ROCK AND ROLL: One of the Biggest Cases of Cultural Appropriation

By Niamh Christian

When you think of early rock and roll what comes to mind? The Beatles? Elvis? The Rolling Stones? Well, Rock and Roll has been around for longer than they have, rooting right back to 1940’s Blues music. Artists such as Chuck Berry, Jackie Brenton & His Delta Cats and The Ink Spot all had an important role to play in early Rock music, leading the way from the traditional way the world knew blues.

Oh but isn’t Elvis Presley the King of Rock and Roll?

In the words of Samantha White from Dear White People (which you should DEFINITELY watch if you haven’t already), Elvis is more like “the King of whitewashing and cultural appropriation”. In a time where Black music was popular but Black people were not, record companies desperately searched for a white singer who could sing with the soul that black singers do. Then along came Elvis. The musician who could perform black music, like black artists but without being black. He was exactly what the world needed in order to accept Rock music.

Rock and Roll came about due to Blues music evolving to survive in the white-dominated mainstream, with artists such as The Beatles having numerous songs written by Black People. However, the majority of black songwriters often went uncredited and unpaid for their work.
Songs such as ‘Twist and Shout’ (originally performed by The Isley Brothers) and ‘Roll over Beethoven’ (originally sung by Chuck Berry) are just two of the many covers commonly mistaken as Beatles originals.

The Isley Brothers – Twist and Shout

In an interview, Lennon did explain that when starting out, the Beatles were not good enough to write their own music, so they put their own twist on the music they loved. A good proportion of that music was by black songwriters. Subsequently, by doing this, they were aiding the world’s vision of Rock music being a white genre.

In the early days of 1973, Margo Jefferson had her article ‘Ripping Off Black Music‘ published in Harper Magazine. In it, she stated

‘The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites.”

A terrifyingly accurate prediction for the modern interpretation of Rock History. In fact, in one of Jimi Hendrix’s obituary’s, it called him ‘a black man in the alien world of rock’. 1970, just over a decade since Rock had been given a white face and Hendrix was believed to be an alien to the genre. One thing you can be sure on is that Jimi Hendrix a lone wolf in the rock music world, the only black man with a firmly secured place in its History.

American singer-songwriter and guitarist Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Newport Pop Festival, Northridge, California, June 22, 1969. Morgan Media Partners/Ed Caraeff.

This hasn’t changed in the 21st century either, as in 2011 when a ‘Classic Rock’ radio station based in New York did a poll to determine the ‘Top 1043 Song of all time” only 22 (2%) were recorded by black artists, and 16 of those were Jimi Hendrix.

Even in this ‘progressive modern world’, many people are trying to create, it is still a rarity to see many black faces among the majorly white world of rock. Growing up naive and uneducated, I genuinely just thought it was merely by chance that black people weren’t represented in rock music. I had believe there just wasn’t as many of them into it as there was white. I had no idea that the entire genre could be rooted back to African American music.

The whole scene has been redeveloped, with even more subgenres building from Rock music that is also inherently white. One of these genres is Punk music, made popular in the ’70s and took it upon themselves to turn Swattickas into a fashion trend. The intentions were indeed ironic, they connotations held with such a symbol are more than just problematic, and to be made a popular trend by white people was even more so.

Although the rebelliousness of punk saw the creation of the campaign that still goes on now ‘Rock Against Racism’, with support from artists such as The Clash; it was also a genre taken on by far-right extremists such as the Neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver.

ROCK AGAINST RACISM: MILITANT ENTERTAINMENT 1976-82

The counter-organisation to Rock Against Racism also came about, ‘Rock Against Communism’. A movement created by the Fascist Political Party, the National Front, and supported by many Nazi-Punk bands (because horrifically enough that actually is a subgenre) such as Skrewdriver, Skullhead, No Remorse and The Dentists. 

Rock and Roll is one of the first and largest cases of cultural appropriation, so much to the extent that the whole genre has been white-washed. Even today, black people in the alternative scene can feel isolated and unrepresented. Despite so heavily fighting for a right to stand out and be different, the racism that has been ingrained into the scene needs to be acknowledged in order for it to be fixed.

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