Black Music Is More Than Foundational. Jann Wenner Doesn’t Get That.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner found himself at the center of a firestorm this week after he said that Black and female musicians were not intellectually “articulate” enough to be included in his new book.

“The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them,” Wenner told the New York Times about his book The Masters, a collection of interviews with legendary rock artists. “Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.” When pressed, he added: “Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”

Wenner’s declaration that his white male favorites are more “articulate” and “intellectual” is infuriating and ridiculous, and the backlash was understandably swift. A co-founder of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Wenner was subsequently removed from the Hall of Fame Foundation’s board. Rolling Stone then issued a notice distancing itself from its former leader, as did the magazine’s current CEO, Wenner’s son, Gus Wenner. Famed rock band Living Colour even posted a statement calling Wenner’s comments “absurd” and “an insult to those of us who sit at the feet of these overlooked geniuses.”

Rolling Stone Throws Its Founder Jann Wenner Under the Bus

The current controversy has only made clear what many music fans, artists, and commentators have long felt to be true: that Wenner, and by extension the institutions he’s founded and run for decades, operates from a place of racism and sexism, is driven by personal bias, and has been granted power by way of tremendous influence. But there’s an important facet of his white-centric argument that shouldn’t be missed.

Many rushed to acknowledge the obvious—that both Rolling Stone magazine and the artists that embody Wenner’s white Boomer musical preferences are themselves born of Black music and female innovation. But a major tenet of Wenner’s argument seemed to go unnoticed: Yes, Black people invented rock ’n’ roll—but these white institutions have seemingly had no problem acknowledging Black people as the genre’s foundation. The Rock Hall’s inaugural class in 1986 featured names like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino; a year earlier, Berry himself was honored with the concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, which featured artists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards discussing his impact and influence. In that same film, Little Richard, Berry, and Diddley famously call out the racism that led to white artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis (also featured in the film) being embraced by mainstream white audiences. Richard and Berry covered Rolling Stone in the 1970s, and subsequent Hall inductees have included everyone from Clyde McPhatter to Solomon Burke.

The issue has never been a lack of understanding of rock’s foundations; the ongoing problem with traditional rock commentary is that it positions Black artists as simply foundational to white icons who followed in their wake. Black rock ‘n’ rollers and bluesmen are presented as the building blocks on which white folks built these philosophical, intellectual, artistically ambitious legacies. Sure, Black folks started this thing, the conventional narrative says, but it was white art school guys from Britain who elevated it. Songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Rocket 88” are seen as the primitive, simplistic beginnings of a genre that came to be defined by grand “statement” music like Sgt. Pepper and Tommy.

There is a pervasive belief that Black folks are simply the foundation of rock ’n’ roll. But that idea negates the massively impactful ways Black artists have influenced rock over the years.

For instance, Arthur Lee and his band Love were at the forefront of ’60s psychedelia: their debut album predated the Beatles’ Revolver by six months. Detroit proto-punks Death recorded music in the early 1970s that pushed forward into what would later be called “punk” before it was ever tied to New York City and London. Nona Hendryx and LaBelle pioneered a space-age approach to glam that would influence bands like KISS for decades. Bad Brains shifted punk into hardcore and set the stage for everything from Black Flag to the Beastie Boys. Black people’s fingerprints are all over rock music—and not simply at its inception. Brilliant acts like Funkadelic and Prince have long been presented as rock-adjacent, as opposed to centered alongside hallowed “classic rock” names like Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen.

It’s Time to Celebrate the Black Women Who Invented Rock and Roll

The genius of Black women is particularly obscured when discussing both rock music’s origins and its expansion. Unlike Richard and Berry, names like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton have only recently become more widely known—and later performers like Grace Jones and Joan Armatrading have been relegated or completely ignored. The late Tina Turner was the rare Black woman who was able to achieve icon status in the white male-centric world of arena rock, but she was often presented as an outlier. Contemporaries like Nona Hendryx have yet to see widespread attention or acclaim from media that was too busy fawning over the genius of Mick Jagger and Bono. The rock establishment anoints Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, while names like Pauline Black and Poly Styrene continue to be obscured.

Wenner, for his part, apologized for his insensitive comments, issuing a statement this week through his publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

The Masters is a collection of interviews I’ve done over the years,” he shared, “that seemed to me to best represent an idea of rock ’n’ roll’s impact on my world; they were not meant to represent the whole of music and its diverse and important originators but to reflect the high points of my career and interviews I felt illustrated the breadth and experience in that career. They don’t reflect my appreciation and admiration for myriad totemic, world-changing artists whose music and ideas I revere and will celebrate and promote as long as I live. I totally understand the inflammatory nature of badly chosen words and deeply apologize and accept the consequences.”

Wenner’s comments make it easy for the public to view Black music’s history solely through a foundational lens. In rock—and in hip-hop, jazz, and every form of popular music that Black people invent but white industries commodify—it’s tempting to reduce the history to a series of platitudes about who influenced whom. But Black music is brilliant in any era, regardless of how many white artists come to discover or be inspired by it. That genius cannot, should not, and will not be relegated. Understand that our greatness needs no validation. But our past is more than simply preamble.

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