How can you call something “BlakRoc” when the black folks on the project only rap and the rockers are all white?
BlakRoc is the name of Damon Dash’s upcoming project, a collaboration between white rockers The Black Keys and rappers such as Mos Def, Q-Tip, Ludacris, and Raekwon, to name a few. Ordinarily, I could care less what Damon Dash does. But in choosing this name for the project, he crossed a line: You can’t match black rappers and white rockers and call it “BlakRoc.”
No, BlakRoc has nothing to do with black rock, something I’ve spent nearly the last three years championing on my blog. The conflation of the two is offensive. There’s too much history there. It’s like he’s acknowledging the existence of black rock with his middle finger.
“BlakRoc” is a slap in the face to those of us who have been working to develop audiences for black artists who don’t fit neatly into pre-conceived categories. It’s an affront to those of us who still face apathy and dismissiveness when it comes to the place of blacks in beyond hip hop and R&B.
It’s galling, too, coming on the heels of Dash’s former partner, Jay-Z, saying bands like Grizzly Bear were going to push hip hop. Some hipsters are going to save hip hop? Great. Statements like this ignore all of the black artists who are embracing live music, forming bands, telling more substantive stories, and the audiences who are supporting black alternative music in growing numbers. That’s going to force hip hop to evolve.
Truthfully, however, I shouldn’t be surprised that someone like Dash, himself a champion of hip hop’s “arrogant opulence,” would come up with such an ahistorical name for a project. I can only assume that it’s an opportunity for Dash to leverage the halo of his former association with Roc A Fella in order to get back into the music game. But it’s boneheaded.
Does Dash even know what black rock means? The term dates back nearly 25 years to the founding of the Black Rock Coalition. It signifies that rock music was never the sole province of white, male expression. There were always other people in the mix, as exemplified by the many bands, artists and supporters -- male and female -- who comprise the growing ranks of the Black Rock Coalition, Afro-Punk, URB Alt and Ghetto Metal communities. The term never applies to white bands.
Even worse, Dash is late to getting on the rock tip. The cultural shift that’s pushing black rock off the fringes and towards the mainstream has been underway for a while now. Nearly three years ago The New York Times (re)discovered the black indie rock community. Subsequent to that the musical Passing Strange went to Broadway and won a Tony Award. What’s more: The Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn attracts 30,000 people each year; TV On The Radio’s Dear Science was named 2008 Album of The Year by both SPIN and Rolling Stone; and the black indie milieu is used as a setting for film (Barry Jenkins’ celebrated Medicine for Melancholy) and a novel (Farai Chideya’s Kiss The Sky). And all of this is on top of the hundreds of black rock bands nationally and internationally who represent a fuller spectrum of black music.
Here are my politics: When you have the chance to move the needle forward for African Americans, you do it. If Dash was looking to stay in the lo-fi, break-friendly, blues-rock zone, why not take the opportunity to shine a spotlight on Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, The Soul of John Black, Three5Human, or Earl Greyhound? These artists have been keeping the blues alive for years, but have hardly been given the critical support they deserve. And how hot would it be to bring the 11 rappers on this project together with, say, blues legend Buddy Guy? But that requires vision, not just opportunism.
Should we hold the artists involved in the project accountable? This is a tricky area. Artists are always looking for outlets for their creativity. For most of the rappers on this project, I assume this was one of the few times they got to work with live musicians. Also, this project probably exposes both the rappers and the Black Keys to audiences they might not otherwise reach. This is all good.
But the way the skewed media tastemaking machine works, this project will only serve as further proof of the Black Keys’ artistry. The fact is, given all the critical acclaim they’ve received, they certainly didn’t “need” the burn they’re going to get from being associated with this project. I look at them at them in an historical context and see another example of white artists who rode the blues to successful careers, even stardom. Think the White Stripes, the Black Crowes, even as far back as The Rolling Stones. The gushing is already underway: “A new age of possibility,” crows a writer on the URB blog. Whatever.
It’s straight up cowardice that the music media willfully ignores the existence of what the name of this project calls up when it's the big elephant in the room.
But you’ll think for yourself, won’t you? If you want to find out what’s real, growing and vibrant in black rock, join the Black Rock Coalition and URB Alt communities online, check out the 20-city Afro-Punk tour that kicks off this week, or just go out and support any of the hundreds of black rock artists across the country who are making engaging and exciting music right now.
The BlakRoc Project will probably do well. But it won’t be worthy of its name.