Joshua Lerner is a writer, teacher, and DJ based in Chicago.
“There is no rock music with walls around it.” Jay-Z, Decoded
Remember how it went? In 2008, Jay-Z headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and Noel Gallagher made the shitty rock-ist (racist) move of whining to the press. His infamous line: “No, I’m not having hip hop at Glastonbury… fuckin’ no chance” — lit a fire under Jay. That night’s set started with a semi-abstract video montage about the controversy, then saw Jay walk out with a guitar to sing “Wonderwall” with a chorus of over 180,000 fans.
This is still one of my Top Five go-to YouTube concert clips. The smile on Jay-Z’s face while he (barely) sings the first verse of Oasis’s biggest hit is infectious. He’s dressed in all black, with a sash tied to the mic stand like Jimi, and he knows what he’s doing. In those three minutes of political clowning, he has just elevated hip-hop to a level where, as he put it, there would be “no place that was closed to its power.” What’s more, he gave a middle finger to the idea that a black musician couldn’t perform the material of a white artist.
I could go on and on. The look on his face when he holds the mic up to the crowd to hear their collective voices. The close-up on his face when he sings “There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how.” I think about whether Gallagher, wherever he is, can hear him getting the last laugh. And then the fun continues, as he catapults into the first verse of “99 Problems”, and the band blends those heavy Rick Rubin drums with the guitar riff from AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. For a semiotics-loving, racially-conscious music nerd, it doesn’t get any better than this.
But there was a cultural moment, from 1971 to 1973, that comes close. It may not have all come to a head at the beginning of a massive festival, nor was the moment necessarily pointed political commentary a la Glastonbury, 2008. But there was a subtle social shift going on during these few years at the start of the 1970s, when a slew of popular black musicians chose to record the songs of popular white artists.
Remember, these were the years of Wattstax and “Black is Beautiful”, when the Staples were singing “I’ll Take You There” and COINTELPRO was going after Assata. Two years earlier, in 1969, the Isley Brothers had released “It’s Your Thing,” which reached #2 on the Billboard Charts (and, no surprise, topped the R&B Charts). This was clearly the highest charting single yet for the band, and, having left Motown to start their own T-Neck label, it solidified their place among black and white fans alike as an independent funk and soul band with a bright star ahead of them.
But by 1971, the Isleys had begun to toy with their tune—adding a layer of complexity that left audiences scratching their heads. In that year, they put out an album of material almost exclusively culled from songs by the most popular white singer/songwriters of the day. Givin’ It Back led off with a medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”, then proceeded through well-known songs by James Taylor, Stephen Stills, and Bob Dylan. On the cover, the three brothers mellow out under some trees, staring down the camera while cradling some acoustic guitars (dude, are those nylon strings?) and overall just basking in the sepia.
It’s worth stepping back, forty years later, and thinking about what set the folk-rock and singer/songwriter genres apart from soul and R&B in the national consciousness. The difference was about more than just that very recognizable color line. These personal records by white artists were quiet and contemplative and often brimming with metaphor and abstraction. Their core audience was white.
For black artists, choosing to perform this material could mean breaking open a whole new consumer base — or possibly watching their core fans turn their backs and slowly walk away. After all, for two decades white artists from Elvis to Zeppelin turned a handsome profit by performing the music of black artists. Doing white material could be perceived by some as an act of forgiveness, or, worse, as being plain uppity—a bunch of Uncle Toms who had forsaken their own.
It was a risky career move, and the Isleys were well aware of the implications. Racial and social divisions were extreme. In a post-Civil Rights society in which poverty, racism, and oppression were omnipresent, black audiences could at least look toward their own artists for some form of self-identification and expression of their plight. Stax, with its “Respect Yourself” mantra, had set itself apart from Motown by coming across as the label more in tune with the lived experience of a wide cross-section of the country’s black audiences. Being a black artist meant considering—constantly—what kind of black artist your fans perceived you to be. True then as today, black musicians had to grapple with their own audience’s expectations of who they were and what they stood for.
“We turned a lot of heads around in those days,” Ernie Isley later told Geoffrey Himes of the Washington Post. “We recorded songs by Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, and Carole King when Black artists didn’t do that.” But that’s a half-truth, really. Anybody who was anybody in soul and R&B was getting on board. Aretha tore up “The Weight” and then won a Grammy for Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” elevating Art Garfunkel’s falsetto croon to a bona fide church anthem. Buddy Miles, fresh from the Band of Gypsies, revamped Neil Young’s “Down By The River” (a blues song if there ever was one, to be sure) into a ten-minute soul workout on his 1971 live album.
On Soulful, Dionne Warwick used the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” as a symbol of her transition from quaint Burt Bacharach interpreter to R&B songstress. And on their eponymous live album, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway put a pretty heavy groove on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and then did their own version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Meanwhile, Carole King and James Taylor were particularly prominent among the Isleys’ track lists from three albums of that time. The group maintained the vibe of Giving It Back by recording three Carole King compositions on 1972’s Brother, Brother, Brother and then doing an excellent version of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” on 3 + 3 in 1973. Robert Christgau writes that they “improved on Taylor’s schlock” and goes on to compliment them on their sexy versions of songs by the Doobie Brothers and Seals and Croft. Seals and Croft? Really? What kind of confusing musical world was it in 1973 when you could look at a record cover and see six black men dressed in patent leather and gold medallions, and then turn the sleeve over to see a track list that boasted “Listen to the Music” and “Summer Breeze”.
But maybe this had happened before. Maybe it was as early as 1962, when Ray Charles showed us that a black artist could appreciate, perform, and even transform the white music of the Deep South. Marc Myers of JazzWax.com writes that Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music “showed rural white audiences that a black artist could take their revered songs and treat them just as skillfully and emotionally as the white artists who made them famous.”
While Charles’s album was an immediate cultural milestone and drew renewed criticism and analysis upon last year’s 50th anniversary, the work of black artists taking on singer/songwriter material in the early 70s was much more subtle. Nonetheless, it was an update in the slowly marching evolution toward musical boundary crossing, through which black artists decided to subvert long-held expectations of what they should be recording and producing due to their racial identity.
That’s a progression that continues today. As Miguel lets the genre burning “Don’t Look Back” melt away into a bass-heavy rework of the Zombies, we can trace a liberating, yet still restrictive, arc that spans the past fifty years. From Brother Ray through the Brothers Isley all the way to contemporary urban radio, maybe it has become easier for black popular musicians to do “white” music. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be a political statement.
But I think there was a reason the Isleys named that album, Givin’ It Back in 1971. They saw the popular song for what it truly is: a cultural football. The song gets tossed around, carrying a different message depending on the side that has it, the audience that hears it, and the cultural moment in which the game is being played. Nonetheless, the legacy remains for black popular musicians today: their artistic choices are often burdened by the necessary consideration of how their racial identity will be perceived.
I don’t know. Kinda just makes you wish that it was all so simple.