[W]hat we have come to call identity politics is partly dependent on the demise of a critique of capitalism and of bourgeois cultural and economic values. …the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain renaturalization of capitalism that can be said to have marked progressive discourse since the 1970s.
-- Wendy Brown, States of Injury (59-60).
Right to Rock is an account of the rise and long life of the still active Black Rock Coalition, a group of African American musicians and entertainment industry professionals that organized in New York City in the mid 1980s to discuss the difficulties and obstacles preventing black rock musicians’ access to mainstream markets at that time. This coalition formed initially for the purpose of discussion and “kvetching” about the unwillingness of the music industry to offer recording contracts to African American artists playing rock music; specifically, as some of Mahon’s informants indicate, “to get Vernon’s band a deal” (7). “Vernon” is Vernon Reid, guitarist and bandleader of Living Colour (the BRC band that has enjoyed the most commercial success), a central BRC figure. While Living Colour formed the centerpiece of the first meetings, membership swelled rapidly as the BRC came to include a broad range of black artists, from local club bands to acts that would achieve much wider recognition, such as Faith, The Screaming Headless Torsos, and Me’shell NdegeOcello. Over the course of the 90s, the BRC shifted its emphasis from trying to get mainstream (record label) attention for its members toward two primary functions: providing spaces, through meetings and live shows, for discussion and networking among members, and acting as a base for what Mahon calls “cultural activism” – productions in a range of media, generally on a local level, that exposed BRC members’ music, articulated BRC goals, and presented BRC members’ self-definitions to wider audiences.The BRC, Mahon writes, “was a site of ideological and social struggle over the categories and conditions that defined them as African Americans. BRC members used music, media, performance, images and rhetoric to articulate their version of black rock, challenge existing racial hierarchies, and assert alternative representations of African American identity and culture” (16).
In many ways it is this issue of self-representation which is most important to Mahon and to the members of the BRC. One of the great strengths of this work is the degree to which the actors in her story come across simultaneously as individuals with separate histories and as members of a relatively unified (there are faultlines within the group), racially defined subcultural group (though she rejects what she considers the apolitical connotation of “subculture” ) navigating particular historical conditions. At the core of this study is an extended exploration of how black rock musicians struggle against racial and market categories imposed on them by the dominant society and its institutions, particularly, in this case, the recording industry. In conventional American cultural schemas, rock is a “white” form and black people play “black” music. As the BRC points out in much of its public communication, including its Manifesto (a central topic of Chapter Four), rock is the appropriation and whitening of black musical forms and performance styles. This process has been so successful that black rockers face the socially forceful cultural conception that they “are at once too black to be real rockers and not black enough because they rock” (162). Confronted by racial and market categories into which they do not fit – effectively whitened rock music and overdetermined blackness of soul, R&B and rap – these artists were closed out of participation in both worlds, their racial/musical marginality effectively silencing them in the public sphere. Mahon argues at several points in the book that racial categories are “set[s] of behaviors that people construct and reproduce over time” (58); forming the BRC, publicizing it and attracting numbers of “like-minded” musicians and supporters, she demonstrates, ultimately provided a space in which members could challenge conventions of whiteness and blackness and construct and reproduce a legitimate black rocker identity.
Among the many highlights of this deeply researched account a couple of chapters stand out to me. Chapter Two describes the acquisition of black rocker habitus, and Chapter Six, BRC members’ experiences with the music industry. The habitus chapter conveys Mahon’s early discovery that the majority of BRC members had much in common in demographic terms. Most were adolescents in the 60s, beneficiaries of a range of ongoing social changes – including school desegregation and the expansion of economic opportunity for upwardly mobile black heads of household – that put them into racially mixed or predominantly white environments in which rock was a primary cultural currency. Developing a love of rock, members of the “postliberated generation” who would go on to create and join the BRC found themselves marginalized by mainstream black culture. Associated with suspect “middle class striving” during the time of the Black Power movement, their devotion to rock threatened to mark them as sellouts. Becoming rock musicians cast them into identities they came to experience as politicized based on their sense of being deprived of the “right to rock.”
The music industry chapter, though it repeats a lot of what scholars of popular music mostly take to be foundational to an understanding of the racialized political economy of the recording industry, provides some very pointed empirical descriptions and arguments about the treatment and experience of black musicians who do not fit into pre-established genre categories. For example, after laying out the “dialectic of miscegenation and segregation” in American popular music (148), Mahon discusses in some detail what actually happened to “get Vernon’s band a deal.” Mick Jagger hired Vernon Reid as a guitarist, became interested in Living Colour, and threw his weight around to get them heard by industry decision-makers. This spawned something of a split in the BRC between those who thought it “fucked up” (156) to get signed through an apparently paternalistic process that reenacted problematic racial and cultural asymmetries and those who thought any access to the mainstream for black rockers a good thing.
Other chapters include very thick description of: the group’s regular meetings and the kinds of talk and sociality that went on therein, BRC live shows at local clubs, the use by BRC members of other forms of media for the purposes of self-representation and promotion, and intra-BRC struggles along gender lines. Along the way, Mahon also devotes chapters to black rock aesthetics, situating the BRC in a long line of African American aesthetic movements, and an extended consideration of Jimi Hendrix as a central figure in the organization’s pantheon. Leaving the details of Hendrix’s life to his biographers, Mahon explores Hendrix’s conflicted racial identity and his cultural, political, personal, and musical “uses” by members of the BRC.
As an African American rock fan herself, Mahon started out as an “insider” researcher, a position the particular challenges of which she acknowledges throughout the book. This insider starting point was deepened when, shortly into her research, she was invited by the New York group (west coast black rockers had also formed an LA chapter) to be their secretary. Her intimacy with the group, and her enthusiasm for their cultural-political project are a large part of what makes this such a compelling account. However, this insider status may in part also contribute to what I perceive as some larger framing problems, alluded to in the epigraph for this review. While particularly in the chapter that deals with BRC gender relations Mahon is critical of some of her informants’ conceptions, her seemingly uncritical importation of other “actors’ categories” – specifically, her adoption of the BRC’s discourse of rights – obscures some areas that I believe warrant further interrogation in the light of discussions of rights and identity politics that have been taking place across a range of disciplines since the mid-1990s.
These areas fall generally under a single rubric: BRC members (and Mahon), in arguing for recognition of politicized identity in the private sector, repeatedly fudge the distinction between public and private realms, between state and civil society. The BRC’s use of the concept of right as an organizing principle, even after abandoning a politicized focus on the mainstream “entertainment public sphere” in favor of local organizing and market activity, seems to sustain a lack of clarity about liberal political categories and thus a lack of clarity about the limits of rights thinking in identity politics. This is especially acute because their concerns are economic as well as political. Consider Chapter Four’s epigraph, a quotation from Vernon Reid: “We need the equivalent of a Civil Rights Movement in music. … We have to stand up like Rosa Parks and say ‘Enough is enough.’ We have to develop our own projects independently while maintaining some outreach with sympathetic people in the industry.” Reid’s pronouncement conflates the universalistic realm of the political and the particularistic realm of civil society; Mahon, in my opinion, ought to have examined this conflation critically: Would the equivalent of a Civil Rights Movement in music look like a bunch of atomistic entrepreneurs toiling away in solitude while cultivating private-sector contacts in hopes of increasing market power? Rights claims are made on the basis of the universalism of liberal rights. The case is made in this book that it is racial discrimination that prevents black rockers from getting signed, but there is an unremarked tension between BRC’s images of themselves as politicized identities fighting for rights and as depoliticized entrepreneurs struggling for market power.
The blackness of the BRC membership seems to them and to Mahon to be the characteristic most salient to their identity, with “rocker” as a close second, but, as musicians trying to get into an industry, their salient identity is also necessarily an economic one. They are entrepreneurs; they want to be capitalists. As small businesspeople peddling musical products and services in a buyer’s market – in a society where markets are formally constructed as apolitical – their politicized identities cut no ice. Capitalism depends on the rhetoric of choice and the formal removal of the state from the market. It is the rhetoric of choice and freely entered contracts between individual bearers of equivalents that both underwrites the black rockers’ dreams of “making it big” and frees the capitalist record company from political obligations (this is compounded, of course, by the fact that ostensibly apolitical “taste” governs signings). In the market the black rock acts “have no leverage” (68), but because their domination and exclusion take place in the market, and because appeals to the state are blocked by the rhetoric of “taste,” choice, and the fact that they approach the market not as workers but as entrepreneurs, the BRC has only the market to turn to. After “getting Vernon’s band signed,” the executive board of the BRC began shifting their attention away from the mainstream and toward what could be done to facilitate audience building on the local level with the aim of producing some economic leverage. The executive board had realized that rights claims depend on universalisms, and there is no universal “right to make a living playing music” that black rockers were being denied.
Nevertheless, the exclusion suffered by the BRC members was related to their racial identities and so a rights frame remained very attractive to membership. The problem here is that the rights frame was very attractive to the author as well. By neglecting to critically examine the BRC’s fudging of categories, and moreover, importing that fudge into her own analysis, Mahon misses opportunities to explore some of the broader political-economic paradoxes faced by the BRC. These lacunae make possible an uptempo conclusion that, when considered in this light, actually seems to reinscribe the bourgeois liberal (white, masculine) ideal that made possible their exclusion. In her concluding chapter “Until the Levee Breaks” Mahon writes “During [Living Colour’s] rendition of Hendrix’s ‘Power to Love’, Corey sings, ‘With the power of soul, anything is possible’. This is sort of like the attitude that brought the BRC into existence: If you believe and you work, who knows what might happen” (264). Mahon’s account often fails to challenge this problematic “attitude:” the BRC’s ability simultaneously to conflate issues of right and entrepreneurialism while failing to see how its members’ dreams of “making it big” as cultural capitalists reiterated the institutions and ideology of apolitical civil society that depoliticized their exclusion in the first place. A page later, Mahon quotes her informant Mark “I’m the great-grandchild of a slave. And I’ve been around the world, and continue to go and do whatever the fuck I want to do. As long as I imagine it. A lot of it is really about what you imagine, what you decide for yourself. So the possibilities are there for everybody” (265). It is precisely this rhetoric of freedom of choice in the non-political space of civil society, premised on the bourgeois liberal subject, that makes the exclusion of black rockers from the entertainment public sphere both possible and politically, if not ethically or aesthetically, legitimate.
Mahon argues throughout the book that racial identity is a construction. As it happens, so is the bourgeois individualist subject the ideological power of which underpins and is reproduced by – and perhaps even depends on – its use as a measure of that which the excluded are excluded from. A more critical approach to the categories used by her informants would’ve helped to locate them more clearly in a complex, paradoxical and increasingly urgent tangle of political contest and economic aspiration. As it is, however, Right to Rock provides popular music scholars with a very useful wealth of ethnographic detail regarding African Americans’ cultural struggles with the politics of race in the production and distribution of American popular music.
1. And again on page 75, an informant tells Mahon: “Seriously, the original idea was to get Vernon’s band signed”.