Black Rock Rolls On

Never mind the endless debate about whether hip-hop is dead. Black rock lives, and is gaining momentum as a cultural force.

It’s blazing down on the field at Central Park Summerstage. On this hot June day, there’s partial shade in the bleachers, but those aren’t at all close to the stage, and who really wants to be that far from the action?

The growing crowd gladly suffers through the heat. On this day, they’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Black Rock Coalition, the progressive arts organization that was formed in 1985 by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, journalist and cultural critic Greg Tate and artist/manager Konda Mason. Yes, folks are here to check out local rock favorites Pillow Theory, London-born, day-glo electro artist Ebony Bones, and innovative DJ and sound sculptor CX Kidtronik, but the main draw is the Black Rock Coalition’s flagship band, Living Colour. It’s a meeting of the trailblazers and the new jacks, all coming together under the flag of black rock. And it’s all happening at a time when black rock is gaining momentum as a cultural force.

”There’s so much cross-fertilization going on along with the use of aesthetics from other genres via Rihanna/Lil Wayne with down right references to rock/rock culture,” says Tamar-Kali, whose own rock-driven, hard-core warrior soul will be on display when her new album Black Bottom releases in mid-July. ”Moves like this by major label artists are prepping the palates of the mainstream audience and sparking curiosity. It’s a good thing.”

And that’s just it: It’s a great time to be a black musician providing alternatives to the dreck that assaults listeners multiple times an hour on most ”urban” radio stations. Call it black rock, Afro-punk or black alternative music. Across the country and around the world, black artists–Janelle Monae, TV on the Radio, Santigold, Gnarls Barkley, BLK JKS and Earl Greyhound, to name only a few–are making music that doesn’t fit neatly into the either/or boxes of hip-hop and R&B. Audiences like what they’re hearing and they want more.

According to a survey I conducted earlier this year of over 300 people via my black rock blog, 74 percent say their feelings about hip-hop have become indifferent or more negative. A similar percentage say that the amount of hip-hop they listen to has decreased over the past two years, as has the amount of commercial radio they consume. Over two-thirds say that black rock or Afro-punk is now a bigger part of what they listen to on a regular basis. And 9 out of 10 say that they consistently, if not regularly, seek out black artists who defy convention.