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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

30 Years in 30 Days: A Celebration of the Black Rock Coalition

The Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, featuring Stew. Photo: Earl Douglas, Jr.

By Darrell M. McNeill

Thirty years ago, at the crest of another "Black Lives Matter" epoch—hip-hop going mainstream, The Cosby Show, Spike Lee, Michael Jackson, and the rise of African-Americans and "urban influence" in media and pop culture—a group of cultural warriors were born. In the mid-1980s, the music industry operated (and, bluntly, STILL operates) under a type of cultural Jim Crow, where white artists were/are largely free to pursue any musical genres they chose, while black artists were/are relegated to genres considered more "traditional" or "conventional" (meaning, in real world terms, more commercially viable), like gospel, rap, R&B, soul, jazz, funk, reggae, blues, etc. This flew in the face of documented history, particularly of modern pop and rock 'n' roll, where Black artists were either creating or at the aesthetic forefront of these genres.

In April of 1985, Vernon Reid, Konda Mason, Greg Tate, Craig Street, and a loose group of musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, academicians, journalists, and fans—driven by these incongruities and inequities in music and the arts—gathered initially to dialogue and vent and figure out solutions. They began to coalesce around the idea that black artists have the inalienable right to the same creative freedom and compensation for success as their white counterparts. By September, a name was chartered, a manifesto was drafted, and the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) was founded.

Over the course of those three decades, the BRC supported and promoted artists, organized events, produced DIY media, led seminars and panel discussions, supported like-minded media and projects, created exhibitions and academic curricula, published literature, books and zines, produced albums and films, engaged in the political issues of the day—all on the grass roots level and independent of the mainstream music industry and media. And even though the musical and cultural landscape has shifted drastically, the BRC remains committed to the twin concepts of cultural recognition and respect.

Andre Lassalle and Jeffrey Smith. Photo courtesy the artist.
This September 2015, the BRC marks this landmark anniversary with its ambitious 30 Years in 30 Days event, with each day marking a Black Rock Coalition activity somewhere in the greater NYC area. The BRC will co-present a two-day celebration of the music of Band of Gypsys, Jimi Hendrix's last formal band before he died 45 years ago on September 18, 1970. On Friday, September 18 and Saturday, September 19, as part of the BAMcafé Live series, the BRC Orchestra—the Black Rock Coalition's repertory company—will perform re-imagined renditions of the expansive works of Hendrix, drummer Buddy Miles, and bassist Billy Cox. The Orchestra will feature appearances by Living Colour's Vernon Reid (BRC co-founder) and Corey Glover, Stew (Passing Strange), Sophia Ramos, Juma Sultan (Hendrix's percussionist at Woodstock), Zach Alford (Bruce Springsteen, B-52s), Chogyi Lama (Richie Havens' grandson), and more. This performance will also mark the 15th anniversary of the BRC's creative partnership with BAM.

For black lives to truly matter, black culture has to matter equally. The BRC has been fighting this battle for 30 years before it became a slogan, investing in the work necessary to make it manifest.

Black Rock Coalition comes to BAMcafé Live for BRC30: BRC Orchestra Celebrates Band of Gypsys this Friday and Saturday, September 18 & 19 at 9 PM.

Darrell M. McNeill was BAM's Associate Producer of Music Programming.

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