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Elliot Alpern: Why do we segregate music?

By Elliot Alpern, Daily Music Columnist
Published February 12, 2013

Here at Daily Arts, we spend a lot of time discussing the implications of race or gender inequality in popular art. And for good reason — diversity, though improving, is an undeniable issue in TV and film. As diehard fans and aficionados, we champion equality to the best of our ability.

And yet, strangely, I seem to have found a gap, a rather blatant form of segregation that seems not only obvious, but accepted as a standard of the community. The deeper we probe into the history of the schism, the same explanations seem to surface: “It’s just a difference in cultures” and “That’s just the way it’s come to be.”

So let’s just come out and say it:

The popular musical genres are segregated.

I’m sure that doesn’t come as a shock to many — and for those few who are genuinely surprised by that revelation, we can do a pretty simple experiment to test the theory. Take your favorite genre and think of your top three favorite musicians or bands from that one genre, and then describe any similarities all three share.

Now, I’m not saying that this is always the case, nor should it be. But as far as trends go, you’ll tend to have the same shared characteristics. Hip-hop and rap artists tend to be black (as in, all of this year’s Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album or Song), and country singers tend to be white and Southern, along with metal headbangers and punk screamers.

Yes, of course there are exceptions. Some of the best (like Darius Rucker and Eminem) are so successful because they refuse labels and buck trends. But it’s hard to argue that segregation doesn’t exist, however unintentional the divide may be.

It’s likewise true that the history of the respective genres are largely responsible. Hip-hop music and culture were born and cultivated in the predominantly African-American area of New York City known as the Bronx during the 1970s. And Bill Malone, a historian who concentrates on country music (and likely the only one of his kind), says that country music came to America “as a southern phenomenon” of European immigrants.

But I refuse to chalk up the differences as a simple case of “the past is the past.” Movies like “Blazing Saddles” and “Night of the Living Dead” challenged racial stereotypes in genres back before Kanye West was even born — so why is it so increasingly rare for musicians to do the same?

For me, this conspicuous absence of integration is most noticeable in my own favorite music genre: rock. And the difference is especially noteworthy if we look at the golden roots of rock ‘n’ roll — Fats Domino and Little Richard were the earliest harbingers right along with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry practically invented the guitar solo.

In fact, even as the classic rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s began to die away, the generally African-American blues and generally Caucasian beat music were still heavily linked, drawing upon each other for inspiration. The likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were so vastly influential that we can find connections to their music in a later modestly successful band known as the Quarrymen (or the precursors to The Beatles, for the uninformed).

So what happened after the exodus of the black rockers of the 1970s, like Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder? What do we have now? Lenny Kravitz, of course, and I suppose Ben Harper, but … who else?

Now, this is the point in this article where, though I continue to bemoan the lack of black rockers with international appeal, I still stress that the role hasn’t disappeared — it just seems to have faded away from the limelight.

Especially in alternative circles, African-American rock is still very much alive. Though the Brooklyn-based TV on the Radio tends to experiment on the periphery of alternative, the band’s music is still frequently based on the uniform rock structure. And likewise, though the Roots are one of the aforementioned nominees for this year’s Best Rap Album Grammy, the track “Star/Pointro” off of 2004’s The Tipping Point was nominated for “Best Urban/Alternative Performance.”

Yet neither of those are the stereotypical “rock band” as defined in today’s terms. And, to be honest, I can only think of one conventional example that employs an African-American frontman: The U.K.’s Bloc Party. Lead singer Kele Okereke is at the helm of what is otherwise a critically acclaimed (and seriously rocking) British outfit. Check out the song “One Month Off” for the frenetic guitars and the perfect match that is Okereke’s voice.

Maybe things will change — perhaps the next Jimi Hendrix is waiting on the horizon, ready to shred his way into the mass appeal of the American Billboard charts. But in the meantime, Bloc Party and TV on the Radio will have to make do.


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