A version of this response appeared on the Black Rock Coalition’s website.
When Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner made offensive comments in The New York Times about women and Black artists, the Black Rock Coalition, which has battled stereotypes and musical categorizations about what rock is “supposed to be” since 1985, felt obligated to speak out and condemn his misogynistic and racist statements. While we were among many organizations and individuals to call out Wenner, he also had a number of supporters, citing his contributions to popular culture and to the world of music journalism.
But Wenner’s defenders slavishly miss the point. Let’s be clear: Nobody is “silencing” Jann Wenner — no one is even remotely in any position to do so. This isn’t about so-called cancel culture or political correctness. This is about failed cultural stewardship, which has been perpetrated for decades. The narrative of rock as a “white straight males only” genre is antithetical to everything rock & roll represents. Any notion espousing that people of color, women, and gender-nonbinary communities having no authority within the rock genre — after these communities created the very genre — is not merely tone deaf, but categorically false.
None of us should be surprised. Black people no longer have the luxury of being surprised. It’s not like we haven’t seen these adversities that weigh down our culture before — it is an endless tape loop of aggravation and frustration that sucks away at our souls.
And while we recognize and acknowledge Rolling Stone’s landmark contributions to rock culture, as one of the magazine’s co-founders, Wenner cultivated within it a culture of indifference to Black contributions to rock music.
Here are just some of the receipts: During the magazine’s ascendance (1967-78), Rolling Stone did cover stories on Tina Turner (the first Black artist and first Black woman to receive the honor), Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Bob Marley, Carlos Santana, Donna Summer, and Patti LaBelle. In the political arena, Rolling Stone gave ink to Huey Newton and multiple covers to Muhammad Ali.
Legends. All of them. But …
At the same time, there were no cover stories devoted to Aretha Franklin; James Brown (he finally got his due in 1989); Rufus featuring Chaka Khan; Earth, Wind & Fire; Minnie Riperton; Parliament-Funkadelic; Bill Withers; the Chambers Brothers; Buddy Miles; Donny Hathaway; War; the Ohio Players; Teddy Pendergrass; Betty Davis; Mother’s Finest; Joan Armatrading; Shuggie Otis; Richie Havens; Ivan Julian; or Garland Jeffreys (among others), who were at their creative and commercial zenith.
The Isley Brothers — one of the founding groups in rock & roll — got one major feature in the late Seventies. After putting out successive platinum and double-platinum rock albums, they called out the white rock establishment for lack of airplay on AOR stations and for not receiving significant coverage, with largely feckless consideration from the magazine.
Blazing Black rock guitarists like Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel, Jon Butcher, Tony MacAlpine, Phil Upchurch, Eddie Martinez, and Ronny Drayton — all heirs apparent to Hendrix’s legacy — never got fair hearing.
By the time disco, punk, and hip-hop emerged in the late Seventies and Eighties, Rolling Stone once again gave little ink. Disco became the target of a racist, sexist, homophobic fatwa imposed by the white rock establishment, which hamstrung the ability for Black artists to reach crossover markets. The magazine couldn’t be bothered with how bands like Death, Pure Hell, X-Ray Spex, and the almighty Bad Brains were transforming the punk and hardcore scene. They had zero clue on how Don Letts single-handedly introduced reggae into the British punk scene. Or how, in the wake of Bob Marley’s passing, artists like Steel Pulse, Sly and Robbie, Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, and Third World carried reggae forward, or how heavily they influenced the Clash, the Police, and the Rolling Stones.
Grace Jones, the radical link between revolutionary Black artists like LaBelle and Betty Davis and multimedia pop divas like Madonna (and by extension Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Sia, and others), never got a cover and was rarely featured.
The magazine even resisted giving covers to Michael Jackson and Prince, two of the biggest-selling artists of the Eighties. CBS Records head honcho Walter Yetnikoff had to issue similar threats to Wenner as he did to MTV in order for Rolling Stone to give Jackson — who had just sold millions of units of Off the Wall — cover treatment. Prince had to endure racist vitriol from white fans after opening for the Rolling Stones and eventually selling 4.5 million copies of 1999 before being deemed worthy of a Rolling Stone cover in 1983.
The magazine was slow to embrace hip-hop from the outset. It would take Run-DMC’s cover of “Walk This Way,” which resurrected Aerosmith’s flagging career, to blow up before the magazine ran a cover story. Rolling Stone missed the train that saw Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte giving Black women a strong foothold in the early days of hip-hop. The ladies might have loved Cool James, but LL never got a Rolling Stone cover, yet the Beastie Boys made it three times in the 1990s.
Finally, it took years for Black writers like Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joe Wood, Miles Marshall Lewis, Touré, and others to have any kind of presence at Rolling Stone — due to their groundbreaking contributions to Rolling Stone’s main competitor, Vibe, in the Nineties.
To be fair, Rolling Stone did show Living Colour and the Black Rock Coalition some love in the late-Eighties/early-Nineties (big up to David Fricke), gave some dap to Tracy Chapman, Lenny Kravitz, Roland Gift, Robert Cray, and Rage Against the Machine, but appearances seemed more reactive than proactive.
The reality is the Jann Wenners of the world never gave Black excellence the consideration it demanded, because it would’ve shattered the myth of this rock & roll thing of ours as, frankly, a white construct. Anyone with a brain and access to Google could easily prove otherwise, but in the minds of the rock establishment, this pathology has to be upheld, pardon the phrase, by any means necessary.
But we know better. We no longer have time for culturally tone-deaf and vainglorious gatekeepers to validate Black excellence.
If Black lives matter, then Black culture must matter. It is incumbent upon us all to elevate and support true cultural stewards who know and respect our work and its worth.
“Ain’t no new thing.” —Gil Scott-Heron
“Rock n roll … is Black music, and we are its heirs.” —Greg Tate