The Black Album

Living Colour's Vernon Reid
Courtesy of Raymond Gale

Rock 'n' roll is a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro. -- Asa Carter, secretary of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, 1956

Ironically, 50 years down the line, rock 'n' roll has done such a good job of "pulling the white man down" that black folks -- who created the genre -- hardly rock at all anymore. Indeed, it often seems like any black musician daring to play rock is likely to be regarded as an interloper by the predominantly white rock audience, as well as a turncoat within the African-American community, where only hip-hop, jazz and R&B are considered acceptable. This brutal irony is the subject of the new documentary Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker by Houston filmmaker Raymond Gayle.

"When Fishbone was coming up in the '80s, they were playing the same clubs -- and sleeping on the same floors -- with Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers," says Gayle. "Those other two groups became megastars, but just look what happened to Fishbone." One example of the 'bone's fate: The legendary ska/rock band opened for the slightly melanin-deficient Slightly Stoopid (who?) here at the Engine Room just last week.

The film does a fine job exposing the black roots under rock's platinum dye job, with scintillating onstage footage of Prince, Little Richard, Rick James, Sly and the Family Stone, Living Colour and Eddie "Maggot Brain" Hazel. There's also a detailed discussion of the white rock audience's apparently one-time-only embrace of "super-Negro" Jimi Hendrix, still considered by many rock fans to be the only black rocker worthy of note.

Although several of these artists seem on the brink of despair, Electric Purgatory does its best to be forward-looking. "Whether you let us in or not," says Jimi Hazel of 24-7 Spyz toward the end of the film, "we're gonna kick in the door."


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