In Atlanta, rock is still a white man's game. So what's a black rocker to do?
It's midnight at downtown Atlanta's Velvet Underground, and local alterna-soul crooner Heratio is finishing up a performance before a twentysomething crowd of about 120. For the moment, it looks as if the popular contention that black culture thrives only on rap, soul and R&B was about to be challenged.
What follows is 45 minutes of blistering rock 'n' roll courtesy of the all-black quartet Three5Human, amidst declarations of "black rock lives" by singer Trina Meade. Looking like she just raided the Runaways' dressing room, Meade combines elements of "Free Your Mind"-era En Vogue and Janis Joplin with the visceral delivery of early Alanis Morissette. Over the band's soulful, precise rhythm section, guitarist Tomi Martin plays some of the chunkiest riffs this side of hair metal.
Had it all come from white musicians, you'd think Three5Human would've already landed a record deal and maybe an opening slot on the next Foo Fighters tour. Instead, they're playing to an audience of about 50. No crowd-surfing; no moshing. And Martin thinks he knows the reason:
"The title of a song on the Last Poets' record will explain that whole scenario — 'Niggaz Are Scared of Revolution.'"
This much is obvious: Atlanta is a haven for black artists experimenting with new sounds. Arrested Development, OutKast and Cee-Lo have all turned the hip-hop world on its side with their innovative sounds. In the rock realm, there was the early-'90s quintet Follow For Now. Fronted by David Ryan Harris, the band pulled together elements as disparate as punk, funk, metal and Motown.
Atlanta venues such as the Somber Reptile, the eXtreem, Apache Cafe, 10 High and 9 Lives Saloon play host to scores of aspiring rockers. And included in the myriad of unknown acts are a number of bands fronted by and/or made up of mostly black musicians.
None of this should be news. Any knowledgeable music fan knows that what came to be known as rock 'n' roll in the mid-'50s was originally the product of black musicians. "Rock is an extension of the blues; it's basically amplified blues," says Larry Eaglin, co-director of the Rock SOUL-U-Tion Core, an organization dedicated to the promotion of largely black progressive music. "Rock 'n' roll was a metaphor for sex in the '50s in the ghettos."
But with history playing out as it did, the popular conception continues to be that rock is a white man's genre — though with some notable anomalies, among them Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Bad Brains, Prince, Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper.
Perhaps Three5Human will one day make that list. Its members and peers were exposed to a wide variety of music growing up, including pop, soul, R&B, Zeppelin, the Beatles, Kiss and many of the names above. Martin recalls the moment when his outlook on music changed: "One day a guy said, 'You ever heard this before?" He gave me [Aerosmith's] Toys in the Attic. That was it. I didn't want to hear any more blues and R&B."
These days, Atlanta is well-stocked with black rockers. Aside from the guitar-driven modern-rock of Three5Human, there's the fuzz-funk rap/rock of El Pus, the melodic groove of Blackperl, and the ghetto metal of E.X. Vortex. Also worth noting: soul-folk songstress Taffether, laid-back lounge-rockers Edenrage, and the soul-singing, funk-rocking Whild Peach. Most have serious aspirations that involve label deals and long-term success. At least one is already on its way to realizing those goals: El Pus recently signed with the Virgin label after recording with former Arrested Development's Speech.
All the members of Three5Human have toured extensively and have logged significant session time. Martin, for one, has worked with OutKast, Mick Jagger, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Trina Meade has sung with Stevie Wonder, OutKast, the B-52's and Fishbone. Melvin Baldwin's credits include work for David Ryan Harris and Brian McKnight, and he's appeared on several late-night talk shows.
Other local bands have seen some success as well: Taffether won the Open Mic Shootout at Eddie's Attic last year, and the now-defunct band Modern Hero (a group even more radio-ready than Three5Human) was named best local rock band by 99X in 2001.
So the talent is there, but for whatever reason, a massive audience isn't. And while there is a younger, more open-minded generation of converts out there — those who believe that rock isn't only for white folks — they're still in the minority.
"At the Apollo, James Brown, Funkadelic and Lauren Hill all initially got booed off stage," says local DJ D-Rock SOUL-Jah. "It's a slave mentality. Black people don't know who they are as universal beings, as opposed to racial beings — that's the main problem right there. And, of course, corporations and mass media continue to project certain images, and black people fall for it — that we should sing and act and dance this way. And it's all crap."
While the temptation would be to assume black rock has emerged from the middle class — African-American kids who grew up in majority white areas — that's not necessarily the reality. Living Colour hailed from Brooklyn's tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, also home to Notorious B.I.G. Over on the West Coast, Fishbone is a product of L.A.'s gang-infested mean streets. Meanwhile, the members of Three5Human hail from the Midwest. Martin grew up in Kentucky, attending a largely white Catholic school while living among low-to-middle-income blacks. Meade and Baldwin moved to Atlanta from Indiana and Illinois, respectively. And both point out that they grew up in areas where races mixed and radio played all types of music.
Maybe it's just pointless to try to pin down something so subjective.
"It's just in them," says Jeffrey Butts, formerly of Modern Hero (and before that, Shock Lobo). "Music is not necessarily black or white. You like what you like; you don't like what you don't like. Rock just kind of chooses you."
Mainstream radio has yet to make up its mind about black rockers, choosing instead to mostly ignore them. In Atlanta, you can catch all of the local bands mentioned here on 89.3 FM's "Alternative Rock SOUL-U-TIONS," Saturday midnight to 2 a.m. First airing in 1999, the show is hosted by D-Rock SOUL-Jah.
Like most of us, D-Rock's musical tastes are a product of his surroundings. In the mid-'80s, he was called an "Oreo" for hanging out with metal-head white boys at Quiet Riot shows in his hometown of Las Vegas. Perhaps as a result of the pressures to assimilate into "black culture," D-Rock soon found his way into hip-hop and remained there for the bulk of his adolescence. But upon arriving in Atlanta in 1995, his love of rap and hip-hop was wearing thin. Two years later, he found the alternative he was looking.
"I found out about David Ryan Harris listening to a song of his called 'Sympathy for the Crow,' and it was being played on a show on 88.5 called 'Urban Flavor.' I was still listening to rock here and there, checked out some Hendrix and Living Colour but didn't get deep into it," D-Rock recalls. "But David Ryan Harris had a song that struck my soul. So, I was looking for his CD, and it just turned out to be a rock CD."
Now D-Rock SOUL-Jah is the unofficial voice of black rock and other offbeat styles. In 1998, he co-founded the Rock SOUL-U-Tion Core with a number of local black rock artists looking to get the word out about this underground scene. The network also put out a compilation CD in 2001 that featured Core members such as Kill the Messenger, Chiedza, Eve of Reality, Edenrage and Chilton. Newer Core include Taffether, Open Mind, Nappy's Joint, Perfect Day Coming and Kelsy Davis.
Today, Rock SOUL-U-Tion Core — helmed by D-Rock, local musician/promoter Eaglin and local musician Mesu Ahmenmut — sponsors shows, holds weekly meetings and will soon have a pre-production studio available to bands for rent. Beginning Thursday, March 13, the Black Lion Cafe devotes one night a week to the Rock SOUL-U-TION Core and its member acts.
D-Rock probably wouldn't be trying so hard if he didn't think there was an audience out there.
"I saw Whild Peach perform at the FunkJazz Kafe, and their guitarist, Billy Odom, flipped into some rock music, and I saw a young black man slamdancing," he says. "I see a craving for young black people to get into some type of new music."
Adds Three5Human's Martin, "[Black people] have tried everything. The last frontier is black rock music; there's nowhere else to go. There's been rap-rock, there's been rap, there's been hip-hop, there's been pop, there's been soul, there's been R&B, there's been everything else."