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Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009

'Reclaiming the Right to Rock' conference at IU examines black experiences in rock music

Oct. 21, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner and Jimi Hendrix.

While these African Americans' contributions to the development of rock music are unquestioned, the role of black artists in this musical genre has often been obscured and even impeded by industry practices of marketing music along color lines.

"These racially constructed boundaries have resulted in the dominance of rhythm and blues, soul and hip-hop in academic and popular literature on black popular music, as well as the association of rock music with white musicians and the white experience," according to Portia Maultsby, director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC) at Indiana University.

"It's a topic that no one really understands," Maultsby added. "We've come to certain assumptions based on how rock has been marketed and defined by the mainstream music industry and that presents several issues concerning the acknowledgement and recognition of black rockers."

Maultsby hopes that the Nov. 13-14 academic conference at IU Bloomington, "Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music," being hosted by the AAAMC, will fill the void.

Linda Tillery

Photo by Michael Dressler

Linda Tillery

Print-Quality Photo

The event will bring together black rock musicians from different generations and regions with music critics and scholars to discuss the socio-political history, musical developments and the future of the genre.

The conference, which will be held mostly in the Grand Hall of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave., will feature film screenings, panel discussions and musical workshops and performances.

Participants will include Ike Willis, a rhythm guitarist and one of the longest playing members of Frank Zappa's bands; Stew, one of the creators of the Tony Award-winning rock musical Passing Strange; James Spooner, director of Afro-Punk, an acclaimed documentary on racial identity in the punk music scene; and Linda Tillery, a Grammy-nominated performer and producer who began her career in the late 1960s San Francisco rock scene.

Other presenters include Moe Mitchell, an activist and musician in the underground punk group Cipher; Tamar-kali, a guitarist, songwriter and music producer who has been featured in Vibe, Fader and The Village Voice; Rob Fields, author of the influential Bold as Love blog, which provides commentary on current black rock culture and events; and Kandia Crazy Horse, a writer who taught the course "Roll Over Beethoven: Black Rock & Cultural Revolt" as a fellow at Princeton University.

Also participating will be Netic, one of the founders and lead vocalist of the Brooklyn-based band Game Rebellion; Kamara Thomas, one of the founding members of the New York band Earl Greyhound; and Suzanne Thomas, a guitarist in several funk and R&B bands and leader of the Los Angeles band The Blues Church.

"The conference is very timely," Maultsby said. "The conference will lead into the 25th anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition, which was founded to help preserve and perpetuate the tradition of black involvement in rock."

Greg Tate, a writer, founding member of the Black Rock Coalition and author of the books Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience and Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture, will be a conference presenter.

A related exhibit of memorabilia, photos, record jackets and other artifacts is on display in the Bridgwaters Lounge of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center through Nov. 20.

The AAAMC recently created a successful traveling exhibit on the role of black musicians and performers in the history of popular music and three years ago organized the first academic conference on the roots of techno music in Detroit.

In connection with the conference, the AAAMC has also collaborated with a number of units and organizations at IU to arrange screenings of Passing Strange at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11 at the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St., and Afro-Punk at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 in room 101 of Woodburn Hall, 1100 E. Seventh St.

The conference itself will rock out Saturday evening with a performance by Suzanne and the Blues Church, Tamar-kali and the IU Soul Revue. They will perform in room 100 of Rawles Hall, 831 E. Third St., beginning at 8 p.m. The concert is free to IU students with valid ID and $15 for everyone else (it is not included with conference registration). The concert also is sponsored by the Indiana Memorial Union Board, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Vance Music Center.

Registration for the full conference is $35 prior to Oct. 30 and $40 afterwards. One-day registration is $20 before Oct. 30 and $25 afterwards. Students can register at a discounted rate -- $15 before Oct. 30 and $20 afterwards or $10 each day. Complete information is available at