Controversy has swirled around Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine and cofounder of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, since The New York Times published an interview with him on Sept. 15. The focus: His stunningly offensive defense of the choice to include only white male rock and rollers in his latest book, “Masters.” (Do you hear “Massas?”)
Wenner’s comments wound up getting him booted from the Rock Hall’s board of directors in 20 minutes, and his “apology” isn’t winning him any points with those he has offended.
Personally, I’ve had time to calm down a wee bit, but I want to explore how this situation is being covered, and how people are responding to it. This series is dedicated not just to the work of Black musicians, or their music across multiple genres—not just rock and roll, which Wenner, 77, considers to be his bailiwick. “Black Music Sunday” also chroncles the long history of erasure, exploitation, and appropriation of the work of Black artists. So it’s a fair assumption that I have pretty strong feelings about all of this, and not just about Wenner.
Let’s dig in.
”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With nearly 180 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
Here’s the relevant clip from Wenner:
For the record, the articulate white men Wenner did laud in his book are Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Peter Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Bono, and Bruce Springsteen.
Iconic Black rockers Living Colour had plenty to say. As Jem Aswad wrote in Variety:
The members of Living Colour — Will Calhoun, Corey Glover, Vernon Reid and Doug Wimbish — wrote: “We, the members of Living Colour, would like to address Jann Wenner’s recent apology for controversial statements made in support of his new book.
“The very idea of a book called ‘The Masters,’ which blatantly omits the essential contributions of Black, people of color and women to Rock & Pop Culture speaks to a much larger and more systemic problem. His New York Times interview statement that African American and female artists are not ‘articulate’ enough to express themselves about their own work is absurd on its face.
“For someone who has chronicled the musical landscape for over 50 years, it is an insult to those of us who sit at the feet of these overlooked geniuses. To hear that he believes Stevie Wonder isn’t articulate enough to express his thoughts on any given subject is quite frankly, insulting. To hear that Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, or any of the many women artists that he chooses not to mention, are not worthy of the status of ‘master’ smacks of sexist gatekeeping and exclusionary behavior.
Living Colour’s Vernon Reid shared his personal thoughts as well.
Reid wasn’t done, as one might expect from the band’s powerful lyrics. My editor insists that I include their work if I include their words. (Editor’s note: Truth.)
He also spoke with TMZ, calling out the music industry’s “hierarchical structure of what is considered worthy of attention.” Reid resisted calls for “performative” statements from the white male artists Wenner chose to include, asking instead that they “keep it real.”
Personally, my frustrations pool elsewhere, resulting in a bit of a different take. Specifically, my skin crawls when I see the word “articulate” used as a standard of excellence. When some liberal white people want to compliment Black folks they have decided to approve of, they often describe us as “articulate” or “well-spoken.”
Back in 2020, Knox College Africana Studies professor Dr. Yannick Marshall wrote “(In)Articulate while Black” for the African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives.
I imagine that there are people who believe that Black people are too sensitive. When Blacks are called “well-spoken,” or “articulate,” they may say to themselves that this is not the worse thing that one can be called.
The observation, and especially the pleasantly surprised tone in which it is usually offered, reveals that the speaker subscribes to a way of thinking that holds that Black people are typically inarticulate. “Articulate” Blacks are therefore a welcome exception to the rule.
A non-Black stutterer, a non-Black non-native speaker, a non-Black person placed outside of normative intellectual ability is, but for these conditions external to their inherent nature, considered capable of articulate speech in English. And even if they are not, this should not be taken as telling of the cognitive powers of their race. In the case of the Black person things are reversed. Inability is considered the natural state of Black people, so the appearance of an articulate “one” is considered a small marvel.
African-Americans are considered uneducated, not systematically dis-educated. When an articulate Black person appears then, it is almost as if they should be doubly-praised because they have struggled and won against the odds of their nature. They have conquered both their inherent intellectual inferiority and the pull of their primitive culture.
Wenner decided that no Black musicians, male or female, could meet his “articulate” standard. This is sheer “caucacity” on his part. Also included in this judgement are not-Black women—a move clearly steeped in sexism, for which Wenner’s magazine has long been criticized, as noted by The Guardian.
… Feminist critic Ellen Willis … refused to write for Rolling Stone, calling it “viciously anti-woman”.
Rolling Stone “habitually refers to women as chicks and treats us as chicks, ie interchangeable cute fucking machines”, read Willis’s comment. Willis, writing in 1970, also said that Wenner’s bias against revolutionary politics fed the oppression of women.
“To me, when a bunch of snotty upper-middle-class white males start telling me politics isn’t where it’s at, that is simply an attempt to defend their privileges. What they want is more bread and circuses,” she wrote.
There are Black musicians of any gender who can speak in depth about their work, and they, along with not-Black women, write songs with lyrics that are breathtaking and powerful. They’re pretty damn “articulate.”
But here’s my problem with Wenner’s flawed gatekeeping. I don’t listen to music because of how well a musician can philosophize about his or her music in an interview. I’m drawn to music because of how it communicates spirit, soul, and magic to me. It is about the visceral and emotional response, not an intellectual one. I don’t determine how great a musician is or isn’t by what they say to journalists. It’s about how they play.
Of course, many of the greats who founded rock and roll, rhythm and blues, blues, jazz, and other Black-influenced genres are no longer here to chat about their creations, even if Wenner had deigned to ask. Frankly, what they achieved ain’t about talk: It’s about musical chops.
Journalist Curtis Stephen has the right idea about historical “masters,” though his tweet precedes Wenner’s disastrous interview.
Stephen names giants covered here in the past, and who “Black Music Sunday” will continue to honor in the future.
RELATED STORY: Ladies don't just sing the blues. They play them, too
This edition of “BMS” turned out more rant than anything, so I’ll close with one of the most important foundational Black female voices Wenner excluded: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In 2011, BBC Four aired “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll,” written and directed by filmmaker Mick Csaky. In 2013, the film aired in the United States, as part of the PBS “American Masters” series.
In February 2022, guitar giant Gibson created a nine-minute tribute to Tharpe.
The YouTube notes properly honor Tharpe as a “true founding father” of rock and roll.
Born Rosetta Nubin in 1915, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is an artist that rarely comes up in debates about the true founding father of rock ‘n’ roll. She fronted her own band, she was one of the first artists of note to play the iconic ‘61 Les Paul SG Custom electric guitar, she was a headlining, black female artist who toured through the segregated Jim Crow South, and she has been largely overlooked as a seminal figure in the creation of rock music. As it turns out, the founding father of rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t a father at all – that distinction belongs to Sister Rosetta. A gospel-trained force of nature that broke barriers, stereotypes, and norms with astonishing regularity, her electrifying music predates the work of like-minded guitar legends including Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Elvis. Sister Rosetta Tharpe unequivocally remains the textbook definition of an iconoclast – The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gibson’s educational tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, featuring Celisse and Amythyst Kiah, takes viewers on a journey of Sister Rosetta’s monumental impact on music
As I said, there isn’t much music in today’s edition, so join me in the comments, where I’ll be posting plenty—and please share the musicians you honor as foundational to the music that moves us all, and makes us move.