Rock & Roll Roots

It is comforting to look on stage and see people who look like you playing music that has been deemed unconventional for Black artists to play.

In South Minneapolis in 1987, my mother hid Dead Kennedys punk rock vinyl in the sleeves of Chic’s 1978 record, “Le Freak/Savoir Faire,” away from her religious parents. In her room, beyond their range of hearing, she offered up guttural screams about the teenage angst that riddles many adolescent bodies and minds. 

If you were raised in the church, and especially if you were Black and raised in the church, you were often told not to engage with rock music. It was considered “the devil’s music.” 

My mom’s taste in punk rock, along with her old school soul records, would influence the music that I began to make four years ago.

I got into rock at an early age, although as a Black teenage kid listening to rock music was not considered “cool.” When I was about ten years old, the bands heavy in my rotation were System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, The Offspring, and Incubus. 

At the age of 11, I started listening to a Ukrainian-American band that preached revolution with fast-paced and jittered violin solos, reggae/ska basslines, and brightly attired dancers. Years later, my mom and I saw Gogol Bordello perform at The Cabooze where the lead singer poured an entire bottle of red wine into the first row of the audience. As soon as the music started, the ground split open and the crowd furrowed into a massive mosh pit. That was the first time I saw my mom elbow someone in the face. It was all deliciously punk, and I loved it. 

Roots

Rock music was a form of revolution started by the marginalized and oppressed, yet it is often white-washed by the industry and popular culture. 

For instance, while Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the original godmother of rock ‘n roll in the 1930s and 1940s, she was not recognized with induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until 2018. Elvis Presley is hailed the “King of Rock ‘n Roll,” even though much of his work was appropriated from Black musicians. “Hound Dog,” for example, was originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. 

Throughout history, Black musicians were barred from performing in many venues. When Black musicians did perform, it was often in segregated concert halls. Police and promoters racially segregated audiences. The implication of these dividing lines: white musicians and audiences were free to engage, and Black musicians and audiences were made aware of their imposed inferior status, with threat of violence. 

By the 1970s, there was a clear lane the music industry was pushing Black artists into during the funk and soul era. Detroit proto-punk rock group Death formed before the iconic punk band The Ramones. They started off as an exclusively funk trio, but after listening to The Who and Alice Cooper became more inspired by the pounding, driving styles of rock. Death paved the way for punk, yet the band took a backseat in history until they resurfaced with the 2012 documentary, “A Band Called Death.” 

Building Community

In high school I started bonding with other Black kids who were bullied and called ‘white-washed’ or an ‘Oreo’ (Black on the outside, white on the inside) for the music they listened to.

After I moved to Minnesota in 2011 for college, I learned quickly that there is a very tight-knit music community here. I started playing in a band called People Will Dance. We practiced under a shaky chandelier hanging in the living room of my older brother’s house. 

I began performing because I was broke and wanted to do something that kept my head and heart afloat until I got my life together. Other musicians encouraged me to take it more seriously. Things slowly evolved. I realized that performing music is the most cathartic experience I have ever had. 

I started meeting others who were interested in the kind of music I wanted to pursue. We showed up for one another, attending each other’s shows, advocating for each other, and providing referrals for gigs. I persuaded Brian Herron Jr., the front person of the all-Black hip hop and punk rock group Blvck Madonna, to give me some of his band hoodies, which I wore at my own shows. 

Towards a Black Rock Coalition

Until the rise of social media, I had no idea that listening to rock music as a young Black kid was not a freakish thing to do. I first learned about Afropunk in 2012, when one of my friends was a photojournalist who left for the semester to take a kaleidoscope of pictures featuring the vast spectrum of Black beauty in Brooklyn, New York. 

Afropunk refers to Black participation in punk and alternative subcultures. Afropunk festivals are havens for Black minds and Black identity. In many ways, it is like a utopic coven, where Black existence is prioritized and allowed to flourish; a place where people are constantly fighting normative values, even within the Black community. For example, when you see a tall Black man, with a beard spotted with daisies, wearing a flowing violet skirt, embracing his femininity at a concert, that’s Afropunk. 

Rapper deM atlaS is one of the first people I met in Minnesota who had a Nirvana-esque punk grunge influence in his hip hop. We noticed similarities in the way we crossed genres. It made sense to support one another, rather than fight for limited resources. One day, Brian from Blvck Madonna, bassist Roderick Glasper, deM atlaS, and I got together and said, “Why hasn’t a Black rock coalition been a thing yet?”

Creating a Black rock coalition is not a new idea, but it is needed in the Midwest, where venue spaces are predominantly white. In Minnesota, we have music festivals like Soundset and the Minnesota State Fair’s scattered showcases, but we don’t have anything that celebrates genre fusion ensembles. We have hopes that the coalition could one day turn into its own festival featuring a rotation of unconventional Black players. 

It is comforting to look on stage and see people who look like you playing music that has been deemed unconventional for Black artists to play. It feels like a reclamation and homage to Little Richard and Chuck Berry. We have more agency to perform than our ancestors did, and we can carry on that legacy. 

Y’all ever heard of the Black head nod? The non-verbal gesture you give that affirms when you notice another Black person in the room from across a 20-foot radius of white suburbia. You do a coinciding head nod, an unspoken validation, as if to say, “We see you, we got you, we gon be alright.” 

We want to generate that feeling with a collaborative music curation. 


Taylor Seaberg (they/them) is a queer, third generation Kenyan-American multi-instrumentalist and producer who believes music is meant to be weird and defy boundaries of convention. 


The Black Rock Coalition includes deM atlaS, Seaberg & The Black Velvet Punks, Blvck Madonna, and Hard Looks. The Coalition is currently scheduled to play at the Cedar Cultural Center on August 8.


Watch Taylor Seaberg’s band Seaberg & the Black Velvet Punks perform “Jaded Dreams”

Resources

NPR, “Essay: Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible

Slate, “How Rock and Roll Became White

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