In a post-Imus world where hip hop is under attack (rightfully on some counts), the African American community needs Black rock now more than ever. Do you agree? Disagree? I’d like to hear what you think. —Rob Fields, Bold As Love, "Speak Out"
Before answering, I mashed up a new Pandora "radio station" based on "Sly and the Family Stone." The first song was one of the last great funky Stone tablets, "If You Want Me to Stay." The next thing the ghost in Pandora's machine served up was a righteous cover of "Thank You" (Fa Lettin' Me Be Mice Elf) by the very voodoo Dr. John.
That's why we need the music that, for now, goes by "black rock." It reminds us of who we are, or rather, who we were about to become before the most commercial forms of rap/hiphop hijacked control of black identity.
Now hear Sly acolyte (and true inventor of the "funk bass") Larry Graham singing bridge (to kiddie sidewalk melody "it's raining, it's pouring..."):
I'm happy, I'm happy/ 'cause my mamma loves my pappy/makes me wanna Samba/Are ya' happy? Are ya' feelin' real good?/Is everybody happy that we're still alive?/We have a will to live, and a reason to survive.
We need music that affirms the human spirit within us, especially with the kind of acapella gospel shout at the end: "Are ya' happy? Are ya' feelin' real good?"
In the song the question is rhetorical; of course you're happy clapping your hands and stomping your feet for three minutes of joy in the midst of whatever. But with my head in the question at hand, about the music that currently tries to define and confine my blackness, the answer would be "hell no, I'm not happy!"
We all need music that invites us into community, instead of sending us running for cover. The genre—black, rock, funk, pop, rock n' roll, R&B, country, blues, gospel—is irrelevant. Repeat: irrelevant.
Don't believe me? Go check out a play list from WABC-AM, NY, the most listened to station in the nation even in the early 1970's. Its double-digit share of the largest media market would be unthinkable today. Staple Singers, followed by Rolling Stones, Sly, Glen Campbell, Dr. John, Marvin Gaye, Led Zepplin and James Brown, and nobody thought twice about it.
Even the most pop stuff of what we now call World Music—Miriam Makeba's "Pata, Pata"— was in the house. We listened, sampled each other's stuff until it was hard to say who's was who's, which is exactly what American music, and Americans should be.
We need "black rock" until an even better term comes along for what used to be the mainstream of American musical identity. We need black rock as the first stream to replenish the mighty river from which, and in which, gospel, blues, jazz, Broadway, country... all of our musics...once flowed in peace, however uneasy.
We need music that bends race and ethnic identity until they break.