This article is adapted from Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.
In January of 1973‚Äîthe 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‚ÄîHarper‚Äôs magazine published an essay by future Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson titled ‚ÄúRipping Off Black Music.‚Äù 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs ‚Äúdream‚Äù 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs ‚Äúsound‚Äù is retroactively invented by a Van Halen‚Äìobsessed white teenager. By 2011, when a popular New York ‚Äúclassic rock‚Äù radio station held a listener poll to determine the ‚ÄúTop 1,043‚Äù songs of all time, only 22‚Äîroughly 2 percent‚Äîwere recordings by black artists, and 16 of those 22 were by the late Jimi Hendrix (the ‚ÄúJimi‚Äù of Jefferson‚Äôs dream), the lone black performer whose place in rock music hagiography is entirely secure.
Jefferson‚Äôs words were accurate, and it‚Äôs tempting to call them prophetic, but they weren‚Äôt: Jefferson‚Äôs nightmare had in fact come true before she wrote her article, even before ‚Äúthe night Jimi died.‚Äù When Hendrix died in 1970, one prominent obituary pointedly described him as ‚Äúa black man in the alien world of rock,‚Äù and throughout Hendrix‚Äôs tragically brief stardom the guitarist‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äî‚Äúalien‚Äù‚Äîin a way that would have been inconceivable for Chuck Berry only a short while earlier.