‘It’s code,’ Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone, and the irony of Black musical articulation
TheGrio examines the nuances of Black American speech as it relates to Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner's comments about Black and female musicians not being as articulate as the white musicians in his book "The Masters."
The level of a musician’s articulation is determined by that artist’s ability to communicate to and with the community that they are aiming their art toward, as well as their individual need to be truthful to themselves.
For generations, the Black community reinforced relating to the lyrics and musings of our artists with evolving colloquial phrases. Whether it’s Smokey Robinson’s writing, “My smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up,” or Inspectah Deck spitting, “Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these mockeries,” fans give feedback of approval ranging from “That’s deep,” “Preach,” to “That’s a bar.”
Unfortunately, our communicative executions between each other have been relegated as uncouth, low-brow, or even ignorant by perpetrators or subscribers to the doctrine that props whiteness and white language as superior.
Enter Jann Wenner.
Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, recently spoke with The New York Times about his new book, “The Masters,” a collection of extensive interviews he did with seven legendary rock musicians — Bono (U2), Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), John Lennon (The Beatles), Pete Townshend (The Who), and Bruce Springsteen.
The interviewer, David Marchese, addressed a passage in the intro of “The Masters” in which Wenner stated that he didn’t include any Black or female subjects because they didn’t fit into his “zeitgeist.” When Marchese asked him to elaborate, Wenner replied that Black and female artists were not as articulate and philosophical when it came to describing their life and artistry.
“I read interviews with them. I listen to their music,” Wenner said. “I mean, look at what Pete Townshend was writing about, or Jagger, or any of them. They were deep things about a particular generation, a particular spirit, and a particular attitude about rock ’n’ roll. Not that the others weren’t, but these were the ones that could really articulate it.”
When Marchese challenged Wenner, he doubled down, saying that Black artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, along with female artists like Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, never conveyed the articulation that he was looking for.
“The selection was intuitive. It was what I was interested in. You know, just for public relations sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.”
Wenner’s thoughts are a microcosm of Rolling Stone’s unspoken edict since he and Ralph J. Gleason founded the magazine in 1967; they cover Black artists for obligatory reasons when they get too big to ignore.
In 1979, Michael Jackson’s management reached out to Rolling Stone about a possible cover story following the release of his successful solo album, “Off the Wall.” Wenner wrote back, saying Rolling Stone did a cover of Jackson already in 1970, and the magazine “would very much like to do a major story on Michael Jackson, but feel it is not a cover story.”
Rolling Stone eventually did a cover story on Jackson in 1983 following the release of “Thriller.” However, subsequent Rolling Stone stories on Jackson and other Black artists either skew historical context or document music without full cultural understanding, as evident in a condescending review of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.”
Jackson only appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover six times, despite being one of the biggest-selling solo artists in world music history. Lennon, one of the subjects of Wenner’s book, appeared on the cover more than almost any other artist, including three times in the publication’s first 10 issues.
As Wenner stated in one of the magazine’s first issues: “We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll.”
Certainly, the music of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, etc., was transformative and culture-shifting in the 1960s and over time. However, Wenner acts as a preservationist by calling these musicians the real “Masters” while saying that Black artists, despite being geniuses, are not as articulate or philosophical enough to speak about their artistry — the same thought process that relegated Black music as being shallow exaltations of titillation.
For Wenner to say that Black and female artists don’t “measure up to that same historical standard” of the white artists in his book, he only further affirmed that magazines like Rolling Stone operate with a mission statement to rewrite history, to erase the foundation Black artists created for the genre that people like Wenner hold so dear, in an attempt to replace them with white artists as if they birthed the genre from thin air.
More importantly, Wenner’s view of Black and female artists’ inability to articulate themselves in a certain manner through their music and/or during interviews indicates the far-reaching myopia of Black expression practiced by publications and institutions like Rolling Stone.
The ability to profoundly express oneself lies in that artist’s ability to communicate with the community that they are writing for or reflecting the dialect of their region.
Wenner, Rolling Stone, and similar publications and institutions prop the King’s English as the template for the American language and see members of underrepresented communities who use it in a converted fashion as unintelligent.
The irony is that Black Americans were actively denied the chance to master the language they are criticized for not speaking perfectly.
For centuries, enslaved Blacks were forbidden from reading and writing, with terroristic violence or even death as a consequence for doing so. When Blacks became free in 1865, the government implemented wide-sweeping tactics or neglect when it came to education.
Substandard resources that hampered the Black community’s education and language potential between 1895’s Plessy v. Ferguson to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education continue to plague Black and brown communities in 2023, thanks to similar resource downgrades and book-banning campaigns.
Despite the obstacles, Black Americans remained resilient and ingenious. Using what they knew of the English language, those same enslaved Blacks started speaking in coded language to communicate. Those codes were used in the songs sung in the fields as they made plans to escape, either literal or imaginative, so that their white masters didn’t figure out what they were saying.
That tradition of coded language, particularly in music, continued beyond emancipation and carried into the 20th and 21st centuries. New York City slang is differentiated within the boroughs. Wu-Tang Clan introduced the world to Staten Island’s unique dialect with terms like “su,” and “Wallys.” Meanwhile, Nas, Mobb Deep, and other inhabitants of Queensbridge revealed the “Dunn” language on albums like “Illmatic” and “The Infamous.” Terms like “twerk” and “crunk” emanated through Southern Black hip-hop culture and neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans and Atlanta.
Dave Chappelle summed it up best in season one of “Chappelle’s Show” when he quipped at the hilarity of white ambiguity to the term “skeet,” a slang term for male ejaculation. “You know what’s so funny about the word ‘skeet?’ White people don’t know what it means yet. When they figure it out, they’re going to be, like, ‘My God! What have we done?”
So, to Jann Wenner, and Rolling Stone as a whole, the reason you all feel that Black musicians aren’t articulate is that we don’t want you to know what we’re talking about. If that seems harsh or exclusionary, they learned from the masters.
Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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