How Black Fans and Artists Are Reclaiming Rock Music
"Why are you telling us we can't listen to this music when we created it?"
Published Mar 30, 2022Kris Cromwell walked into a mosh pit that took up the entire room at one of the first age-restricted shows she got into — a past-curfew gig by the Western Canadian punk band Choke. Underage, underdressed for the weather and (pretending not to be) uncomfortable in her brand-new combat boots, mosh pits felt like certain death to the then-15-year-old. But after locating her friend Des, a 6'4" white guy built like a linebacker, Cromwell found her safe space among the pulsing crowd.
That was until the band took a break, the music stopped and the mosh pit parted to reveal what looked like the Hitler Youth standing in front of her. The young men who emerged sported white-laced Dr. Martens, button-down shirts, pencil pants and swastika armbands — the unmistakeable uniform of a Nazi punk skinhead. The group of seven felt like a thousand to Cromwell, one of the only racialized people in the hall. All she could think was, hide.
"It totally changed the environment, the experience; it changed everything for me," she says. While the skinheads were a minority in the crowd, it troubled Cromwell that nobody challenged their presence. "There was a tacit approval that this is part of the scene and if you want to be a part of the scene, you have to accept that."
Cromwell wasn't harmed that night, but she's not alone in her tense experiences as a Black person involved in the often white-dominated genre of rock. Attending live rock shows can be difficult for Black fans who are often subject to racism, violence, othering and gatekeeping within the crowd.
Laina Dawes, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University, has explored this reality in What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. For her book, she heard from Black female metal fans who've been pushed, punched, body-slammed and called slurs at concerts. While Black listeners can stay clear of shows to avoid potential harassment, heavy music is meant to be experienced in concert. "With all of these harder underground and extreme metal bands, seeing them live is extremely important," Dawes says.
Across the different branches of rock, experiencing the skilled live reproduction of an album and keeping underground groups afloat is essential. But for the only Black person in the crowd, even when violence doesn't occur, "the tension in the air can be just painful to endure," as Dawes writes in her book.
Cromwell, who's now 42, loves the concert-going experience and has been to her fair share of punk, rock and rockabilly shows, even when the crowds were mostly white. But as racial tensions have flared over the past few years, she's more hesitant to put herself in situations where she's the only racialized person in the room. "I don't know that I want to be in a room with 20,000 white folks," she says, adding that it feels like an unnecessary layer of risk on top of COVID-19 health concerns. "People who are racialized as 'other' are constantly putting in the emotional labour of being more vigilant than they should have to be."
Whether it's anxieties around physical safety or a feeling of being out of place, participating in the live culture of rock isn't always so simple for Black fans. "You can't just relax and enjoy the show," says Cromwell. This goes against the genre's reputation of "liberation from societal conventions." However, Black rock artists and fans are up to the task of reformation and reclamation: they're dismantling the genre's whiteness, embracing its Black history and creating independent spaces for BIPOC audiences and musicians.
For Natalie Harmsen, the whitewashed nature of rock was less apparent until she started going to live shows. When she would find new indie artists on 8tracks.com, an internet radio website popular in the 2010s, she wasn't necessarily thinking about who else was listening to the same music.
But when she dragged her best friend to see one of her favourite indie rock bands, Two Door Cinema Club, it became clear that they attracted a very specific listener: white. As far as Harmsen and her friend could see, all the attendees were white, with the exception of one other Black girl. "When you actually go to the show and look around and you see nobody who looks like you, it's very strange because it makes you wonder, 'Is this for me?'"
As Harmsen and her friend, both 15 at the time, got bumped and jostled at the edge of her first-ever mosh pit, she became conscious of her long hair. What would she do if one of these white men grabbed her hair and dragged her into the middle of the swirling pit, full of people bigger, older and stronger than her? "When you're focused on that you're not really listening to the music anymore," she says. Instead, she made eye contact with her friend, asking wordlessly: "What are we doing here?"
It made sense that Harmsen felt out of place at that moment. From the massive success of rock icons like David Bowie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to even current-day mainstream charts, rock is a genre where it pays to be white — literally.
Scholars like anthropologist and author Maureen Mahon have looked into this pattern. In her book, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, Mahon explores how Black R&B and gospel artists like Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe set the stage for rock 'n' roll. However, they never achieved mainstream success or profit like the white artists who drew from their music. For instance, Thornton gained some notoriety around her 1952 single "Hound Dog," but it was Elvis Presley's cover of the song that sold millions of copies and went to top Billboard's R&B, country and pop charts. Known as "The Elvis Effect," this phenomenon has resulted in "the dominance of white artists and audiences in rock music and its numerous subgenres."
Growing up, Harmsen, now a 25-year-old assistant editor in Canada for Complex (and, full disclosure, a one-time Exclaim! contributor), recalls being made fun of for her "white taste in music" and not understanding why something important to her identity was called into question: "I was like, 'What are you talking about? I can listen to whatever I want, music is for everybody.'"
In the interviews that Dawes conducted with Black female metal, hardcore and punk fans, she heard a recurring theme: "Why are you telling us we can't listen to this music when we created it?"
Some Black rock fans, like Daniel G. Wilson, are channeling this resistance into creating their own spaces, outside of the mainstream. The best day of Wilson's life took place in summer 2018, in the now-closed Toronto punk rock record shop Faith/Void, surrounded by sweating half-dressed masses, pounding speakers and pie. It felt a little like they were going to die — they were running on two hours of sleep — but they were too happy to care. Not only was it their birthday (hence the pie), but it was also the second night of Festival Lingua Franca, their passion project dedicated to showcasing BIPOC rock and underground bands. It was the first time many of the attendees had been to a rock show with that much diversity both onstage and off. Wilson had never seen so much joy on the faces of an audience before.
Part of Mississauga-based noise rock band JONCRO, Wilson started Lingua Franca because they didn't see bands with BIPOC members getting booked. Without gigs, these bands were doomed to break up before anyone started to care. So, Wilson reached out through their network and decided to create their own space. "The punk rock ethos and unspoken manifesto is DIY — do it yourself," they say. "I wanted to show that you could have a full-on, diverse, loud rock, punk and metal fest and it could be done on a local grassroots level."
Dawes says it's not uncommon for venues or record labels to dismiss Black rock and underground artists. "It goes back to systemic and institutional discrimination and how it permeates every aspect of the entertainment industry." She's heard excuses that Black rock musicians don't "sell" or that the Black rock band has already been "done" by 1980s group Living Colour.
Wilson says the obstacles faced by Black rock artists operate within a "feedback loop." Firstly, bookers are reluctant to take a chance on these artists due their implicit or explicit biases. Then, Wilson also cites a lack of initial push from their own communities. "If you're the only kid in your family who likes Metallica or Iron Maiden … all your friends think you're whitewashed," they say. "The white guy you went to high school with, who has mostly white friends, they're going to his show right?"
Wilson feels frustrated seeing the same white bands always getting booked for GTA shows. "If we lived in Thunder Bay, that's a different story, but we live in Toronto," they say. "It should be very easy … just by nature to have a diverse lineup."
Dawes encourages Black rock artists to go DIY and start their own record labels and book their own shows. "I have no faith that these independent music labels are ever going to change," she says. "Don't wait for someone to discover you — you have to create those opportunities for yourself." She sees potential for change through online hubs like Black Rockers United and groups like the Atlanta-based multimedia collective of organizers and artists, PUNK BLACK. Active since 2015, the group has hosted over 70 events and shows across the U.S.
Wilson says these independent events, like Festival Lingua Franca, allow bands and audiences to see themselves reflected in one another. "It's a magical thing when you realize: 'I'm surrounded by people who understand me,'" they say. "I don't feel like the odd man out anymore. I'm among my people."
During a 2019 Steve Lacy show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, Harmsen got to experience that harmony. Even before Lacy hit the stage, she knew it was going to be a great show. Rapper, singer and DJ Kari Faux was opening for him that night, stirring up the crowd with mashups of old-school throwbacks. As soon as the first few bars of a Whitney Houston ballad trickled out of the speakers, Harmsen's friend turned to smile at her — it was a tune that Black folks immediately knew. She scanned the audience and saw every other Black person immediately vibing; it was a communal experience. Later, when she heard the twang of Lacy's syrupy jazz guitar echo through the dark venue instead of the walls of her own apartment, Harmsen felt herself floating away.
She believes that diversity and safety at a concert is a shared responsibility. Harmsen says artists shouldn't force a certain demographic of listeners, but emphasizes the importance of making gigs a safe space for all attendees, letting them know: "This is a place where you can be yourself, feel welcome and no harm should come to you." From fans, she wants to see a dismantling of the notion that only certain people can listen to or play a certain kind of music.
Dawes is excited to see more Black musicians in rock like the Tetrarch guitarist Diamond Row, Nova Twins and Big Joanie diversifying the genre and bridging this divide. "There are people who are just doing what they want to do," she says. "With younger generations, there's more of an option for them to discover music that fits who they are, instead of music they're told they have to listen to."