In 1985, the same year Chuck Berry stole the music for “Johnny B. Goode” from Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Ronald Reagan began his second-term in office and crack cocaine was destroying parts of the country daily, The Black Rock Coalition (BRC) was formed in New York City. Conceived as an outlet to secure more exposure for Black bands while also educating the public about the contributions of musicians of color to the rock canon, the BRC was co-founded by cultural critic Greg Tate, artist manager Konda Mason, music producer Craig Street, trumpeter Flip Barnes and guitarist Vernon Reid. Within a matter of months, the BRC became a creative hub for all types of artists in desperate need of like-minded folks.
“In the beginning we had fewer musicians involved than other types of artists,” recalls Greg Tate. “But it didn’t take long for that to change.” Laying the foundation for rockers “of color” to be taken seriously in an era when most commercial Black artists were making R&B or rap, the BRC was a catalyst of sonic change in the city and later across the world. In addition to helping artists book shows at venues that might’ve otherwise passed them by, BRC meetings became the perfect place to vent frustrations as well as celebrate the culture.
As a rock fan since growing up in Harlem (I’m sure you can imagine how well that went over with family and friends), I felt as though I’d finally found my true tribe when I joined the electric collective in 1986. Back then, a regular BRC meeting could be a discussion about educating people on the legacies of rock pioneers, including Little Richard and Elvis songwriter Otis Blackwell, the politics of Black music, a tutorial from a visiting entertainment lawyer who explored contracts or a field trip to go see Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987).
In addition to attending meetings, I also journeyed to various downtown venues including the Ritz, Lone Star Café, the original Knitting Factory, the Kitchen, Tramps, Wetlands and especially CBGB. Famous for being the punk-rock shrine for the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and Blondie the decade before, by 1987, CBGB became the home of many classic BRC showcases featuring groups like J.J. Jumpers, PBR Streetgang, 24/7 Spyz, Faith, Eye & I and Living Colour. “The price of real estate makes it impossible to repeat that kind of scene in Manhattan now, especially on the Lower East Side,” says Living Colour leader Vernon Reid.
“Nobody can afford just to open some little hole in the wall where bands can develop. When real estate became blood sport, culture became contested ground.” Producer Craig Street adds, “I read an interview with Mark Ronson once where he talked about sneaking out of his house when he was a teenager so he could go see BRC shows.” Felice Rosser of the band Faith, who recently released the EP Soul Secrets, says, “There were also more than a few women working behind the scenes as well as lead singers like Kelli Sae in J.J. Jumpers, Amafujo Innis in PBR Streetgang and DK Dyson in Eye & I, who I always liked doing shows with. I learned so much from both her and Melvin.” Thirty years after its first meeting, the BRC is still active and organizing events across the country. Much like its younger sibling AfroPunk, the mission of the BRC has always been about inspiring and educating those folks, regardless of race, whose natural temperament and artistic leanings don’t conform to what society says is correct.
Below is a list of some of my favorite Black rockers, groups and solo artists that also serves as an introduction to the genre. As Black rock rebel George Clinton once proclaimed, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
While no one person invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry was one of the premier sonic architects of the sound that changed the world. In the mid-1950s, pouring a little country into his blues, the St. Louis native went to Chicago, strapped on an electric guitar and began composing blaring songs that became anthems for a new breed of young folks calling themselves teenagers. Signed to Chess Records at the urging of Muddy Waters, he started his number-one record streak with “Maybellene” in 1955 and watched as the world lost its collective mind. In the midst of the Cold War, Berry was the hottest entertainer in America, and soon delivered more hits including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry influenced a legion of aspiring young musicians including The Beach Boys and The Beatles, prompting genius child John Lennon to once remark, “If you gave rock and roll a new name, it would be Chuck Berry.”
EXPLORE Chuck Berry’s discography via Amazon | iTunes
Rocker Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame has never kept mum about how much he stole from Tina Turner’s wild girl stage persona and raging vocals. Discovered by guitarist and rock pioneer Ike Turner, he transformed the former country gospel gal Annie May Bullock in more ways than one. Whether Turner was rolling on the river with “Proud Mary,” travelling distances on the great Phil Spector produced single “River Deep, Mountain High” or appearing as the acid queen in the rock opera movie Tommy, she always dipped her rock in soulful chocolate and looked as though she might explode.
EXPLORE Tina Turner’s discography via Amazon | iTunes
Of course, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t the first Black rock star, but he was the man that set me onto the road toward electric guitar ruin when I saw a clip of him playing “The National Anthem” at the famed Woodstock Festival. A former sideman for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his first album Are You Experienced is a sonic attack that inspired everyone from Carlos Santana to Miles Davis to Prince. Featuring the cosmic acid of “Purple Haze” and the lush ballad “The Wind Cries Mary,” the album remains in heavy rock rotation almost forty years after its release. Although only 27 years old when he died in 1970, Hendrix’s legacy is as electric as his music.
EXPLORE Jimi Hendrix’s discography via Amazon | iTunes