Why African-Americans are ambivalent about Elvis

OPINION - Deemed as a racist and a soulless thief, his legacy combats protesters who claim him as the sole creator and originator of rock 'n' roll. In reality, neither is correct...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Before there was an undisputed black King of Pop, there was a controversial white King of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Elvis Presley has been criticized and praised, worshiped and denounced, and subject to bouts of speculation and investigation mostly amongst the forever waning war of races in America. Deemed as a racist and a soulless thief, his legacy combats protesters who claim him as the sole creator and originator of rock ‘n’ roll. In reality, neither is correct.

In 1989, Chuck D popularly stated in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant (expletive) to me, you see/Straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain.” While no one can prove Elvis Presley was a racist, there’s no doubt that his legacy would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans and supporters of the black community whom inspired all sounds of popular American music today.

From Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole to Fats Domino, Presley openly admitted to his influences within the African-American community upon his ascendance to superstardom.

The hostility towards Elvis Presley’s legacy wouldn’t be so intense if proper credit were given to both sides of the coin: The first side being the fact that Elvis never denied his black musical inspiration; the second belonging to the fact that Elvis duplicated his influences within a white body, populating it to larger audiences.

Perhaps the conflict arises when the question comes into play: Did Elvis do everything he could to educate his White audience about the true origins of the genre? The answer is not as easy or black-and-white as it seems.

In 1999, Mos Def released his critically acclaimed solo album Black on Both Sides with his conversational song “Rock N Roll” regarding the hidden origins of black music in America. Mos Def sings, “I said, Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul (huh)/Chuck Berry is rock and roll (damn right)/You may dig on the Rolling Stones/But they ain’t come up with that style on they own (uh-uh).” In this political song, Mos Def is not purposely negating the history of Elvis Presley as fantasized by White America, but is most importantly rectifying lies throughout musical history.

Chuck Berry was the originator of rock ‘n’ roll with his monumental “Maybelline.” Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Ivory Joe Hunter, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and B.B. King were amongst the first artists to create the sound, simply out of progression in time of their music and acts. While Elvis made acquaintance with many of these artists and later went on to attempt to introduce a few of them to his white audiences, the amount of money he profited from what they essentially cultivated is the main issue at hand. Presley was an imitation.

That is not to be disrespectful, but to say with the thought that ‘imitation is the biggest form of flattery.’ Even in 1958, Muddy Waters, whom Presley slated as one of his hugest influences, was famously rumored to have listened to Presley’s 1958 recording of Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoler’s “Trouble” and stated “I better watch out. I believe whitey’s picking up on the things that I’m doing.”

Even so, many of Presley’s black counterparts praised him for his integration of black music into mainstream music. As the white embodiment of the greats before him, can Black America continue to blame Elvis Presley for the pedestal that White America places him on?

No, Elvis Presley did not drill educate his audience every time he had the chance on the origin of his dance moves, singing style and body of work. But he also never denied his ties to black music. He never self-proclaimed that rock ‘n’ roll belonged to him. But popular statements such as John Lennon’s, “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” is cause of such resentment from the black community.

In 2002, Chuck D publicly recanted his 1989 ill-informed rant about Presley. “Elvis was a brilliant artist,” he began. “As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all know that, (in fact), Eminem is the new Elvis because, number one, he had the respect for black music that Elvis had.”

Though Chuck D’s sentiments changed, the subject of Presley remains to be divided amongst many black people. For such a disenfranchised community, anything that seems to be deemed as “black,” is often flipped solely to be deemed as “white” when it evolves to the categorization as American music. Still evident today, it can be seen through the Norwegian alleged mass murderer’s manifesto for hip-hop to be considered “European” instead of “ghetto/ethnic/multiculturalist.” Yes, Elvis had respect for those who came before him, so maybe the issue remains because he didn’t assist the rest of the world to do so.