would never have been the impactful, successful hit it is. But despite her integral role in the song, she remains unknown in the mainstream. “Gimme Shelter” is one of the Stones’ greatest songs, and yet, Clayton has received no accolades, no attention, and no mainstream success. And sadly, Clayton is just one of many, many black female backup singers who find themselves robbed of the appreciation and respect they deserve. Because they are not white and they are not men, they have no place as individual artists in rock ‘n’ roll.

Merry Clayton

The appropriation from white musicians expanded beyond just sound and into the realms of image and persona as well, quickly turning appropriation into monopolization. As greats like Little Richard and Chuck Berry planted the first seeds of rock ‘n’ roll in a pre-Civil Rights era, they faced the prejudices and racism that all black men at that time faced; they were viewed as dangerous, womanizing, unsavory, inferior. Guilty by association, their music came to represent these things too. It was these prejudices, underscored by their skin color, that made it impossible for men like Little Richard and Chuck Berry to attain mainstream success. But when a handsome, white man like Elvis Presley came along, these same prejudices that kept black men down helped prop Presley up. Dubbed the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Presley was considered rebellious, sexual, and dangerous–but not so dangerous as to be unmarketable. No; instead, the women swooned over him, the men idolized him, and rock ‘n’ roll suddenly had not just a sound, but an image, a persona, and a way of life. Each of these things that came to define the genre were derivations–if not exact copies–of the sounds, images, and personas of black musicians, but whereas the preconceived notion of a rock ‘n’ roll way of life relegated black musicians to the status of second class citizens, it propelled white musicians to stardom. 

Part of the reason white rock musicians were successful in monopolizing the negative preconceptions that plagued black rock musicians is because they were safe to do so. Though it was met with some criticism, when Elvis inspired mobs of screaming girls, it was predominantly accepted because he was, after all, white. When Elvis sexualized his performance through dancing (even earning the nickname Elvis the Pelvis), it was more or less okay. When the Rolling Stones trashed hotel rooms and were involved in a highly-publicized drug bust, they reaffirmed their reputation as bad boys, without jeopardizing their careers and fame. All of this points to one thing: for white men, all could be forgiven. Everything could be accepted. But had black men like Little Richard and Chuck Berry performed to crowds of screaming young white girls and used the same moves Elvis did, or had they trashed hotel rooms and been caught with drugs, they would have been lynched. This allowed for more than just the commoditization of bad behavior and the idea of the bad boy rock star, it allowed the music itself to flourish. While black rock ‘n’ rollers had to exercise constant caution in their performances, their personas, and their actions, both public and private, white rock ‘n’ rollers had all the freedom in the world to do whatever they wanted and focus all their attention on making music. They were free to experiment, to test different sounds, different performances, different record deals, in ways that black musicians were not. This didn’t just give white musicians an edge over their black competitors, it gave them dominance. 

Despite this societally and industry-condoned dominance, a handful of black rock ‘n’ rollers managed to break into the mainstream and achieve the success and respect they deserved. The most obvious among these is Jimi Hendrix, the indisputable guitar god. Performing to the love children of the 1960s–if you’ve seen any shots of Woodstock, you know they’re all white–Hendrix stood as the sole black man in the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream. Though he was adored and embraced by legions of white fans, his performance and musical prowess never transcended his race; rather, everything he did was infused with his race. When Hendrix performed his earth-shattering rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, he did it as a black man. His America was not his fans’ America. When he famously covered Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” he did it from his perspective as a black man. Hendrix stood out in the rock ‘n’ roll industry in a way that no other musician at that time could: he stood out as the sole black musician in rock ‘n’ roll, whose psychedelic, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll was imbued with the sounds of the black musicians before him. 

Jimi Hendrix, San Francisco, CA 1968 by Baron Wolman

With Hendrix’s devastating and untimely death, rock ‘n’ roll was left a genre barren of black musicians. And though those who’ve come after him are prominent, they are few. There’s Living Colour, who made themselves known for their hard rock song “Cult of Personality,” and for their presence in a rock ‘n’ roll genre that had been devoid of black musicians since Hendrix. There’s Prince, who some might label as pop, but those some have clearly never seen him wail on the guitar in his performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” There’s Lenny Kravitz, whose smooth, stylish sound is about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets. There’s Death, whose fusion of punk and classic rock is shamefully underrated. And today, there’s Gary Clark Jr., whose bluesy rock ‘n’ roll is a welcome addition to a musical landscape that hasn’t valued rock in quite some time. 

NPR

They are the proud and the few. These men–Living Colour, Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Death, Gary Clark Jr.–are carrying on the legacy of Little Richard, of Chuck Berry, of Ike Turner, of Jimi Hendrix. They are carrying on the legacy of the black musicians who came before them; the black musicians that were excluded from popular success on the basis of their skin color; the black musicians who saw the music they created be overtaken, popularized, and commercialized by white musicians who didn’t face the racism, the prejudices, and the unfair standards of an unjust world; the black musicians who would be proud to see black musicians like themselves achieve success in a whitewashed genre; the black musicians to whom we owe everything we love about music.