Content Note: references to domestic violence and violence against women
Rock music is one of America’s most influential cultural exports, associated closely with white bands and white artists, we’re seldom informed of rock music’s true origins. Whilst the explosion of rock music took place in the 1950s and 1960s, the creation of rock music had already taken place in the rural South some many years before, even before Black bodies had been forced into bondage.
To add context, the economic and cultural backdrop of America was catastrophic in the 1930s. The supposed American Dream was a mere fallacy as the Great Depression had hit working-class Americans hard, and African-Americans even harder, many of whom were only one generation removed from Emancipation. Work was extremely hard to come by and with racial tensions rife across the country, jobs that were available were reserved for whites. It’s often said that hardship cultivates the best art. Alongside that, collective joy can also be had which is why Black music was so infectious. In music, Black people could find solace and refuge, a sanctuary from the oppressive lives they had to endure.
During this period, The Great Migration had already begun and with it, American Black music culture as we know it was born. The Great Migration saw some six million African Americans move from the rural South to urban areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. Therefore, it’s no surprise that these cities are the epicentres of Black culture. In the South, although slavery had ended, lynchings and racial attacks against Black bodies were still widespread. The South was notorious for severe physical aggression and terror against Black people, pushing them to make moves to the North, Midwest and West Coast. The Great Migration, and later the Harlem Renaissance, would change the landscape of music forever and would begin to influence the music we now know. It’s important to note that whilst these urban cities were far more liberal in attitude than the South, the role of the KKK had been replaced by police forces as Black aggressors. Nevertheless, Black creativity flourished despite the violence.
James Brown is an example of artists that endured post-Emancipation hardship and out of it created art that would lift spirits. Born in Toccoa, Georgia in 1933 to a young mother and father who would eventually abandon him, he was exposed to extreme poverty from a young age and lived with an aunt who ran a brothel. It wasn’t until he had run ins with the law for petty crime at the age of sixteen when he discovered his gift. After his release from a juvenile detention centre, he met Bobby Byrd and joined a group that would eventually become known to the world as The Famous Flames.
Brown and his band toured Georgia and neighbouring Southern states, performing on college campuses and prisons. The band’s performances in prisons and correctional facilities were particularly rousing because of the conditions that prisoners, many if not most of whom were Black and wrongly convicted, had to endure were inhumane. Given that it was the South, many of the prisoners seldom received a fair trial from a jury of their peers and police corruption was exceptionally pervasive in the smaller, rural towns. There was no better place to hone the rock sound than within the prison walls. Rock music was the antithesis to the prison institution and the idea that inmates could be galvanised by such performances was a major threat. The performance of rock music in prisons by The Famous Flames was an act of rebellion, giving birth to the idea that rock music encompassed more than a sound — it was a proverbial middle finger to the establishment. This anti-establishment music still exists to this very day, and whether it manifests itself through Hip-Hop, funk or soul, if Black people are vocal, that in itself is resistance.
From a musical perspective, Brown progressed the sound of rock like no other. He was influenced by Ray Charles and looked up to pioneers such as Little Richard, who would persuade The Famous Flames to record their first single. ‘Get On Up’ features a repetitive drum beat with eight strokes and arguably one of the most infamous guitar riffs, which both defined the Rock and Roll era. It’s a drum pattern that has inspired many, including most recently D’Angelo, who incorporates similar styles within the live performances of his recent album, Black Messiah. Therefore, it’s no wonder that Brown and, later on, The Famous Flames were among the first inductees to the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Whilst we celebrate his art, it must be acknowledged that James Brown was very violent towards women and struggled with drug addiction. Up until the latter years of his life, Brown was a serial domestic abuser and also had an allegation of rape by his former publicist. Sadly the fact of domestic violence and abuse is very common with many rock stars/celebrities; the reason for that is a story left for another day and one that needs exploration. Brown’s daughter, Yamma, recounts witnessing the domestic violence take place in her memoir Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me.
It was the trailblazing of artists such as James Brown, B.B. King and Little Richard that inspired artists and groups such as Black Merda, the Rolling Stones and even Michael Jackson to harness the sounds of rock. Due to music labels segregating Black music into boxes labelled Soul, R&B and funk, rock music had become synonymous with whiteness. There have been constant efforts to reclaim the sound as a product of Black culture; however, in order to champion and support Black rock, we need to acknowledge its rich history and heritage. Without Bo Diddley, Tina Turner and Mamie Smith, we wouldn’t have Prince, D’Angelo, Janelle Monae and Miguel.
This is part of the Black Friday series on ALL BLACK EVERYTHING section of Media Diversified. We are publishing articles from a range of activists, poets, artists and writers which will culminate in a real-life discussion and meet-up in London on Saturday 1st August.