Why Don't Black People Play Rock Music Anymore?: On Representation in Rock 'n' Roll

Sofie Araya

 Ina Kim

Ina Kim

Growing up, every Sunday morning was accompanied by pancakes and world music, like Buena Vista Social Club and 60’s rock ’n’ roll legends like Santana. The sounds of Pink Floyd, Howling Wolf and Stevie Ray Vaughan also echoed throughout my childhood home. My mom even recalls how when she was pregnant with me, I would kick when she and my dad would play “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix.

One of my close childhood friends had her seventh birthday party at a music store with a mini recording studio in the back. I remember walking through a hallway and seeing artists I had never seen before, most of whom were white: The Doors, The Who, Kiss. The only person of color on those walls was Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t think anything of it then; I was more preoccupied with my time in the studio fulfilling my seven-year-old dreams of being like Hannah Montana. However, seeing that one black face on those white walls stuck with me as I got older and learned more about the role of race in the rock music industry.

In my sixth grade music class, we learned about how rock ’n’ roll, jazz and blues are products of black oppression in the United States. These genres, once dubbed “race music,” emerged out of a necessity to personalize a new identity forced upon Black Americans as a result of slavery. We were taught how rock was born of slaves’ work songs, a sonic coping mechanism underneath the rays of a pulsing sun.

Given this history, you would think there would still be a large presence of black rock artists today, but that is seemingly not the case. Why don't we see more black artists in rock? How come there was only one black face on those white walls of the music store? Why is it that when you search “rock music” on Google, Nickelback appears three times, along with white guys from the 1950’s who look straight out of Mad Men? How many times was Chuck Berry noted? Once.

When I asked my mom, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1970s, about this trend, she told me she never noticed the lack of black representation in rock music. “I was fairly new to the country, so we didn’t understand race dynamics,” she said. “I like white rock and roll. We used to listen to Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, et cetera. I just didn't like The Beach Boys and The Beatles. My biggest issue was with the artists who profited off of singing black artists' original songs.” She noted Elvis’ as a musician who benefitted from the whitewashing of rock by singing black songs as his own, telling me, “I especially did not like him.”

The day after the Grammys my senior year of high school, a few of my classmates and I were discussing Beyonce’s loss to Adele. One of them asked, “Why does it matter? It’s just an award.” I agreed; I never thought the Grammys really defined an artist’s worth. But Beyonce’s snub represented a persistent lack of recognition black artists face from the music industry, which consistently ignores black artists’ contributions to music today, yet capitalizes on their art. Since 1959, there have only been 10 black artists to win Album of the Year, and the last time a black woman won was Lauryn Hill in 1999 for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Beyonce’s album Lemonade demonstrated her evolution as a curator by bringing to light the racial injustice the black community experiences in the United States while simultaneously embracing the strength of black women. However, her message was ignored by the Recording Academy Voting members, the group who chooses the winners for the annual award ceremony, and gave the award to Adele. There is a considerable amount of significance in this choice as Adele is a white woman who has profited off of an un-evolving sound with most of her songs lacking any lyrical depth (in my opinion), all of which has been communicated through a voice influenced by her proclaimed idols: Etta James, Mary J.Blige, Alicia Keys and, ironically, Lauryn Hill, all of whom are black women.

This lack of black representation in rock and the music industry reflects a larger societal problem: white artists’ advantages in marketability may reflect Americans’ psychological dispositions. A study conducted by Dr. Lisa DeBruine concluded that people are more likely to trust those who belong to the same race. In 2005, DeBruine and a group of researchers used computer graphics to morph faces of individuals so they resembled those of the participants in the study. They observed that participants favored the faces that more closely resembled them, demonstrating how kin recognition also influences our behavior towards others as well as choices in partners.

The findings from DeBruine’s study, paired with the racist traditions that permeate American society, suggests that the music industry capitalizes on our natural biases and learned bigotry. This is not to undermine the talent of white artists who play traditionally black music, but simply to note that the color of their skin grants them more advantages in the music industry. And this is applicable to the marketing of any artist. Take The Black Keys for example; there could be, and probably is, a black artist just as talented. But because The Black Keys are composed of white males, they are granted more studio time, better producers, and more money for promoting their music, all because the music industry will generate a greater profit from their music since the majority of white audiences will gravitate towards them. Similar to Adele and many other white artists, the band was influenced by notable black faces of the Blues like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.

In writing this piece, I am forced to recall a time when my mom explained to me the danger of being refused an outlet: “If you don’t have a platform, someone will tell your story and make it their own”. The whitewashing of the Rock ‘n’ Roll genre is a perfect example of this. As a result, centuries of stories of trauma, love, and the resolve of a people are put on the back burner in order to fill the pockets of a wealthy few.