Who Defines Black Radio?

From the upcoming book, How Many Orgasms Does It Take To Dropping Bombs?

I grew up in your typical black middle class neighborhood in NW Washington, DC. In my parents’ household I listened to Jazz, Hip Hop, Rhythm and Blues, Latin, Calypso, and DC’s homegrown music, Go-Go.

One night when I was 11 years old I was listening to either WPGC or WKYS on the stereo in my room. I decided to change stations and landed on the rock and roll station DC 101. “My Sharona” by the Knack surged through the speakers. I was hooked.

I heard many black folks say that rock and roll was white music. Obviously, I did not go public about my burgeoning musical affinity out of fear they would accuse me of attempting to be white (I was already being called ‘light, bright and almost white’ because of my light skin anyway, but that is another story).

I was led to believe that there was strong line of demarcation between white music and black music. White musicians predominantly played rock and roll, and black musicians played R&B and Soul music (there were a few exceptions like Hall & Oates, the Eurhythmics, and Kraftwerk which were played on black radio stations).

Prince was an anomaly. His androgynous looks, hyper-sexuality and made him a freak of nature for some, and an icon to others who aspired to stretch boundaries and break conventions. The Purple One masterfully blended R&B, rock and roll and funk, and black folks had no problem claiming him. He was my hero.

But the shock to my musical system came when I discovered Jimi Hendrix. He was a brown skinned, wide nosed, thick lipped musician who dressed flamboyantly, had sexual antics on stage, and played the guitar like no one I had ever heard.

It turned out that he was touted as the greatest rock and roll guitarist of all time, yet black radio banned him. They said he was too radical. In other words, he was a black man playing white music.

As I immersed myself in 1980’s alternative and punk music, several black bands and musicians exploded onto the music scene like Living Colour, Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, Lenny Kravitz, Tracy Chapman, Ben Harper, and Bad Brains. Again, no love from black radio.

The irony in all of this is the fact that blacks were pioneers of rock and roll. Many point to Little Richard as the godfather of the genre that came out of blues and folk music. Then there was Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Big Mama Thornton, Ike Turner, and others who were crossing boundaries and innovating the new form.

A big misconception was that there was animosity between black and white musicians at that time. Quite to the contrary, there was much respect and admiration between the aforementioned and white musicians such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Contrary to the political climate of the day, music always brought people together, and musicians from both sides of the tracks bonded.

Country music is another example that cross pollination is as old as the country’s founding. The banjo, one of country’s primary instruments, came to America from West Africa. From DeFord Bailey (the first black to feature in the Grand Ole Opry) to Charlie Pride, black musicians have made contributions to the genre in ways in which have yet to be fully uncovered. In fact, according to Pamela Foster, author of My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage, there were 450 blacks who contributed to country music since the early 1900’s.

By the way, you can purchase Ray Charles: The Complete Country and Western recordings 1959-1986.

There is a rich history of black musicians writing and recording American music across the entire spectrum that black radio refuses to touch. Black radio not only conforms to Hip Hop and R&B to the exclusion of Rock and Roll, Country and Folk, but they do not even play jazz and blues, both having historical roots and contemporary relevancy.

As a result, blacks are never exposed, nor develop a full appreciation of their own musical palette, confining themselves to what black radio decides to present. Young people ultimately lose out, having no sense of musical legacy.

You will not hear on black radio black opera divas like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and the legendary Marian Anderson; classical musicians like Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Andre Watts, Awadagin Pratt: Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Wynton Marsalis: blues legends like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf; and folk masters like Ritchie Havens, Lead Belly, and Odetta.

It is true that radio is broken down by musical category, and that majority radio stations conform accordingly. However, how can black radio stations proclaim they play the music of the black experience when they only play two? It is community radio stations that play jazz and blues, not mainstream black ones. Essentially they are doing the very same thing that black people rail against – being labeled as monolithic.

I do not think black radio stations know little of other genres into which black musicians delve. In fact, I believe many are musically astute. However, there is a huge gulf between what they know, and what they will play. Yes, there are forces that dictate the marketplace, and with satellite and internet radio, they have to do what they can to secure their niche markets and compete.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no expectations that black radio will do anything different. They most likely argue that what they are doing is good business practice; that they are serving their public, playing what their customer base wants to hear. My challenge is, how will they ever know what listeners really want to hear if they are not exposed? Is the dollar more powerful than empowerment?

For a couple of years, I was a college DJ. It was a glorious time, because I had carte blanche over anything I wanted to play. So I played everything from Go-Go to Punk. I remember when I was told by management that we had to start conforming to the playlists. Corporate radio was at our doorstep. There was a mandatory meeting regarding this, and those who did not show up would be fired. I looked across my dorm room at the communications building, watching my shift fade away.

For the last three decades there has been a consolidation of media, beginning from a slug-like pace, to something today that seems frenetic, and no outlet is immune. Even as citizens are fighting desperately to maintain net neutrality over the Internet, there is no guarantee that users will enjoy the freedom they once had. Each time a merger or takeover occurs, smaller media entities have to tighten up and fight even harder to compete, and in the process make compromises they never dreamed they would make.

On the other hand, to borrow from President Calvin Coolidge, the business of music is business. To reiterate, Black radio stations must cater to their customers if they are going to not only survive, but thrive. Economic solvency depends on market share, and as radio in general continues its gradual decline, they have to employ more creative and sophisticated ways to hit their marks. As the saying goes, it is not a game.

Black radio has played a critical part of our legacy, and still serves as an important cultural and communications institution. Its airwaves pump out musical gems from incredibly talented singers, rappers, and songwriters, and its talk radio hours provides listeners current and relevant information, insightful commentary, and a platform to contribute their views. They do merit our support.

Now as an adult, I do not care what people think about my music choices. In fact, I talk about them freely and openly. Perhaps it is my peace and confidence that keeps those who normally would be openly critical to be silent. Additionally, there are growing numbers of others like me with whom I am connecting, thanks in part to the emergence and explosion of social media.

Nonetheless, young people today still face the same challenges and struggles that I did. The kind of ignorance I faced never disappeared, it just transformed in social media platforms, as well as current commercial media sources. There are movements like Afropunk and Afrofuturism that provide nurturing forums and venues for black folks to consume, create, perform, and function without being stigmatized and stereotyped. These movements are becoming global, despite receiving no recognition from black mainstream media.

Rarely do I listen to black mainstream radio stations anymore, so people may ask, why am I even writing this piece? I am writing this not as a complaint, but as a reflection, observation and inquiry designed to provoke questions, thought and discussion. We must examine the nature of our communities and its mediums, how inclusive they are, and who do they serve.

This whole discussion could simply be a matter of semantics. I am just curious as to who makes the decisions as to what things are called? Who decided that black people are to call themselves African Americans, for example? Most of us were not included in that meeting. It holds the same for all institutions to which black people belong. Perhaps like anything else, those who ascend to “leadership” positions dictate what a thing looks like. Well, pigeonholing is not my thing.

At the end of the day, I am a rebel. I resist people who look like me who tell me what music I am supposed to listen to, and I certainly refuse to listen to radio stations that do not appeal to me. In terms of ocular dining, I don’t just want a plate, I want a buffet, and I have yet to find a commercial station to serve me that, no matter what color runs it.

Ron Kipling Williams