The Color Line in Rock

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TV on the Radio

Jim Farber’s column in the Daily News points out the success of a new generation of black rockers in bands like TV On The Radio and Gnarls Barkley. Stew, the singer/guitarist behind the smash rock musical Passing Strange, suggests that his teenage daughter and her friends might be “post-race” in how they approach music. This is how it should be (not just in the music world, of course), but I can’t help wondering if anything has really changed. Name a decade or a style of rock and you can find a handful of African-American success stories (Hendirx, Sly Stone, Bad Brains for the punk rockers, Lenny Kravitz, and the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), but it’s always that – a handful.

Americans still seem to be conditioned to expect rock from a white band, and soul or R&B from a black one. And I’m afraid radio may be at least partially to blame. In the late 60s/early 70s, radio stations would routinely go from Sly and the Family Stone to War to the Rollling Stones. But as commercial radio became increasingly formatted and the playlists became tighter, black music largely disappeared from rock stations as soul/R&B and “urban” radio formats sprouted up. Left to our own devices, I think many of us listen more broadly than that. Look at hip-hop: from the beginning, the best DJs had a keen ear for and awareness of rock, even though it was allegedly not “their” music. Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock was built around the German rock band Kraftwerk, for example.

IF things are changing – and again, I think that may be an optimistic statement to make right now – I think hip-hop’s search for the big beat and the cool samples might be a part of it. And there are hopeful signs: a white woman singing R&B (I’m looking at you, Amy Winehouse. Oh, you’re shooting off your mouth again? Never mind. OK, now I’m looking at you, Duffy) isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s a little blow against stereotyping. And TV On The Radio, who cracked the Top 40, shows that a rock band fronted by a couple of African-Americans can succeed while playing against type.

What do you think? Are these exceptions that prove the rule, or is there a genuine change afoot? (TV on the Radio photo: Flickr/Three Pink Monkeys)