Growing up as a black girl who loved rock music, I didn’t have too many role models. There was no Janelle Monae, Noisettes, or VV Brown. Afropunk wasn’t around yet, “urban alternative” didn’t exist, and listening to obscure bands not only made you weird but “white.” Lines were sharply drawn back then and those of us who dared cross them learned early on to keep our rock and roll tastes under wraps. Finding other people of color who shared our secret took some serious digging in those days. I lived for those moments as a kid when I caught a rare glimpse of Living Colour on MTV or noticed another brown face in the crowd at a show.
But now things are changing and black folks no longer get the side-eye for listening to anything other than hip-hop or R&B. In fact, it’s a badge of honor to have “eclectic” tendencies. Indie’s gone mainstream, Beyonce’s doing Alanis covers, and even Weezy’s got a band. Suddenly, it’s not only cool to like rock but also a hell of a lot easier. But with so many new black fans coming into the fold, I thought it was time to pay respects to the forgotten black rock legends who paved the way for the rest of us.
Not just the OG’s like Little Richard or Jimi Hendrix. Or more recent classics likes Lenny, Me’shell, Fishbone, Living Colour, or Bad Brains. I mean the overlooked artists who helped set the standard for black boho cool, leaving broken barriers and obliterated stereotypes in their wake. These are my unsung black rock heroes. Add them to your collection and remember them next time you turn on some Bloc Party or J’Davey.
Tracy Wormworth/The Waitresses
She was the bassist for 80’s band The Waitresses. The group epitomized the new wave sound, right down to the angular guitars, skronky horns, and pogo-worthy drums. They had a minor hit with “I Know What Boys Like.” But my favorites were “No Guilt” and the theme to “Square Pegs” (starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker). Tracy’s still around and has gone on to play with everyone from the B-52’s and Sting to the house band for Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show.
These guys got famous off a scene in 48 Hours, which led to a hit song that sounded like it belonged in a beer commercial. They made classic bluesy rock and roll, sort of like a black Huey Lewis & The News. It may not sound all that groundbreaking today but they deserve a mention because it was a big deal in 1982 to see a group of brothas with guitars who weren’t playing R&B.
Alison Martlew/The Butchies
Back in the day, when everyone else was busy trying to copy Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, I wanted to be a riot grrrl. I shaved my head, started a zine, and listened to bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. Their revolution girl-style led to an entire generation of DIY bands, including queercore rockers The Butchies. They stood out not just because of their music or their message. But because they were one of the few bands from that era with a black member, bassist Alison Martlew.
Punk purists talk about 1977 the way hip-hop heads worship the “golden-era.” X-Ray Spex was part of the original ’77 canon but always stood out from the rest of the three-chord pack thanks to lead singer Poly Styrene. She was a brace-face biracial girl in a sea of snarling white dudes, with a voice and style all her own. She brought a dayglo teenage rebellion to the mosh pit and over 30 years later “Oh Bondage! Up Yours” is still one of the illest anti-establishment anthems ever.
Jean Michel Basquiat/Gray
The patron saint of black bohemia. Most fans know him as the tortured graff writer-turned-painter who turned the downtown art world on its head in the early 80’s. But Basquiat was also a musician, producing Rammellzee’s proto-rap opus “Beat Bop” and forming the experimental no-wave/industrial band Gray. They’re weren’t exactly rocking out but no doubt laid the foundation for “Afrogaze” bands to come like Apollo Heights and Dragons of Zynth.
Betty Davis/Nona Hendryx/Joyce Kennedy
All three of these ladies are amazingly talented in their own right. But I’ve put them together because they represent the best of avant-funky sistas who were way ahead of their time. They were unapologetically “different” in an age when black women were either bouffanted R&B crooners or sleek pop divas. Betty, Nona, and Joyce (from the band Mother’s Finest) may have caught flak when they first came out but now their psychedelic fusion of rock and soul has made them cult classics.
Lisa Kekaula/The Bellrays
I never understood why Lisa Kekaula and The Bellrays didn’t get more credit for helping usher in the garage-rock revival. They were kicking out the soulful stripped-down jams long before The White Stripes or Black Lips. Lisa blows them all out the water anyway, with a big bold voice that sounds like Sharon Jones crossed with Joan Jett. You might also recognize her from tracks Basement Jaxx.
More of my forgotten black rock faves:
24/7 Spyz: Punk-funk-rap-metal and Living Colour contemporaries
Chocolate Genius: Singer/songwriter, downtown NY legend, and BRC alum
Stew/Negro Problem: Spike Lee just turned his play Passing Strange into a movie
Skin: Bald, badass, British lead singer of 90’s alterna-rockers Skunk Anasie
The SoftLightes – Fuzzy indie-pop by the former Incredible Moses T. Leroy
Kimya Dawson: Quirky anti-folk lullabies and yes, that annoying “Juno” song
Stiffed: Santi White’s punk-pop band before she became Santigold
Carley Coma – Lead singer of the experimental metal-jazz-rock band Candiria
Kathy Foster – Indie sweetheart from The Thermals and All Girl Summer Fun Band
Who are YOUR unsung Negroclash heroes?