It was 1 o'clock in the morning, and Vernon Reid was listening to what was then his favorite rock radio station. The disc jockey apparently didn't realize that young blacks like Reid listened to his show, because after playing Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" he commented: "You know, it's funny -- Hendrix is black, and yet his music doesn't sound black at all."
"It was one of the rude things that first got me thinking about race and rock," Reid remembers. "It was a call-in show, and I was so offended by this attempt to separate a black man from his art that I stayed up all night trying to call up the deejay and refute him. I never did get through."
Reid is finally getting through now. As the prime impetus behind the New York-based Black Rock Coalition, the 29-year-old Brooklyn guitarist is publicly challenging the notion that rock 'n' roll is a white genre that blacks don't play and don't listen to. He's not just talking about it, either. With his band, Living Colour, he is demonstrating just how effectively young blacks can handle power chords, psychedelic solos and social commentary.
Living Colour's debut album will be released on Epic Records in February, and tonight the band headlines the Black Rock Coalition's first event outside New York, a "Black Magic Ball" at the Old Post Office Pavilion. Opening the show will be J.J. Jumpers, another BRC band from New York. Emceeing will be former Washingtonian Greg Tate, now a music critic for The Village Voice and a BRC spokesman.
"It's so frustrating to be told this is something you can't do," Reid says, "when you know inside of you that you can. Everyone tells you to be yourself, but as soon as you start being yourself, people tell you, 'Don't be that self -- be another self that I can deal with.' Why do I bother? Because rock music is great music, and it's my music as much as it's the music of any white kid in the suburbs or in England."
The Black Rock Coalition is still a small group after two years of existence. Its roughly 60 members are almost entirely based in New York. Nonetheless it has touched a raw nerve that is sending repercussions through the industry.
Without much money or big-name clout, the BRC has devoted itself to raising the consciousness of the music industry and of black musicians. It puts on regular showcase concerts in Manhattan's downtown clubs, holds seminars where black musicians and industry people can talk to each other, has a monthly radio show on WBAI-FM and is preparing a sampler album of five member bands for release next spring.
"I know of a few black rock musicians who had stopped playing who started playing again because of the coalition," says Jared Nickerson, the leader of J.J. Jumpers. "The BRC festivals have given them an outlet they hadn't had before. It encouraged them to play the music they wanted to play rather than the music that was popular on black radio last week."
Rock 'n' roll was an old black slang term for sexual intercourse when white disc jockey Alan Freed first applied it in 1951 to the black rhythm and blues records he was playing on his radio show in Cleveland. Those songs by artists such as Ruth Brown and Fats Domino were simply speeded-up, teen-aged versions of old blues and gospel music. Even if white artists such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers added an essential country flavor to rock 'n' roll, its origins were indisputably black.
By the mid-'60s, though, the term rock 'n' roll was popularly used only to describe white acts, while black performers were lumped under the labels of soul or R&B. With a few notable exceptions -- such as Jimi Hendrix and Prince -- that's the way it's been ever since.
"Ever since Hendrix," Tate says, "there's been a refusal to market black rock to white audiences. We saw that with the Isley Brothers and with Parliament/Funkadelic. It's almost as if the people who manage the industry don't want the competition of black rock 'n' roll.
"Ironically enough, the obstacles have come from both sides of the industry. The white side of industry claims that it can't put a black band on an album cover and sell them in suburban malls. The black side of the industry claims that black audiences don't want to hear rock 'n' roll."
"I hear the same thing from record company people all the time," says Reid. "They say, 'I like it, but I'm not sure what kind of reaction I'd get from white rock radio, and I know black radio won't play it.' It angers me that a black artist has to be a love man, a Prince clone or a rapper to get a record contract. Black music should be every bit as diverse as black people are."
Most members of the BRC share remarkably similar musical experiences. Whether it was Reid in Brooklyn, Tate in Washington, guitarist Dez Dickerson in Minneapolis or bassist Jared Nickerson in Dayton, Ohio, they listened to Motown and the Beatles as kids in the '60s and to War, Funkadelic and Led Zeppelin as teen-agers in the '70s. When they tried to pursue their love for rock 'n' roll professionally in the '80s, they encountered closed doors.
"I went to audition for a white new wave band," Reid recalls, "and we had a real good time playing together. But when the leader of the band walked me outside, I could tell by the look in his eye that he was never going to call me back because I was black. And he never did.
"On the other hand, when I got a job playing guitar for the soul singer Kashif, I was told right from the top to tone down my guitar. It was clear I wasn't going to be able to play rock 'n' roll there either."
"People in the coalition grew up on black rock 'n' roll artists like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield," Tate says, "and that music was popular with black audiences and spoke to social issues. But now when people in this organization take their tapes to record companies, all they hear is that people don't want to hear about apartheid or police brutality on the dance floor, that it's too intelligent for black people. And that's from black people in the business."
After a series of teen-age funk and fusion bands, Reid landed his first major gig in 1979 with the avant-garde jazz-funk band the Decoding Society, led by Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ornette Coleman's former drummer. The determination with which Jackson stuck to his vision of a cross-genre alternative music impressed Reid and persuaded the young guitarist to stick to his own plans for a black rock band.
"Sure, it was frustrating at times," he admits. "I'd get back form letters from the record companies, and I'd play in clubs where there were so few people that the club owner would suggest that I owed him money. People were always telling me to give it up, to switch to dance music or to get a job as a sideman. Maybe it's just because I'm stubborn, but I had such strong feelings that this was black music, that it was my heritage."
Such frustrations led Reid to call together a bunch of friends at a black-owned art gallery in Soho on the inauspicious date of Friday the 13th, September 1985.
"I just had some feelings that I had to get off my chest and bounce off people," he remembers. "We started meeting every week, and it became a gripe club. Eventually someone said what are we going to do about it, and we decided to form this group. We deliberately chose to call it Black Rock because it makes people look at how they feel about hearing black and rock in one breath."
So far the coalition's biggest success story has been Reid's own band. Not only is Living Colour the most popular BRC band on the New York club scene, but it's the first to sign a major-label deal. Rolling Stone Mick Jagger was so impressed with Reid's playing at a Living Colour show that he asked Reid to play on his new solo album. Jagger returned the favor by producing two tracks for the forthcoming Living Colour album.
A host of other bands is waiting in the wings. Nickerson describes J.J. Jumpers as an updated variation on the early Rufus, with gospel-soul shouter Beverly Slade Perry singing over a twin-guitar attack. Michael Hill's Bluesland updates urban blues, while Andre Anthony's the Deed toughens up Caribbean rhythms. And a number of acts -- Michael Gregory, Steve Coleman & the Five Elements, Melvin Gibbs' Eye and I, and Jean Paul Bourelly -- have followed Reid out of the avant-garde jazz scene into rock 'n' roll.
Tate is particularly excited about bringing the BRC concept to Washington, in hopes it will reignite the black rock scene he knew when he lived here.
"When I went to Coolidge High School in the mid-'70s," he says, "there was a really healthy black rock 'n' roll band scene in Washington. Every weekend you could go out and see bands that modeled themselves after War, P-Funk and Mandrill, really vicious guitar and horn bands, bands like the original Soul Searchers, We the People, the Poverty Jazz Team, Zapata, Savage, Terry Scott, Father's Children and Osiris. Later on, Dale Williams and the Bad Brains extended that D.C. black rock scene into the '80s.
"What happened to these bands is what happened to black rock bands everywhere -- they got squeezed out by both sides of the industry ... One of the aims of the Black Rock Coalition is to foster the return of black bands to center stage."
"A lot of contemporary black music is obsessed with conformity," Reid says. "Any unusual look or sound is discouraged, and the whole otherness and avant-garde nature of black music is excluded as a result. The subject matter is largely restricted to love songs, as if people were afraid that if we got any deeper, we'd start talking about black life as it really is instead of black life as it's reflected on the radio.
"White rock 'n' rollers have enjoyed an open-door policy stylistically. It's a widely divergent music that can include everyone from Joni Mitchell to U2 to Van Halen. By contrast, there are really tight constraints on what you can do as black rhythm and blues artists. Why shouldn't we have the same freedom of expression as white artists?
"The question I ask everybody is this: Should rock 'n' roll be an all-white music? The way people answer that says a whole lot about race relations in this country."