Lisa Kekaula, lead singer of the rock, soul and punk quartet The Bellrays, is channeling Tina Turner. On one hand, it could be the muscular legs that are planted wide and shaking as she sings. But it’s probably the voice: She has this gutbucket growl that’s only getting more intense because she’s becoming increasingly frustrated at the ineptitude of the sound man here at this basement venue, Prague. Mics aren’t working and the mix in the house is way off. Despite this, The Bellrays are delivering the goods. The packed crowd, mostly white and largely male, is enthusiastically behind them. And the handful of black faces in the room are right there, too, thrilled to see this black woman rocker represent.
Here in Austin, Texas at the this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, it’s being underscored again and again: It’s a great time to be a black musician who’s providing alternatives to what’s assaulting listeners multiple times an hour on most radio stations. Call it black rock, black alternative, Afro-Punk, whatever. The fact is that across the country, black artists are making music that doesn’t fit neatly into the either/or boxes of hip hop and R&B. Audiences are noticing, they’re open and they want more.
When asked about The Bellrays’ show he’d just seen, musician Sharif Iman of Nashville, Tennessee, who describes his own sound as “Seal meets The Foo Fighters,” said excitedly, “This just goes to show that black people can do anything. We don’t have to be limited to just hip hop.”
This moment has been at least 25 years in the making, if you count from the formation of the Black Rock Coalition, the progressive arts organization that was formed in 1985 by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, journalist and cultural critic Greg Tate and artist manager Konda Mason. But it’s been only in the last few years that the idea of a black alternative experience has been showing up more and more in the culture. In the early aughts, James Spooner’s film Afro-Punk and Raymond Gayle’s Electric Purgatory, both of which highlighted blacks in the punk and rock scenes. By 2007, major media outlets such as the New York Times, the New York Daily News, MTV News and the venerable Ebony magazine noted how African-Americans artists and audiences were not limiting themselves to hip hop and R&B. Then black rock musical Passing Strange won a Tony Award in 2008. Barry Jenkins’ film, Medicine For Melancholy, about two black hipsters in San Francisco was released to critical acclaim in 2009. Kiss The Sky, Journalist Farai Chideya’s debut novel that’s set in the world of black female rocker, came out that same year.
And that’s on top of the growing number of artists who are charting their own path with sounds not usually associated with African Americans. Those interviewed for this article were encouraged by what they felt the future held.
“Generally, we are encouraged with what we are seeing right now,” says Justin Robinson, one third of American roots trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops. “Even though we have a long way to go, the Chocolate Drops are just one band in a smallish wave of black folks doing something other than the status quo.” He cites artists such as Noisettes, Janelle Monae, Lightspeed Champion, Ebony Bones, Toro y Moi and the oOohh Baby Gimme Mores and others as artists who are leading the way for something different.
Likewise, blogger Winston Ford, who runs music blog thecouchsessions.com, is extremely encouraged. “In the past two or three years I’ve noticed more people of color speaking freely on Twitter and Facebook about their love for non-traditional artists, black and white. The Internet has opened up a new market for those musicians who have been shut out of mainstream television and radio.”
The creativity comes from a place of authenticity. “It’s encouraging to see more black artists who are creating something ‘nontraditional’ not because it’s a gimmick,” says Tony Roopa, member of Houston-based rockers Peekaboo Theory, “but because they are actually passionate about creating unique music.”
But in the quest to escape from narrowly defined boxes, artists caution that they don’t want to find themselves in another one labeled “black alternative”.
“Why do we put black in front of the art? That’s whack,” says M. Sayyid of the alternative hip hop group Anti-Pop Consortium, who feels that blackness is self-evident. “That’s like saying ‘black Jesus,’” says fellow APC member Priest. “It’s redundant.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Atlantan Brittany Bosco, whose experimental sound is both contemporary and a nod to classic sounds from a bygone era. “I don’t believe in ‘black alternative music.’ Why should it be a color?” she asks. “The minute we tag a race on it we box ourselves in.”
Will Johnson, who performed at SXSW music as his alter ego Gordon Voidwell and whose music is a mashup of Talking Heads, Rick James and Prince, thinks this resistance to categorization may be one thing slowing the growth of a bigger black alternative scene. He says, “I think most successful black artists making “alternative” music probably prefer to be seen as artists rather than ‘black artists.’ While I feel strongly about my identity as a black man performing with a black band—an intentional decision—I also prefer my music to be thought of as music rather than ‘black music.’”
The $64,000 question: What’s it going to take for black alternative artists to reach bigger audiences? Encouragingly, The Bellrays’ Kekaula has noted a slow browning of her audiences both here in the States and abroad. “I’m seeing more black women showing up, and that really pleases me.” But since these bands don’t fit into a traditional “black music” category, it will require audiences to put forth some effort and meet these artists halfway. “The main battle is within our own communities,” says Darrell McNeill, director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition. “Many of us are addicted to, and take our cues from, the relentless onslaught of bullshit [in mainstream pop culture]”.
Back at The Bellrays show, Iman the musician thinks the solution is simple: “More people—especially black people—need to see bands like The Bellrays,” he says emphatically. “They need to have an incredible experience like we just did, and they’ll get it.”