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Race, rock, and the Rolling Stones: How the rock and roll became white –

Race, rock, and the Rolling Stones: How the rock and roll became white

Rolling Stones

Monitor Picture Library/Photoshot/Getty Images

This article is adapted from Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.

Round Midnight

In January of 1973—the same month that the Rolling Stones were banned from touring Japan due to prior drug convictions, the same month that a band called Kiss played its first gig in Queens, and the same month that a young New Jerseyan named Bruce Springsteen released his debut album on Columbia Records—Harper’s magazine published an essay by future Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson titled “Ripping Off Black Music.” The piece was partly a broad historical overview of white appropriations of black musical forms, from blackface minstrel pioneer T.D. Rice through the current day, and partly a more personal lament over what Jefferson, a black critic, had come to see as an endless cycle of cultural plunder. The article’s most striking moment arrived in its penultimate paragraph:

The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites. Future generations, my dream ran, will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.

That Jefferson’s “dream” came true is so obvious it seems self-evident. According to anthropologist Maureen Mahon, by the mid-1970s young black musicians who wanted to play songs by Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad recalled being ridiculed by white and black peers. In July 1979 thousands of white rock fans rioted at Chicago’s Comiskey Park at the now legendary Disco Demolition Night, burning disco records in what many since have described as an anti-black, anti-gay, anti-woman, reactionary uprising. In 1985, Back to the Future featured a climactic sequence in which history is altered so that Chuck Berry’s “sound” is retroactively invented by a Van Halen–obsessed white teenager. By 2011, when a popular New York “classic rock” radio station held a listener poll to determine the “Top 1,043” songs of all time, only 22—roughly 2 percent—were recordings by black artists, and 16 of those 22 were by the late Jimi Hendrix (the “Jimi” of Jefferson’s dream), the lone black performer whose place in rock music hagiography is entirely secure.

Jefferson’s words were accurate, and it’s tempting to call them prophetic, but they weren’t: Jefferson’s nightmare had in fact come true before she wrote her article, even before “the night Jimi died.” When Hendrix died in 1970, one prominent obituary pointedly described him as “a black man in the alien world of rock,” and throughout Hendrix’s tragically brief stardom the guitarist’s race had been an incessant topic of fascination among fans of the music that had once been known as rock and roll. Even in the late 1960s, the exceptional nature of Hendrix’s race confirmed a view of rock music that was quickly rendering blackness definitively other, so much so that at the time of his death, the idea of a black man playing electric lead guitar was literally remarkable—“alien”—in a way that would have been inconceivable for Chuck Berry only a short while earlier.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967. / K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns

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