Black People Rock III: Free Agents of Rock

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“I promise to think before I speak. To be wary of who I give my energy to”

Brittany Howard – 13th Century Metal

After covering Black Rock bands and Black members of predominantly white bands, we’re finally covering the musicians who successfully struck out on their own. This is quite significant too; considering how Black musicians gravitated towards Hip Hop, especially in the 80s and 90s, these musicians finding solace and success in Rock is far from a small feat. If anything, they inspire independence in the face of adversity. Whether or not these musicians had the odds stacked against them throughout their careers, they added more dimension to this wide and expansive genre of music. I’m happy I was able to shed some rightful light on some forgotten legends.

Lenny Kravitz

All right, let’s get the easy ones out of the way: Lenny Kravitz was one of the prominent celebrities of the 90s and 2000s. And more power to him for winning four straight Grammys for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance from 1999-2002. Record companies deemed him and his music not Black enough and not white enough when he was getting started, yet he got the last laugh and then some. There really is no reason to call him overlooked or underrated since he is one of the few musicians to be rewarded for staying true to himself and his vision.

With that said though, Lenny Kravitz is another musician I somewhat overlooked growing up. And looking back on his hits, I don’t think I missed out on that much. He’s a great musician and Rock star; no doubt about that, just not exactly a trailblazer. Case in point – his cover of “American Woman,” originally by The Guess Who. Sure, it netted him his second Grammy and is much appreciated for its music video featuring Heather Graham, but it channels the anti war lyrics into a stylized video focused on sex appeal. Sex sells, naturally; but it’s not a bright spot on his career.

The real surprise is “Bank Robber Man,” a deep cut detailing his brush with Miami law enforcement when mistaken for…a bank robber. Out of all his songs, this one feels the most rooted and necessary to his career. He reminds us all that no matter how much privilege he may have (his father was a TV producer/concert promoter and his mother played Helen Willis on The Jeffersons), he’s still susceptible to being seen as a criminal in the eyes of the law. As evident with his ongoing career, he is much more than what anyone thinks of him.

Tina Turner

She’s the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’d be a crime not to cover her.

By the time she struck out on her own in the 80s, everyone only remembered her as Ike Turner’s wife, which must’ve stung considering their history and recent divorce. Then “What’s Love Got to Do With It” played everywhere and her legacy kicked into overdrive.

Four straight Grammys for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance from 1985-1989, not to mention eight other wins, only added to it. If anything, she set the standard for the rest of the musicians here. She is wide-ranging and damn good at every genre she tackled. Whether she was covering Al Green or Prince, she owned every song she sang. Whether singing under David Bowie or Bryan Adams, she stole the show. There’s so much passion and drive in every song she sang, every time she stepped on stage. It’s always tough writing about icons like her since she was way before my time, but her body of work really speaks for itself.

Brittany Howard

The lead singer of Alabama Shakes is striking out on her own for the time being and she’s pulling out all of the stops. The break away from the band has allowed her to release an album that focuses on her multilayered background as a queer Black woman on a deeper level, especially as she named it after her dearly departed sister, Jaime. It’s a testament to the binds and connections that make us whole. It’s a reminder that as Brittany Howard makes a name for herself, she wouldn’t have made it this far without her loved ones inspiring her along the way.

The album Jaime is just about to turn six months old and it’s still on my mind with how raw it is with its messages and scope. “13th Century Metal” is the closest thing to a protest song with its simple yet effective lyrics over a…metal instrumental. Even further, it may as well be the thesis statement of the whole album.

We are brothers and sisters, each and every one
I promise to love my enemy
And never become that which is not God
I dedicate my spirit in the service
Of what is good and fair and righteous


Elsewhere is the Grammy nominated opening track, “History Repeats.” Fittingly this was the first song recorded for the album and it wasn’t supposed to be taken that seriously. Even when she’s fiddling around with new recording equipment, she’s album to net two Grammy nominations. If that’s not a sign of how talented she is, I don’t know what is.

Oh wait, I do: “Goat Head.” This is one of the most affecting songs I’ve ever heard and words simply don’t do it justice. All I can really say is that it’s an honor to see a star in the making.