On June 19th, we shared the stories of several Black artists of the 50s, 60s, and 70s who pioneered the genre of Rock & Roll. This week, we’re back with Black artist of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s whose impact on Rock can’t be forgotten or overstated.
In 1976, jazz fusion ensemble Mind Power was formed. In 1977, the band shifted their attention to punk rock, and changed their name to Bad Brains, after the Ramones’ song “Bad Brain.” The band started out in Washington D.C., but soon moved to NYC after they were subjected to an unofficial ban by venues in the area. They released their first self-titled album on cassette in 1982. The Cars’ vocalist Ric Ocasek produced their second album, Rock for Light, which the band released in 1983. The band’s storied history is long and turbulent (much too long to detail in this article), but if you’d like to learn more (including about the band’s signing to Madonna’s label and their tour with The Beastie Boys) read this piece over on Louder.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about rock in the 1980s without talking about Prince. GIven his father’s stage name (Prince Rogers), Prince wrote his first song on piano at the age of 7. In 1977, Prince signed with Warner Brothers, and recorded his first album For You, which he wrote, produced, arranged, composed, and played all 27 instruments on (except for one-song which his producer, Chris Moon, co-wrote). The song “Soft and Wet” reached number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over his lengthy career, Prince released 39 studio albums, his most popular being 6th album Purple Rain released in 1984.
Interestingly, it was Prince’s song “Darling Nikki” that led to today’s widespread use of “Parental Advisory” labels, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…
The Black Rock Coalition
In the fall of 1985, Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Greg Tate (journalist, Burnt Sugar), and Konda Mason (producer) founded the Black Rock Coalition. In a time where the industry divided genres by race, Black artists who wanted to step out faced tremendous obstacles. The BRC formed to help Black artists overcome these barriers, including finding recording studios, documenting events, and putting on shows in their own spaces.
At the same time that Reid was forming the Black Rock Coalition, he was playing in his own band, Living Colour. In an interview with the Ringer, the band describes how difficult it was for them to gain momentum. Even with the support of legendary singer Mick Jagger, it was hard to find a label. Luckily, they signed with Epic Records for the release of their debut album Vivid, which hit number 6 on the Billboard 200 chart and has gone double-platinum. In 1990, the band won the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance for their second album Time’s Up, beating AC/DC, Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, and Mötley Crüe. Artists such as Tom Morello have cited the band as an inspiration. To date, Living Colour has released 6 studio albums, and a new release may be in the works!
Unable to secure a record deal due to his demos not being “black enough” or “white enough,” Lenny Kravitz recorded his first album with Henry Hirsch before shopping the record to labels. In 1989, Kravitz signed to Virgin Records for Let Love Rule. The album saw moderate success in the US, and fared much better in Europe. Kravitz signed with booking agency CAA, and was soon opening for the likes of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
Kravitz quickly gained popularity, working with artists such as Madonna, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie on various songs and projects. His second album Mama Said (1991) reached the Top 40; one of the singles hit number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. His fifth studio album, 5, and it’s single “Fly Away” earned him his first of 4 consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999.
Ice-T introduced his new heavy metal band Body Count at Lollapalooza in 1991, splitting his set 50-50 between his hip hop songs and Body Count songs. The band’s recorded debut was a featured song on Ice-T’s 1991 album O.G. Original Gangster. The band released their self-titled full length album in 1992, but not without great controversy regarding their song “Cop Killer,” which they ultimately removed from the album. To date, the band has released 7 studio albums, with their most recent album Carnivore released this past March. The band’s European tour scheduled for this summer has been cancelled due to the coronavirus though 🙁
Sevendust came together in the mid-1990s, going through a series of name changes before ultimately settling on Sevendust. In 1997, they released their self-titled debut. The next year, they performed at Dynamo Open Air in the Netherlands and on the Ozzfest 1998 tour. In 1999, they released their second album Home and performed at Woodstock ‘99. The band has released 12 studio albums so far in their career, and have helped pave the way for younger bands with their mix of nu-metal, alternative metal, and heavy rock. Their next album has been recorded, and is expected sometime this year, though it may be delayed due to coronavirus.
Cover photo – Picture of Lenny Kravitz performing on the LP Field stage during CMA Fest 2013 in Nashville, Tn. by Larry Darling – Licensed under CC by 2.0
While many of these artists are still active today, I’d also highly recommend you check out these 7 newer artists as well. I’d also suggest watching the Afropunk documentary, released in 2013 but still relevant today. Emo Nite has also been using their platform recently to host panels on Racism in the Punk/Alternative Scene; the first two are available for replay on their YouTube page.
If you want to discover some new (and old) tunes, feel free to check out this playlist I made full of BIPOC rockers, from the dawn of rock & roll to today’s many subgenres and related derivatives.
Know a great band I should add to the playlist? Let me know in the comments!
For information about how you can support the anti-racism movement, visit this linktree. It includes advice and resources for protesters, bail funds and mutual aid funds to donate to, and anti-racist readings/podcasts.
Black Lives Matter. Support Black Artists.