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Congratulations, you made it to February! This month is Black History Month, and what better time to celebrate and (literally) amplify black voices?

The rock genre is a particularly important area in which we urgently need to acknowledge and promote black artists, for two key reasons. First of all, African Americans literally invented the genre, which was then stolen from them via appropriation and exclusion. Secondly, barriers created by a society of systemic racism make it astronomically harder for POC to succeed - especially in the music industry.

In her 1973 essay Ripping off Black Music, Margo Jefferson attributes many of the problems with rock music to the practice of minstrelsy, which began in the early 1800s. It involved white performers using blackface to mimic black people as a form of sadistic entertainment for white audiences. This practice continued over the course of more than a century - even the BBC had The Black and White Minstrel Show, which somehow only stopped airing in 1978. Minstrelsy normalised the appropriation of black culture for white audiences, whilst actual black people were entirely excluded.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, African American music developed from 'field hollers' during slavery, to ragtime, to jazz. A notable pioneer was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a massive influence on later stars such as Elvis and Chuck Berry. In the 50s, rock n roll was born: a direct result of attitudes worsened by minstrelsy, and the popularity of 'rhythm and blues' (otherwise known as the black genre). At this time, segregation laws were still in place, which meant this music was written, performed, and produced entirely by teams of African Americans. Even with the limited resources they had access to, the music still became wildly popular and eventually permeated white society.

As a result, the black musicians were exploited by the white music industry for profit. Artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard saw huge commercial success, but were viewed solely as entertainment for white audiences. White musicians like Elvis and Buddy Holly jumped on the back of this success, appropriating the genre for their own benefit. In Jefferson's essay, she labels Elvis as the “greatest minstrel America ever spawned” - he profited from black culture more than any black people ever did.

With rock music’s roots in the simultaneous appropriation of black culture and the exclusion of black people, its severe lack of black artists today isn't very surprising. When rock music is mentioned, what comes to mind? Probably bands like Arctic Monkeys, AC/DC, Royal Blood, Foo Fighters and Oasis - a stark contrast the origins of the genre. This facade of rock being a white men's club further puts off both POC and women alike from participating in the conversation.

Thankfully, all this bullshit hasn't managed to put everyone off. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine has always been a huge advocate for black voices in the industry, and demonstrates commercial success for POC in rock is still possible. We've put together a playlist of some of our favourite black artists killing it right now, ones we think you guys will love too. The origin story of rock music an incredibly stark warning of how imperative it is that we don't allow entire cultures to be erased from history - and if listening to great music can be a way to prevent this from happening, there's no reason you shouldn't be on board!

How can I help?

  • Look at your listening habits - should they be more diverse?

  • Actively seek out new POC artists to listen to

  • Support these artists - follow them on Spotify and social media, and share and engage with their content. This will help others find their music more easily!

  • Buy their merch, go to their shows! You get cool stuff and experiences, they get financial support. Win win!

  • Check out our Black Rock Matters playlist as a starting point if you’re stuck!

Sources and further reading:

Listen to the BLACK ROCK MATTERS playlist on Spotify

Article by Courtney Myers

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