There's A Riot Goin' On (Agin)
Who says black sisters can't rock?
by Kandia Crazy Horse
The Fugees' "reunion" opener at 2005's BET Awards, complete with erstwhile Cosmic Negress icon-turned-Afro-eccentric Lauryn Hill in Tootie-do and costumed like a Foujita painting of French clown Pierrot, may have garnered the lion's share of audience attention. However, during the few segments that the ego extravaganza could hold my attention, I more keenly noted the sartorial choices of awards hostess Mrs. Will Smith, actress/singer/clotheshorse Jada Pinkett. Her 'Frohawk, vintage fetishism worthy of a Primrose Hill hipster socialite, and tight black breeches suggested a shield against the previous weeks' scathing accusations concerning her eleventh-hour addition to this year's Ozzfest lineup. It was as if the lead singer and benefactress of the L.A.-based Wicked Wisdom was trying to aesthetically assert her countercultural bona fides and deflect such snark as MTV comparing her rock 'n soul group to Evanescence and deriding the metal-centric festival's left-field bid to "get jiggy with it."
Spurred by the rockist/sexist/racist venom online from Ozzfest veterans and assorted metalheads, "Jadagate" may ultimately prove little more than a forgotten footnote to Sharon Osbourne's relentless striving for attention. Yet this episode implies that the black roots of rock, underpinning all the genres forms including heavy metal, are still misunderstood. On the aesthetic tip, being inspired by Ani DiFranco, Prince, Tori Amos and Sevendust may not suffice to prevent Jada Pinkett Smith's rock arc from mirroring fellow thespian-turned-rumored Nashvillain Russell Crowe's (and Matrix co-star Keanu Reeves,' for that matter) --- especially when Wicked Wisdom has never even toured the US. One can understand the bile of other bands who've put in their time on the road in brokedown vans and sleeping on the couches of friends and fans towards a perceived pampered and privileged Beverly (or Baldwin) Hills wife. What is not so cool: the death threats and statements of intent to riot during Wicked Wisdom's appearances posted on several music message boards. The band's cred quotient is irrelevant --- these metal fans' attitudes set back the cause of rock reform for decades.
The picture is slightly different in indie rock now, with a ballyhooed black presence as embodied by Bloc Party, the Dears, TV On The Radio. When Bloc Party's Liverpudlian (by way of Nigeria) frontman Kele Okereke can be treated as indie rock sex symbol in Venus mag and elsewhere and TVOTR have been anointed as cutting-edge with the 2004 Shortlist Music Prize honor, why continue the black rock debate? Isn't this the type of parity we have been seeking? Over the period since the black rock anthology I edited --- Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock & Roll (Palgrave) --- entered the last stages of production and was released (in January 2004), a good deal has happened in the fading genre and subculture of rock music on both the white and black hand sides. While Beck has racked up more accolades for eclectic genius, The White Stripes' Jack White has engaged in ever more problematic roots love and theft manifested as blues formalism and country "authenticity," Coldplay becomes the new Boston, and Slash's Velvet Revolver supergroup seemingly implodes under the weight of outmoded arena rock cliché and excess, the genre itself recently celebrated a (contested) 50 year-old birthday. Various artists outside the white male center of the rock canon strapped on an ax, adopted the bad ass attitude, or simply posed in a punk tee in glossy magazines (here's lookin' at you, FeFe Dobson). Hardcore hybrid queens like Betty Mabry (ex-wife of Miles Davis), Linda Lewis, and Candi Staton have gotten the reissue treatment; Cody ChesnuTT and Van Hunt represented for Hot'lanta's classic rock legacy; the wonder twin poers of the Veldt reincarnated as Apollo Heights to Fader magazine acclaim; Stiffed frontwoman Santi White rebounded from the tense debacle of serving as Res' sonic benefactress; an anonymous bruh was treated as guitar god during a Heineken spot heavily rotated during this year's Grammy Awards; N.E.R.D. continued its remix of SoCal street culture mid-Atlantic style; and Jimi Hendrix's legacy was pimped to a few more car commercials and golf ball concerns. Of particular note through this period is the return to critical prime time of Arthur Lee and his young Love lineup now anchored by '60s vet Johnny Echols, the process whereby long forgotten Detroit Rock City psych-rockers Black Merda re-emerged in the wings of the current touring MC5 fable, and the passing of '50s rock & roll originators Otis Blackwell (songwriter) and Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry sideman).
Being in Mizzou, the April death of the legendary pianoman and composer Johnson at age 80 outside St. Louis particularly pressed upon me. Johnnie Johnson began his career in 1952, when he hired the then-unknown guitarist, Chuck Berry, to join his St. Louis-based band. Berry eventually became the frontman of the group and the two collaborated on some of rock & roll's most seminal recordings, including "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." In 2001, Johnson was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame by Rolling Stone Keith Richards. He continued to perform and headline at concerts and clubs around the world until earlier this year. Fittingly, Johnson's last performance was with fellow ol' skool rock god Bo Diddley.
It might seem overdramatic to consider the output of black musicians throughout the Diaspora who play in "alternative" styles maligned when you consider some recent trends. You have some of rock music's duskier founders actually garnering notice during last year's parade of star turns in New York, Memphis, and elsewhere, celebrating the genre's half-century. There's also the Black Rock Coalition now celebrating its twentieth anniversary year with a revamped organization and ongoing series of performances like this month's "Xtreme 'Head Overdrive" in NYC featuring D-Xtreme, Shaka Zulu Overdrive and Tenderhead. Certainly, no one would argue that "Jadagate" compares to the violence, psychic abuse, and social indignities suffered by the '50s pioneers like Johnson and Rock & Roll Architect Little Richard. We have come a long way, baby.
But what set Pinkett Smith apart is that she's fortunate enough to have the expenses and press notoriety many of her fellow black rockers would kill for. Consider also then the similar positioning of Cree Summer (protege of lone black rock superstar Lenny Kravitz) circa 1999 failed the tv-and-toon actress (and former A Different World star alongside Pinkett Smith) and a veritable litany of soul-bred, rock-obsessed divas since which included the not-quite notable (Kina) to critically acclaimed (Macy Gray). In the end, none of this has succeeded in busting the gilded turnstiles of the mainstream rock arena. Even the aforementioned Res, a Philly 'round the way gal who subverted the then-trendy local headwrap scene to shine on her inner AC/DC light and get decent MTV rotation, could not keep the momentum of her career going. What's more, she seemed undermined by the latter generation of black artists' tendency not to hone their chops and build up a fan base by touring.
One of the few who has done slightly better is "white chocolate" boogie queen Nikka Costa. She's loosely part of the L.A. vintage rock confederacy that expands and contracts to include such diverse contemporaries as Summer, Gray, Jon Brion, the Black Crowes, Kravitz and his ace boon Craig Ross, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and assorted alt-country types who may or may not have played in the Jayhawks. No doubt at the bequest of her father, her overt Joplin-isms (which Pink and Joss Stone have also taken to the bank), and Costa's race allow her to distinguish herself from the brown-hued pack of her sistren and bounce back from Hilfiger advert infamy (recall the much-ballyhooed "Like A Feather" spots) and opening for Britney Spears (one of the main attack points lobbed at Wicked Wisdom). Rumored excesses and Virgin's continued inability to get to the Promise'Land with any of the myriad rock/progressive acts they sign- whither former BJM member/Costa tour-mate Miranda Lee Richards? (is D'Angelo simply down there in Auld Varginny getting high and fat at the Waffle House?) This major label problem seems responsible for the longish hiatus between Costa's promising debut, Everybody Got Their Something, and the new can'tneverdidnothin'. But Costa has benefited from the relative independence of self-production (with husband Justin Stanley), penning a degree her own material and a strong presentation compared to others, suggesting a quick study of her most obvious forebear Teena Marie.
Things are tough all around for female artists in the rock vein (again); despite Sleater-Kinney's acclaim, Karen O's post-grunge take on Blondie, Evanescence's Amy Lee and the reflected glory of Meg White, the latest iteration of rock revival has been largely male (of whatever race). A recent L.A. Times guide to the Brit mini-ripple of Keane, Kasabian et al afoot is rife with wan "fookin' stoodents" sporting the emo shag. And the notorious Ultragrrl (formerly of Spin) certainly doesn't drool over a vast number of rawk chicks on her well-traveled blog. Yet they're that much harder for black bitch queens who are better than the boyz and are too vainglorious, too provocative, too polemical and yet lack the handy and fetishized back story of Tamil refugee M.I.A. Nobody, not even Oprah on the warpath against Hermès, wants to hear the postmodern slave narrative of some hard times sistagurl who's "only" coming up from any American 'hood like Shaw in D.C. or the SWAT --- unless there's enough ghetto pathology (typically of a sexual nature) to fill a sequel to Hilton Als' superb The Women and Bush's welfare queen bugaboo quota equally. As my scholar twin sister would express it: "No one wants to be a black woman for [the average] fifteen tracks."
While this may seem an overstatement, there's significant truth to it. Even in urban world, the "natural" habitat of black artists, strong black female voices have largely been silenced in favor of readymade pop princesses like Ashanti, disposable hooks-a-minute girls like Ciara, the last of the bombastic superego divas a la Mariah Carey whose subjects rarely stray from boudoir angst, and fading Supremes-model girl groups like Destiny's Child who sink under the millstone of the Beyonce Show and throwback good lil wifey lyrics. Even feminist rapper Queen Latifah has largely left the field for hawking Lane Bryant --- this summer's "Sugar Water Festival" notwithstanding.
Often, debate about such acts and the dearth of quality in all areas of mainstream "black pop" leads to a call for more black-helmed institutions that would ostensibly rectify the majors' inability to develop and market progressive black music. Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal's recent series of articles decrying the Rhythm & Bullshit plaguing the interactions of record execs and black talent could perhaps locate a silver lining postscript in some behind the scenes plays going down beyond the majors. Brooklyn filmmaker James Spooner's triumph of the DIY aesthetic, the film/movement/merch stream Afro-Punk, has barnstormed both sides of the Big Pond, provided an overdue forum for outreach between marginalized black fans of "white" music, and continues to spark debates about the black presence in rock via a heavy screening schedule. See it at an obliging art house or campus space near you. And Barbados native Lunden De'Leon, an actress, model, and Caribbean Hall of Famer since 2004, has launched an L.A.-based record label, Dirrty Records, that is wholly independent, artist friendly, and, key for a black-owned enterprise, very open to multiple forms of the black aesthetic in sound. The Beverly Hills label's first acclaimed release was a cover of the Hendrix classic "Purple Haze" by former Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro. Bajan beauty De'Leon may be mirroring Pinkett Smith's trajectory from sitcom star to rockbiz denizen and have learned some of her craft from publicist Warren Cowan. Yet she walks it like she talks it by seeding the business out of her pocket (with an initial $20,000 investment and counting) and showing a commitment off the bat to such sub-cultural icons as Peligro.
At the other end of the spectrum, onstage, is the frustrating case of Joi, the ATL-based singer, friend of OutKast and veteran funk-soul diva of the twisted kingdom. Her fourth record, Tennessee Slim Is The Bomb, which has had trouble with distribution, is not her best but still a worthy component of her psych-a-funkadelicized oeuvre. The (former?) Joi Gilliam-Gipp sustains her sultry, aurally intricate style and customary mid-tempo cuts on this addition to the staggering canon of break-up classics from Marvin Gaye's masterful Here, My Dear to Whatever and Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five. Joi, longtime underground sensation and sepia superstar, is possessed of a freaky-deke, cover girl beauty and inspires paeans (in person and in print) akin to those garnered by her ikon/influence Betty Mabry (Davis). Joi has to be seen to be believed, an artist best experienced live and fierce, in full "pimptress" gear. However, the biz has been afraid of her energy and iconoclasm; last time out, on Star Kitty's Revenge, habitual collaborator/fellow ATLien Dallas Austin and the Universal powers that be seemed determined to try and make Joi conform with the status quo... in vain.
That album's constraints still allowed some darkness to surface, primarily in the form of songs that eulogized the singer's father and his tragic end ("Jefferson St. Joe") and attacked groupies who preyed upon her husband, Goodie Mob member Big Gipp ("You're A Whore"). This time around, as Joi sings on "Gravity," the rap game has taken her man away. Tennessee Slim Is The Bomb's earlier tracks trumpeting Joi's pride, swagger, and self-love give way to tender-nerve chronicles of her relationship's deterioration, calling in a rogue's gallery of supporters including "Uncle" George Clinton spouting poetic ruminations on the heart, the Pharcyde, Bun B, former Donny Hathaway sideman Phil Upchurch, and daughter Keypsiia Blue Daydreamer to midwife a cathartic release of any lingering hostility and despair. As the chorus of "Gravity" goes:Gravity makes me wanna float away
I wanna tell my story but don't know what to say
And* I hope my angel comes by today
And takes me to the water in Ca-li-for-nia
The standout, however, is the subtly powerful, sub-Prince electro funk of "Dance With Yesterday," its sunny bounce countering the wavering, grievous tones of the previous song and others like "Co-Stars" --- decrying the fact that "the temperature of success is cold as ice" --- with a sort of jaunty, bittersweet resilience, the tune transcendent enough to speak to all beyond the specificity of this divorcee's vulnerability and pain. Joi swings between anthems of empowerment, gleeful bitch queen manifestos of eroticism and vainglory, and, surprisingly, taking all the vitriol down to get her inner Dinah Washington on through the blue, after-hours jazz of "I Love You Forever, Right Now."
Despite certain production and arrangement flaws, this is the sort of indelibly personal and visionary black art that's sorely missing from the urban scene. In its adherence to a peculiarly black female strain of Christian faith as healing balm (however obliquely invoked), Tennessee Slim Is The Bomb, like Jada's Wicked Wisdom, may rock in a distaff manner foreign to the likes of the Ozzfest rank-and-file but it's legitimate and supplies a largely moribund form with resolute strength and vitality amidst its midlife crisis when it really needs it.
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