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.

Based on the 30,000 people who attended last year’s Afro-punk Festival, co-founder Matthew Morgan also notes the expanding audience. ”Every year, more and more bands sign up for and want to play the festival,” he told me. ”More and more kids sign up that want their voice heard, so from my perspective, it’s growing.” (This year’s Afro-punk Festival takes place this weekend, June 25-27.)

This moment has been at least 25 years in the making, if you count from the formation of the Black Rock Coalition. But it’s been only in the last few years that the idea of a black alternative experience has been showing up more and more in the culture. In the early 2000s, there was James Spooner’s film Afro-punk and Raymond Gayle’s Electric Purgatory, both of which highlighted blacks in the punk and rock scenes. By 2007, major media outlets such as the New York Times, the New York Daily News, MTV News and the venerable Ebony noted how African-American artists and audiences were not limiting themselves to hip-hop and R&B. Then the black rock musical Passing Strange won a Tony Award in 2008. Barry Jenkins’ film, Medicine for Melancholy, about two black hipsters in San Francisco, was released to critical acclaim in 2009. Kiss The Sky, journalist Farai Chideya’s debut novel that’s set in the world of black female rocker, came out that same year.

And that’s on top of the growing number of artists who are charting their own path with sounds not usually associated with African Americans.

Yohimbe Sampson is one black rocker who is feeling encouraged. Sampson is the guitarist with Game Rebellion, a rock/hip-hop band that will be performing again at this year’s Afro-punk Festival in Brooklyn. ”Now it seems folks are more open and able to embrace the limitless nature of their blackness,” he says. ”Nowadays nobody’s going to call a young brother skating through Bed-Stuy ‘white boy’.”

Or, as Walt Chastang, a member of Atlanta’s The 54 and another Afro-punk Festival performer, points out: ”The black/urban ‘counter-culture,’ if you will, is not quite as counter as it used to be even five years ago.”