Race, Politics, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

The complex and often problematic identities associated with modern music

Classic rock is “the music that defined a generation”—and that rock and roll came to be defined as white is little contested. Within the music community, it’s often contrasted to soul music, defined as black, of that same era. Rock and roll has become the music of white suburban dads reminiscing about the good ol’ days; it spiraled out of the blues and R&B, both non-white musical traditions whose fundamental importance to the genre of rock has largely been lost. Coldplay’s  “Hymn for the Weekend” uses an Indian backdrop to help sell a song that was intended to be a Western club hit, and that doesn’t speak at all to the cultural dynamics its video includes. Rock and roll’s issue can be understood as the reverse: rather than appropriating a cultural aesthetic for use in a song far removed from it, rock music, in its popularized form, has failed to acknowledge its non-white roots even as it utterly depends on them. This is not less but actually more problematic. While “Hymn for the Weekend” can exist as a record without the Mumbai-based music video, rock and roll would not and will not ever exist but for the influence of black artists in the early 1900s.

Illustration by Charlotte Wall

Unfortunately, the rock problem is more than one of attribution. Giving due credit to its African-American origins might resolve the issue in an academic sense—if appropriation can be viewed as a form of plagiarism—but music is more than intellectual property. The music we listen to both defines and is defined by the people we interact with, the restaurants we go to, the games we play, the food we eat, the things we do in our free time. In this sense, it’s a cultural identity. By listening to music, we assert something about ourselves, claim a sort of belonging in the culture the music represents. You, too, can enjoy Bollywood magic, or, in this case, hippie experience, for just $9.99!

So what happens when we buy in? What if, in the case of rock and roll, you’re a nostalgic white teenager consuming a commodified liberal identity of radical politics and free-spiritedness, claiming to belong within a group of people from decades ago, most of whom are now politically moderate middle-aged parents with desk jobs. To top it all off, the genre of music you’re using to claims this undeniably white identity was actually a product of black artists who were brushed under the rug even as those who replaced them sang about justice and equality. Meanwhile, Jimi Hendrix himself was judged during his career, as a recent Slate article put it, “by many as a fraud or sellout, his blackness rendering his music as inauthentically rock at the same time that his music rendered his person as inauthentically black—”despite the fact that rock music was black before it was white. Yikes.

The same can be said about much of what CC students hold dear: when we listen to ‘70s on 7 in the lift line at Breckenridge, we reaffirm rock and roll’s association with whiteness via skiing, and we reaffirm the link between one of the least diverse sports today and whiteness, via rock and roll. When we jump around in mud puddles at Blues and Shoes, we project ourselves into an idealized image of communal simplicity that is far from our unsustainable lives and fails to engage with the realities of rural Appalachia.

On the other hand, I love listening to ‘70s on 7 in the lift line at Breckenridge. I love Blues and Shoes, and I think dancing barefoot is wholesome and inclusive and mind-clearing. Also, I really love classic rock, not just in an effort to identify with 60s counterculture but simply in awe at the beauty of its lyrics and power of its sound. For that matter, I’d say the same about Kendrick Lamar—yet, in listening to his albums, I may be claiming a culture that also is not my own.

It comes back to superficiality. When rock and roll is said to have “defined a generation,” we think of radicalism and political upheaval—we think of young hippies dreaming of love and equality. What comes to mind is not redlining, riots over busing and school desegregation, the perpetuation of white privilege from the early 1900s into today’s world. When we associate rock with revolution, it’s about peace and psychedelics. Lost is the not-peaceful but nonetheless legitimate calls for Black Power. Overshadowed is the fact that these young white hippies were and are entrenched in a system created to benefit the, ignoring the heritage of the music they purport to own.

As Jack Hamilton wrote in Slate, “Rock and roll became white in large part because of stories people told themselves about it, stories that have come to structure the way we listen to an entire era of sound.” In this sense, this difference between cultural engagement and cultural appropriation comes when ownership is claimed; when something ceases to be a dialogue and instead becomes a monologue, with one culture redefining what used to be another. The challenge to both rock listeners and rap listeners, then, is to continue to listen, rather than simply speak—to borrow instead of steal.



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