Kyp Malone and I shared an “Afro-punk moment” a few years ago. We were at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco where Kyp’s band, TV on the Radio, had opened for The Faint. The show was just letting out when I ran into the furry, bespectacled guitarist and co-vocalist milling about in the lobby of the venue. I struck up a conversation, letting him know I’d caught the previous night’s show of the same bill at The Grand Regency Ballroom. We’d been talking for some time when a young white indie kid broke away from the pack of even more young white indie kids that passed by and approached Kyp and me, smiling that “OMG” smile. “You guys were great tonight” she beamed, at first addressing me. There was this split second of confusion when I didn’t know how to respond since, you know, I was holding it down in the audience that night. I kind of chuckled and motioned towards Kyp, remarking that he was the guy she wanted to thank. Kyp, being mischievous, motioned right back at me, letting her know that I was the guy to thank. We let it hang for one beat before letting the embarrassed girl off the hook. Kyp thanked her for the compliment, his genuine smile defusing the girl’s embarrassment. After she dove back into the throng, Kyp turned to me and said, “That happens all the time...whenever I’m standing with any other black dude.” We laughed.
Taking the diplomatic route, I guess I couldn’t really blame the girl for thinking I was a member of the band, except I don’t bear that much of a resemblance to any of the guys in TVOTR. Sure, we share some African ancestry, taste in eyewear and facial hair grooming concepts. But we don’t really look alike. Do we? Regardless, amongst all of the people that were at Bimbo’s that night, Kyp and I stuck out, even though only one of us was on stage under spotlights.
The following list, while by no means definitive, serves to highlight a handful of artists, established, overlooked, struggling and just starting out, that challenge the notion of what “black music” is supposed to be. I’ve purposely left out some of the obvious (Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains, TV on the Radio, etc.) to focus on the few that don’t seem to enjoy as much notoriety. But seriously, I’m thankful that there even some obvious choices to cull examples from.
This ain’t over...
This Los Angeles psych-folk rock band was assembled in 1965 by singer/song-writer Arthur Lee who imagined an integrated outfit that would indulge his penchant for both California surf music as well as baroque pop, complete with horns and strings. The band enjoyed a measure of local stardom and their third album, Forever Changes, widely considered to be the band’s masterpiece, stands as one of the most influential rock albums of the 60’s despite barely charting in the U.S.
Love - “You Set the Scene”
Detroit’s Hackney brothers (David, Dannis and Bobby) were inspired to play music after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and oldest brother David’s serendipitous discovery of a discarded guitar in an alleyway the day after watching the historic performance. In 1973 the brothers attended an Iggy and the Stooges show and, clearly struck by the experience, abandoned the Motown influenced funk and R&B they had been playing and took their music into a decidedly raw, political, proto-punk direction. Thus Death, a black punk band that could claim that tag before Bad Brains would come to define it, was born. Last year, Chicago’s Drag City released ...For All The World To See, the unearthed 7-track demo recording the band made in 1974 for a pending deal with Columbia Records. This is the same deal that the label head Clive Davis backed out on when the band refused to change their name, basically solidifying the Death’s future as obscure punk legends. Three of Bobby’s sons have formed Rough Francis, a Death tribute band. And rapper Mos Def recently announced plans to team up with Roc-A-Fella mogul Dame Dash to produce a documentary about the group. And the legend continues...
Death - "Freakin' Out"
Apollo Heights / The Veldt
Apollo Heights was formed when brothers Daniel and Danny Chavis bounced from Raleigh, NC to NYC after the demise of their other black rock band The Veldt. The music of both band incarnations was heavily influenced by shoegaze and dream pop artists like My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins and, most notably, direct progenitors A.R. Kane. Apollo Heights released White Music For Black People in 2007 that featured production by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins and collaborations with members of TV on the Radio and rapper Mos Def.
Apollo Heights - “Shallow by Shallow"
The Veldt - “CCCP”
Kenna is the only person on this list who can boast of having an entire chapter of pop-sociologist Malcom Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink devoted to a detailed account of his travails in getting a record deal. The Ethiopian-born, American-bred son of immigrants worked with Chad Hugo of The Neptunes to co-produce both his debut album, New Sacred Cow (2003), as well as his sophomore effort, Make Sure They See My Face (2007). The former still resonates as a solid album of rock and electronica-flecked synth-pop while the latter’s title would prove ironic, perhaps intentionally, when it didn’t do much to improve Kenna’s visibility. Kenna sang lead vocals on “Games You Can Win,” one of the better songs on RJD2’s recently released album The Colossus and also has plans to put out an album of his own new material titled Songs for Flight later this year.
Kenna - “Hell Bent"
RJD2 - “Games You Can Win” featuring Kenna
When Res released her debut, How I Do, in 2001, she had help from a pre-Santogold fame Santi White, who co-wrote a grip of the album’s songs, and production assistance from Doc, one-half of the underrated trip-hop duo Esthero. The album’s blend of pop, R&B, hip-hop and rock failed to garner much success for the Philadelphia-based singer, who recently provided an album’s worth of new material titled Black.Girls.Rock! for free online.
Res – “Golden Boys"
The presence of art rock flourishes, emotive singing, guitar wash and dark skin invite overly simplified allusions to the more prominent TV on the Radio, but the inclusion of strong Afro-pop and township rhythms is where this South African band begins to distinguish itself. In 2009, BLK JKS released both their Mystery EP and After Robots full-length debut album on Secretly Canadian.
BLK JKS – “Lakeside"
An up and coming artist in the nascent “chillwave” scene, this half Black, half Philipino bedroom producer and multi-instrumentalist is already distinguishing himself from his peers more for his heavy R&B and hip-hop leaning productions than for his mixed-race ethnicity.
Toro y Moi – “Blessa”
This 2006 documentary by filmmaker James Spooner begins with a sly condemnation of Patti Smith’s “Rock n’ Roll Nigger” and a dedication of the film to “every black kid who has ever been called nigger...and every white kid who thinks they know what that means.” From then on it’s a succession of black talking heads relating their experiences being “the only one” of their kind in a white-dominated music scene. At first, the exclusion of names, locations and/or band affiliations for all of the interviewees, save for the main four that are profiled in more depth, seems like a failing of the director to give his subjects more of an identity. But when the repetition of details becomes apparent, this intentional editing technique serves to unify the experiences of all the different people telling their stories. I definitely found myself nodding my head in recognition of the feelings, frustrations and fun chronicled by the interviewees.