The Black History of Rock

by Shane Thomas

I have something of a beef with the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards. It’s a common complaint during this time of year. However, my bugbear has nothing to do with the canard that the awards ceremony is racist. You can set your watch to the, “MOBO’s! Where’s the equality?! What about Music of White Origin Awards!” cavils that appear as the MOBO’s draw ever closer[1].

No, my problem isn’t about the MOBO’s being “too black”. My problem is they aren’t black enough. Whatever your thoughts on the ceremony, they are the most prominent black music event in Britain (arguably its most prominent black event, full stop), and yet there is a huge gap in the awards programme. A gap that has been discernible ever since its inception.

mobo

Awards are given out in the following genre categories: R’n’B/Soul, Hip-Hop/Grime, Gospel, Jazz, Reggae and African[2]. Notice a glaring omission?

Rock. Where is the rock??[3] You hold an award ceremony to honour the best in black music, and yet omit one of the most successful types of music incepted by black people?

For clarity’s sake, this isn’t a jeremiad on the MOBO’s. While it shouldn’t be above critique, it remains an important touchstone for black people in this country. Awards founder, Kanya King deserves an awful lot of credit for carving out this space, when many had set her up to fail. But like all forms of oppressive structure, the absence of rock at the MOBO’s is a symptom of the wider schism in black history.

When rock music is spoken of, so much received wisdom conjures up images of this, rather than Chuck Berry.

The rapper, Akala has lamented that if he picks up a guitar, even black people “will tell me I’m trying to be white.”

We know the stereotypes. Rock is a white thing: Skinny jeans, white guys (probably with long hair), crowds that jump up and down, beer & cigarettes. Hip-hop and R’n’B? That’s a black thing[5], all baggy clothes, bling, marijuana, rhythmic dancing, hypermasculinity and homophobia.[6]

We shouldn’t overlook that another reason for rock being a white-dominated space is that a band needs instruments and recording space. If you don’t have the finances to facilitate this, it makes for an enormous hurdle to form a rock band. That’s why most mainstream rock acts are not only white, but also middle-class/upper-class to boot.

However, it’s not a complete anomaly to see the collision of black artists and rock in contemporary music. Both Lil’ Wayne and Lupe Fiasco have brought the genre into their oeuvre in the past, Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) gave one of the best dissections of how rock has been uprooted from its lineage with his song, Rock and Roll. And I can say first-hand that Prince is one of the greatest rock guitar players to ever strum a string.

One rejoinder that I’m already bracing myself for (from some) is, “Rock may be black music, but all the performers these days are white.”

*clears throat*

*clears throat again*

*clears throat and coughs up a piece of black culture right into your lap*

Also, while a MOBO award for rock may seem like a triviality, it’s ahistorical to look at this in isolation. The fact that far too many people – especially black people – lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the origins of rock music, is a paradigm that can be extrapolated to include the entirety of black history. A history that has been truncated, elided, or completely erased.

History plays a pivotal part in how we mediate with the world around us, and with ourselves. It follows that an incomplete understanding of who we have been, results in an incomplete understanding of who we are now. I don’t expect the MOBO’s to educate people on its own, but it’s one of the few organisations that is in a position of leverage to ameliorate one of the many aspects of black culture that’s been displaced through aeons of white supremacy.

So while the MOBO’s are largely a positive presence on the British cultural scene, how can they truly enshrine black music, if they’re not enshrining all black music?

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

I take little pleasure in writing this, but for the moment, the MOBO Awards are a misnomer. Not only are they failing the culture that they are obligated to promote but – given that this culture is an extension of us – the MOBO’s are failing the very people that they should be uplifting.

The awards show turns 18 this evening. Sadly it seems as if it still has some growing up to do.

[1] This is a microcosm of the grievances aired during Black History Month.

[2] So you take an entire continent, and distill their music down to one genre? Insulting, much?

[3] I accept that other black music genres are absent too, such as blues.

[4] That link may give you the impression early rock music was solely the preserve of black men. Not a bit of it. Not a bit of it, at all.

[5] Although to what extent is becoming increasingly open for debate these days.

[6] Because rock music has always been a kyriarchy-free zone, right?

 A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting HistoryHe is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both a@TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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3 replies

  1. A thought provoking piece about the many failing’s of the mobos. Music of black origin includes everything in the Western Hemisphere, so to truncate it down to a few genres is doing the historical lineage a dis-service. Rock is an integral part of black music & culture from it’s originators to it’s movers & shaker’s! Eg, sun house, muddy waters, ma rainey, Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, howlin wolf, Charlie Patton, jb lenoir, willie Dixon, John lee hooker, johnny guitar Watson, little richard, Larry Williams, Arthur lee, Carl hogan, sonny sharrock, Jimmi Hendrix, magic Sam et al, these god’s or this vital history won’t be found or honoured at the mobos.

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  2. Good article. I’m a music student so it’s quite weird to me that hip-hop is considered black music while rock is forgotten by many people – as I spend years trying to emulate the guitar playing of guys like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. Not to mention the importance of guys like Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington and James Brown in other genres!

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