Black contributions to the world of music are largely evident. From blues to alternative rock and soul, almost every genre has a trace of a black person with a guitar, a piano or simply a microphone. Yet, in the modern world of music, they seem shut out of the indie, alternative, and especially, metal scene.
You want blues? There’s plenty of dead (and alive) coal-skinned folks to listen to. R&B? More often than not, your crooner is black. Hip-hop? It’s almost a given. What about indie? Unfortunately, this scene is not immediately inundated with blacks defying stereotypical margins. Presently there are a few notable black musicians daring enough to delve into previously uncharted genres, but the ones that have and continue to do so are worth the listen. So in honor of Black History Month, here’s a brief overview of black artists breaking the mold.
Where Wale is mainstream spoken word for the lovers, Saul Williams is underground spoken word for the disenfranchised. Williams has been expressing his feelings through the microphone since his first album in 2000. Although he may be classified as an alternative hip-hop artist, the raucous fury that matches his lyrics are sometimes heavy rock-tinged.
2004’s Saul Williams featured a production cameo by Serj Tankian of metal outfit System of a Down. His 2007 concept album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! saw Williams work very closely with Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. He is also noted for his poetry book titled The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop. Unfortunately, as it would play out, unless on a mainstream level like Lupe Fiasco, alternative hip-hop artists find themselves largely unknown by the general public. However, Williams has still continued his musical pursuits, most recently releasing his 2011 effort Volcanic Sunlight.
Another group made itself more widely known by combining elements of progressive and alternative rock, then packaging it to an indie audience.
It might sound similar to the Mars Volta, but it has manifested in TV on the Radio. It’s evident a band has love for alternative when its first release is titled OK Calculator, a less than subtle nod to Radiohead’s critically acclaimed album OK Computer. TV on the Radio’s third album, 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, propelled the men into the mainstream with the single “Wolf Like Me.” Sadly, 2011, the year that also heralded the band’s latest album Nine Types of Light, claimed the life of bassist and keyboardist Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer at age 36. The remaining members continue soldiering on, mixing art rock, progressive and alternative music that almost sounds like a movie. Not sure what this means? Take a listen to “Staring at the Sun.”
Has anyone heard of a black shoegaze band? Has said band had guest appearances by a member of TV on the Radio and Mos Def? Didn’t think so. In 2007, a black shoegaze band named Apollo Heights hit the airwaves under the crushingly heavy influence of shoegaze prodigy, My Bloody Valentine. Apollo Heights also rubbed elbows with Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, who produced the band’s cheekily titled album White Music for Black People. Usually, prolific bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain and Ride come to mind whenever the word shoegaze is mentioned, and although Apollo Heights hasn’t put out any new material since that fateful year, one could call the band’s creation a milestone in indie.
In the same year, Devonte Hynes made it onto NME’s 2007 Cool List. Hynes wears many hats, literally and figuratively. The Essex, England born singer has written songs for Florence + the Machine and the Chemical Brothers. He’s a producer, currently working on Solange Knowles’s upcoming sophomore album. He’s in two bands, the more indie-leaning Lightspeed Champion and the pop-driven, electronic sounding Blood Orange. It might be a lot to handle for Hynes, but he pulls it off with poise. The bespectacled 27-year-old resides in New York among other hipster musicians, continuing to make music and most likely wearing some sort of hat while doing so.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s metal music. When it comes to metal, you have a couple of not-white people scattered here and there. Killswitch Engage’s lead singer is a quite imposing black man, as is the lead singer of metalcore group Oceano. Inversely, you might have been hard pressed to even fathom the idea of black females in a metal band until Straight Line Stitch came along. The metalcore group is spearheaded by Alexis Brown, who scream-sings her way into oblivion in colorful braids that are usually whipped back and forth when she headbangs. She’s been raging since the band’s 2007 debut album, When Skies Wash Ashore.
Another strong female, formerly known as Santogold before a lawsuit with like-named jeweler, Santi White first entered the music world as a producer and member of punk outfit Stiffed. Santigold is a one-woman force to be reckoned with. Though she was relentlessly compared to fellow musician M.I.A., Santigold’s 2008 debut stood out all by itself, partly because no one could classify it. An agitated White delivered a diatribe against music stores who would stamp an R&B label on her album because of her race. Her sound is much more than rhythm and blues, with roots in ska, punk, electronica and dub music. Additionally, with the amount of love her album received in the media (two of her songs were used in the now-defunct series Gossip Girl and many commercials) it was clear that the music world was finally ready for a strong black woman to deliver genre-less music for the masses. The stage had been set.
Not too many black people would put on Harajuku-meets-African-like grab and run around yelling about music, farting on hearts or being a warrior. This may sound like the typical behavior of Nicki Minaj, but it belongs to another. This is all Ebony Bones. The English artist and actor stepped onto the stage back in 2009 with her debut album Bone of My Bones, a danceable fall through the rabbit hole that is Ebony Thomas’s colorful mind, complete with dance inducing tunes such as the stepping beat of the opener “W.A.R.R.I.O.R.” Thomas is currently working on a follow-up titled Blood is the New Black.
Another black female-fronted group makes an appearance on the list, but this time by eclectic spirit, the Zimbabwean Shingai Shoniwa. The band’s first album, What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? is a ball of energy backed by brass and deep, heartfelt lyrics. From the stripped down nature of “The Count of Monte Christo” to the get-up-and-dance craziness of “Don’t Give Up,” Shoniwa’s energy carries the group into many places with a raw, almost punk flavor. Shoniwa is also known for her courageous fashion sense, often embodying the paradigm of vintage flair. The band has since released two more albums, 2009’s Wild Young Hearts and 2012’s Contact. Pretty impressive for a woman whose name literally means “be strong.”