Words by Adam Hudson
While the San Francisco Bay Area prides itself on liberal multiculturalism and progressive politics, racism and segregation in the region are more real than people like to admit. And you can see that even in the music community.
For seven years, I played in an all-nonwhite alternative rock band called Sunata; two of us were African-American (myself, the drummer, and the bassist) and one was Indo-Fijian (guitarist/vocalist). We stuck out in the Bay Area rock scene. Even though rock music originated in the Black community, rock music has become the dominant cultural expression of white maledom. One club we played at in Oakland, the sound guy — a Gen X white guy — said to us, “I’ve never seen brothers play that kind of music!” and compared us to Jesus and Mary Chain.
It was an awkward compliment — complimenting our skill while highlighting our Other-ness in a genre my people created.
That experience was not unusual; we were often reminded of our Other-ness through the simple fact that most rock/alternative/punk spaces are super white, even in the diverse Bay Area. It’s not just the predominance of white folks that made us feel othered — the microaggressions against my band and myself reminded me of my Other-ness, such as white people at bars wanting to grab my afro hair without my permission, or, even worse, finding out your local music community had a far-right, white supremacist in their midst (fortunately, many have spoken out against him). It’s also knowing that one of the bars, restaurants, and coffee shops I played at is owned by people who many say have targeted, harassed, Black and Brown people and kicked them out of their establishments.
On top of that, there has been a years-long wave of tech-driven gentrification in the Bay Area that has displaced many Black people and businesses from the region because of lack of affordable real estate. Not only has gentrification altered the unique multiculturalism of the Bay Area, it has made it harder for the culture to be preserved.
Rock’s Black Roots
Racism has long existed in the music and entertainment industries, going all the way back to the days of minstrel shows and the banjo — originally an African instrument played by enslaved Africans (example: Uncle John Scruggs, a former slave and banjo player) — being appropriated by white performers. Fortunately, Black musicians like Rhiannon Giddens are reclaiming the instrument as part of Black music and Black history and setting the record straight.
For decades, the role that Black people, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Little Richard, played in literally creating rock music has mostly been written out of the dominant music narrative. Plus, white rock musicians have a hideous history of stealing from Black blues musicians and shooting to stardom as a result: Led Zeppelin stole from Black musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, and Elvis Presley got his start because a white record label wanted a white guy who played Black music, like Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” well enough to sell to white audiences (it obviously worked).
American music owes a massive debt to the enslaved Africans who brought their musical traditions to the Americas. Blues music is a direct descendant of West African folk music. The blues scale comes from West Africa, which is where many enslaved Africans brought to the United States were taken from. Contemporary African bands and guitarists like Tinariwen, Songhoy Blues, Mdou Moctar, and the late Ali Farka Toure, are reminding Western audiences of rock and blues music’s African origins. Despite American laws that forbade African drumming, Congo Square in New Orleans, because of French colonial laws, is where enslaved Africans were allowed to openly play their indigenous African music, which is what birthed ragtime and jazz. As a result, the syncopation in modern American music comes from African rhythms.
I grew up on contemporary Black music. My mom would play Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and Luther Vandross in the car. As a teenager, rappers like Nas and Tupac spoke to my Black experience, while Miles Davis exposed me to the Black esotericism of bebop. I also have fond memories of other Black teenagers at my Bay Area high school banging hip-hop beats on the lockers and forming cyphers, along with those scraper cars with booming subwoofers riding down the street.
My family also has a rich Black cultural history and lineage. My mom’s side of the family grew up in Detroit near Motown during the 1950s and ‘60s. Two of my uncles are musicians, one of whom is self-taught with a long career as a freelance musician. He played in the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband and his close friend is African-American rock drummer Wilson Owens. Owens went to high school with my mother and played with Mitch Ryder. My uncle described Owens as “his drummer” because of how much they gelled as musicians. Those experiences influenced my sense of rhythm as a drummer and shaped my African-American identity.
I was first exposed to djembe and African drumming at Black events — my Black graduation at Stanford University and a Black media event in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Djembe is originally from West Africa, dating back to the 1200s during the Mali Empire. Thanks to Guinean president Ahmeh Sekou Toure funding Guinean ballets, it came to the West and has been preserved in diasporic African music and dance. Djembe, now, is played throughout the African continent and many parts of the diaspora.
There is an African saying that a good djembe player can make the drum talk or tell a story. Specific rhythms will signify a rite of passage, the arrival of a king, harvest, funerals, sacred rituals, or other important social and cultural events. During the slave trade, djembe was played to let people know if slave catchers were nearby; the Dodo village in present-day Sierra Leone is where people would hide to evade slave catchers and djembe was played there to signal it as a safe refuge. Unfortunately, my ancestors were not so fortunate — they were snatched up in the slave trade and some were kidnapped from Sierra Leone.
I identify as Black, African-American, or Black American — a descendant of enslaved Africans trafficked to the United States. I am an African diasporan, a member of the African diaspora in the Americas. This diaspora encompasses over 200 million people of African descent, including those who are descendants of victims of the transatlantic slave trade and other waves of migration out of Africa. The African Union officially recognizes the African diaspora as its Sixth Region and the United Nations also recognized people of African descent to be a distinct group whose human rights are constantly violated.
Since those of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans were cut off from our indigenous African cultures and share a collective experience of anti-Black racism, we usually self-identify as “Black”; the social construct of Blackness is based on African lineage. My music is an expression of my African ancestral roots and diasporic African identity.
Going Back and Getting It
“Sankofa” is a Twi word, originating from the Akan people of Ghana (one of numerous African ethnic groups kidnapped during the slave trade), that means “go back and get it” or retrieve and learn from the histories and traditions of one’s ancestors. Playing djembe, for me, is a way to practice sankofa and defeat the intended plans of European slave-masters who wanted to take djembe and indigenous African culture away from my people.
The summer 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, the second wave of such protests, has forced some in the music community to come to grips with racism in music spaces and the music industry. When I attended one of my favorite virtual open mics in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I started by saying how I felt about the situation and that my djembe drumming is something that is important for myself and the Black community because of our African lineage.
A week after that, us musicians in the virtual open mic had an open discussion about Black Lives Matter and the host lamented how racially and culturally homogenous the open mic is — mostly white guys with acoustic guitars, less nonwhite artists bringing different musical styles and cultures. This is one example, of many, of how Black and other nonwhite artists are marginalized and excluded from the indie music scene to preserve its hegemonic whiteness.
When I think of my Other-izing experiences as a Black musician in Bay Area music spaces, I think of the importance of preserving spaces for Black culture to thrive. But since the music community has had to come to grips with white supremacy in American music, then they need to eradicate racism from the industry from top to bottom, which will require extra vigilance and urgency.
For me, playing music is far beyond entertainment; it is Black cultural expression, Black self-determination, and pride in African roots. That is the story I tell through my music. When living in an anti-Black world that is hellbent on destroying Black life, that unbridled cultural expression becomes a tool of liberation. It is a way for us to breathe in a world that tries so hard to make it so we can’t.
If you want to learn more about rock music’s Black history, here are some books to try:
- The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.
- Africa and the Blues by Gerhard Kubik
- African Music: A People’s Art by Francis Bebey
Adam Hudson is a freelance journalist and writer who typically covers Guantanamo, U.S. militarism, policing, and housing/gentrification. His work has appeared in numerous outlets, such as Truthout, The Nation, AlterNet, and teleSUR English. He is the co-host of the Real Sankara Hours podcast. He’s also a drummer/percussionist who plays djembe as a soloist and used to play drums in the now-disbanded rock band Sunata.