By Sikivu Hutchinson, originally published @OnlySky
It’s “Black Music Month,” and, in a parallel Juneteenth universe, Black folks would be given reparations for the looted labor of all the Black artists whose musical innovation powered the multi-billion-dollar empires of white rock icons like Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. From blues to rock, R&B, and beyond, early 20th-century working-class southern Black musicians were the backbone of the modern American music industry, yet they did not reap anywhere near the same benefits as white appropriators.
On June 24th, yet another Elvis biopic will drop in theaters, reminding Black folks of Presley’s role in this insidious history of white minstrelsy and theft. Elvis was one of the many admirers and imitators of Black queer blues, rock, and gospel innovator Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe pioneered electric distortion (for further information, see Jimi Hendrix’s immortal perfection of this technique) back in the 1930s and was a major figure in gospel music before Black audiences rejected her for going “secular”. Her career and musical legacy are the inspiration for my play and “demi-musical” Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic, which debuts at the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 24th (and is adapted from my 2021 novel of the same name).
Rosetta Tharpe in Manchester, England, 1964
The play tackles the issue of Black women’s creativity in the midst of rock music industry indifference, racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia. It features original music by my band Distant Engines sung by R&B legends Brenda Lee Eager (who has composed songs performed by Prince and a host of other music icons) and Patti Henley. Actress-guitarist Alma Schofield leads as Rory Tharpe, who is loosely based on Rosetta.
Historically, Black women rockers were never allowed the freedom and latitude white males were. Like most Black musicians during the 1960s British Invasion era, they were shoehorned into the less lucrative and “universal” category of R&B. They were often cheated out of their royalties, publishing rights, and master recordings, while seeing their work and stylings ripped off by lesser white artists.
In the play, Rory Tharpe is pushing sixty, lives hand to mouth on the road, has her music and stylings widely appropriated by white culture vultures but has no recording contract and doesn’t own her publishing rights. She battles alcohol addiction and the trauma of sexual violence in her past while trying to maintain a band. Within American literature, the “road”—as metaphor for self-exploration, abjection, and redemption—has frequently been the province of white men and white patriarchy. Jack Kerouac’s infamous road novel On the Road marked the genre as hyper-masculine.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic seeks to disrupt these tropes by focusing squarely on a working Black female queer musician with no benefits, no job protection, and diminished expectations from a white-dominated industry that was built on the backs of Black early 20th-century Southern blues rock innovators such as Tharpe, Charley Patton, Son House, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, and Memphis Minnie. Raised in the Southern Black blues tradition of visionary guitar artistry, Rory is a survivor of sexual abuse in the Black church and an “infidel” who rejects the Pentecostal traditions she was raised in.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is one of the few Hollywood Fringe ensemble pieces to be written, produced, and directed by a Black woman with a predominantly Black female cast. In many regards, the production mirrors the issues Rory grapples with in the music industry. Black women producers, managers, and technicians are few and far between. And Black women musicians are often preyed on, exploited, and discriminated against by male corporate players. White gatekeeping in both the American theater and music industries prevents Black women and women of color creatives from attaining the same professional status, pay, and longevity as their male counterparts. Black women who defy artistic genres and musical conventions are at an even greater disadvantage. Commenting on this theme vis-à-vis Tina Turner’s career, playwright Katori Hall, author of the book for “Tina Turner: The Musical,” noted that both she and Turner found the greatest success and critical acclaim when they took their work overseas.
Segregated marketing, promotion, and distribution played a big role in obscuring the black roots of rock music. White-dominated rock criticism also reinforced these disparities. Most rock criticism was and is dominated by urban white males. The rock criticism “establishment” was also a key factor in the whitening of rock music and the marginalization of women musicians (one need look no further than Rolling Stones’ popular 100 Greatest Guitarists list, which has no women of color and only a few white women on it). White male rock critics subscribed to an evolutionary notion of rock that venerated African American rock pioneers for their early “primitive” contributions to the genre while privileging white musicians’ “refinement” and “innovation” of the form during the 60s and 70s.
In an interview with Sarah Haile Mariam of She Shreds magazine, 77-year-old blues guitarist Beverly Watkins alludes to the long history of Black women playing blues guitar in the Jim Crow South. Nonetheless, in commercial rock and R&B, most black women were singers, pianists, or tambourine players but never guitarists. Here, Black women were pigeonholed as either hypersexualized “soul singer” Jezebels while rock guitar virtuosity was the province of white males.
This form of erasure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Black girls don’t see Black women playing rock guitar it reinforces their exclusion from the “rarefied” realm of traditionally “male” musical instruments and genres (Google “rock music” and it’s virtually wall-to-wall white males). The play comments on this by way of the character “Sid,” who portrays a young African-American girl who carries a tape recorder with her at all times. The tape recorder is a means of witnessing everyday history and memorializing her own existence. It provides her with a small form of agency in a world where Black girls’ voices are silenced and Black cultural production is often stolen and commodified for white commercial consumption.
Bucking the white gaze and the stranglehold of Christian respectability, the flawed Black women characters in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic attempt to forge their own paths to creative self-determination in an era where music industry Jim Crowism still looms large and drives a multi-billion dollar empire.