Elvis, The Who, The Beatles and others have defined rock 'n' roll. In Detroit, the music scene is as vibrant as ever, and black women are at the forefront. But how can black rock escape the underground?
Everyone remembers their first time. Raven Love’s was at a Stevie Nicks concert, in the audience, lost in a sea of bodies. She was 15 and instantly blown away. “I went home that night and wrote my first song,” Raven says. While her first love is technically writing (she holds a degree in English from Wayne State University), music started to take over. She practiced hard and taught herself keyboard and guitar, eventually forming a band, Raven Love and the 27s. That was in 2015, eight years after her Stevie Nicks experience. Raven wanted to harness that same energy on the stage.
She’s black and she rocks. And that shouldn’t be so surprising, but for many, it is. Rock music hasn’t always played fair with its black roots. Elvis was dubbed the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, yet owed a huge debt to Bessie Smith, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and a host of others who innovated and elevated the music, yet rarely enjoyed the commercial success of their white counterparts.
Raven, a Detroit native, is familiar with this narrative, a historic sweep that has even touched the local scene. “Being a woman fronting a rock band, and then being a black woman with a bunch of black musicians, you stand out,” Raven says. “Even with our first album release, which was (called) Shameless, at the end of 2016, the decision was made not to have a photo of the band that wasn’t absolutely necessary.” Why? Because “(people) were so quick to label us based on the image. (People) would see a picture of the band and call us soul; they’d call us R&B. They’d call us everything under the sun except for rock because how could four black kids from Detroit possibly be making rock ‘n’ roll music?”
For Raven and her bandmates, that perception proved a difficult thing to swallow, but it was also, she notes, indicative of the scene. “I still don’t see it being 100 percent open – especially for female musicians, especially for black female musicians,” she says. “Not right now. The space is opening up but it has a long way to go.”
Charting this distance is as easy as plotting what for many rock aficionados would serve as the genre’s incandescent North Star: Jimi Hendrix. Emerging – no, more like exploding – on the scene with 1967’s Are You Experienced?, Hendrix changed the trajectory, the taste, the very inflection and reflection of rock, yet black rock didn’t find a foothold, or port of call. It was more or less an outgrowth of a countercultural or anomalous shift in tone and some, like Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, took up Hendrix’s mantle in subtle – and unsubtle – ways.
You can point to Prince in the late ’70s onward through the ’80s, with the call taken up by New York’s all-black rock band Living Colour to Lenny Kravitz, and maybe you could even point to Gary Clark Jr., since rock derives from the blues, making his mainstream rise a circular undertaking. The thing is, it never really turned into a movement, but black rock history, according to Wayne State University professor M.L. Liebler, is still very foundational. Hank Ballard & The Midnighters with guitarist Billy Davis (who is still active as a Hendrix-style guitarist at 80) would get the vote as the first rocker, sans the word black.
“Hank wrote the first real rock song ‘The Twist’ in the late ’50s,” Liebler says. “In mid 1960s, Black Merda – still active – emerged during the time period of black psychedelic/acid rock movement at Motown. They were introduced to another black rock/funkster Ellington ‘Fugi’ Jordan (‘I’d Rather Go Blind’) by Eddie Kendrick. He still fronts Merda. In the mid 1970s, Death appeared on the scene. Death were – are the first black acid rockers and the grandfathers of black punk rockers.”
These seismic events led – in the late ’70s and ’80s – to “the immensely popular Algebra Mother fronted by African-American guitarist/singer Gerald Collins (later of Jeecy & The Jungle) became well known.” By the early ’90s, The Electrifying Mojo – the iconic radio broadcaster – appeared on the scene, “blending heavy metal with Prince, and later became an integral part of techno, which blends everything,” Liebler adds. Even so, Liebler says, this blending doesn’t necessarily translate into racial harmony on a large scale.
W. Kim Heron agrees. As a Detroit Free Press entertainment writer in the early ’80s, he saw firsthand the pull and tug of rock radio’s war against itself and how African-American artists were perceived in those days. In fact, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, music critics started saying that AOR – a term for Album Oriented Radio – actually stood for Apartheid Oriented Radio. “Think of the hostility that Prince encountered – and, of course, he’s now rock canon,” Heron says. “Michael Jackson crossed over with ‘Thriller’ only with the clout of CBS hammering at radio stations and MTV, and his stature is secure for posterity. But there’s a history of struggle and it’s still going on. You don’t want to oversimplify, and whole books have been written about the complexities of the subject, but those are some of the dynamics. The way forward is to be cognizant of the past and, as the Impressions would say, ‘keep on pushing.'”
Veteran entertainment writer Jim McFarlin served as a music critic for the Detroit News for 10 years and, in that time, the color divide still existed. “No, there was no black rock music scene in Detroit in those days,” McFarlin says. “There were precious few people of color playing rock ‘n’ roll at all. It was almost unheard of that the music crossed over.” Knowing and engaging with music history, particularly black music history and rock ‘n’ roll’s part in it, is important for fostering a well-rounded audience, who might not even think about black rock in any city, let alone Detroit.
“What the narrow-minded, undereducated rock fan doesn’t realize is that the roots of the music he or she covets so much come from the blues and chord progressions of the Mississippi Delta,” McFarlin says. “Rock ‘n’ roll is the blues, simple as that. I think it would help if major artists of note made that fact clear every now and then to the fans who adore them. It’s like the Duke (Duke Ellington) once said: ‘There are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.'”
‘Good Feeling Music’
Midnight, founder of the rock band Cast Iron Cornbread, knew good music when she heard and sang it – she started out as an opera singer, winning local competitions in her youth. An opportunity to study at Eastern Michigan University ended after about a year, when she had her first child. But she kept making music, and to her surprise, landed on rock. “When I started writing, I started writing rock songs,” Midnight says. “This is where I want to be. Music is colorful, it’s universal.”
The native Detroiter, who had performed all over metro Detroit, was ready to form her own group. She went with the name Cast Iron Cornbread for one simple reason: “I believe the best kind of cornbread you can get is out a cast iron. That’s the best me you’re going to get. Everybody loves cornbread – it’ll get you full.” Midnight has scored bookings from the name alone, without people ever seeing her. White venues tend to accept both black and white acts, but Midnight has found some reluctance on the part of urban venues.
“They try to make us underground and I don’t like that,” Midnight says. “Black rock in Detroit actually lives but it’s not acknowledged. (People) need to come out and experience what we originated in the first place. This rock music is important. Just drink from the cup before you judge the cup. Just because it says rock, does not mean it’s white, doesn’t mean it’s just black – it’s music, good feeling music at that.”
Treble or Bass
Mike Brooks, a guitarist and band leader of Blackmail felt so good about music that he hit the club scene right after graduating from Southeastern High School. “The minute I got out, I was out on the scene rocking,” Brooks says. He stayed active on the music scene and about 10 years ago, formed Blackmail – an all-black rock group, which has since gained a white drummer. When he started off, Blackmail was likely one of the only black rock bands out there, but that’s definitely changing, he says. “I’m noticing more younger bands, people of color. They’re not so much into the mainstream commercial stuff. It’s like the scene is growing even more than it was.”
Despite this growth, Brooks would like to see people’s relationship to live music change. He believes, while there is an audience for almost everything, Detroiters should come out and support the live music that’s being made, especially those groups creating – and performing – original songs. “Detroit has so many talented musicians doing original music,” Brooks says. “You can go down to the casinos and whatnot (and see bands) doing note-for-note perfect interpretations of your Motown hits.” Still: “There’s so much exciting original music going on in the city.”
Jordan Sunshine, better known as Scientific Sunshine, writes songs that have what she calls “low-fi” quality, often recorded at home. Her work has been described as dream pop and electronica but she also fronted a punk band, yet realized she didn’t really play well with others – she wanted to be a one-woman band, and it’s worked out nicely so far. “I liked the music that I was making but I wanted to do more,” says the Flint native. “My music is very similar to black metal – it’s got that personal (feel like) you’re in the room with someone, one-on-one, all of those rock elements (are in) my music.”
Sunshine’s not buying the whole “rock is white music, soul is black music” divide and doesn’t believe Detroit’s artists should have to choose. “A lot of black music in Detroit gets pigeonholed as R&B or soul,” Sunshine says. “There is such a variety and so much talent. People in the metro Detroit area (need to) get out of your comfort zones.”
Deekah Wyatt (featured on this month’s cover) knows about the zones of comfort and tends to ignore them. The creator of the Cosmic Slop Festival – featuring rock musicians of color – as well the founder of the group Roxolydian, Wyatt stays busy. Playing and performing around metro Detroit seems like, for her, the ultimate dream. As a kid, she “stumbled” into rock via Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but her father had a better idea – Jimi Hendrix. The exposure literally opened up her skull and freed her mind.
She started creating music and doing the open mic circuit, but that was back when “no one wanted to see a black woman with a guitar for a while.” Although the black rock scene is populated by black women, and while the overarching theme extends to something like progress, women still have issues – even in a progressive city like metro Detroit. “There’s going to be different genres,” Wyatt says. “It ain’t all got to be smooth, it ain’t all gotta be in E flat. Shake it up a little bit. I wondered what would the world have looked like if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t been whitewashed? How free I feel sometimes. It’s not a miracle cure but a motherfucker feels powerful.”
She’s encouraged that groups such as Raven Love and the 27s, Cast Iron Cornbread, Blackmail, Scientific Sunshine, and a host of others – Roxolydian included – are pointing the way toward a movement that many don’t even know exist; it’s happening right in their backyard. The Cosmic Slop Festival was a way to give these groups and others a place to gather. Still, there’s plenty of work to do. “The problem I’ve encountered was being taken seriously,” Wyatt says. “I’ve also had some beautiful moments with people. My experience being a black woman being in rock ‘n’ roll is misogyny has no color. It’s color blind. It’s frustrating to me that rock ‘n’ roll is treated like a redheaded stepchild by black folk. I would just love for us to understand how liberating it can feel.”
Cornelius Fortune is BLAC Detroit’s senior editor.