Black Rock Coalition Pushes for an End to 'Musical Apartheid'

When Konda Mason went to her first rock concert in the '60s--Three Dog Night at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino--she couldn't understand why she and her three older siblings were virtually the only black people there.

"I wondered why it was like that," she recalled, noting that her mother had encouraged her family to explore a full range of music, from Billie Holiday to the Beatles to Led Zeppelin.

Some 20 years later, as she encountered resistance to a black rock band she managed in New York, she still wondered. In the intervening years, it seemed the term black rock had become even more an oxymoron, and black audiences had become even more disassociated with rock music.

"As I got older, I realized the divisions are even more ludicrous," Mason said. "You say blacks can't rock 'n' roll? What about Little Richard?"

With that in mind, in 1985 Mason hooked up with black guitarist Vernon Reid and critic Greg Tate and founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization dedicated both to fighting what it views as "musical apartheid" and to promoting the concept that rock is indeed a black idiom.

Through concerts exposing black rock groups and educational programs aimed at the industry and the public, the coalition has become a force in New York music. And with the success of Reid's band Living Colour, whose debut album has sold more than 1 million copies since it was released last year and is still in the pop Top 20, the coalition has gained national exposure.

Now Mason, living in Los Angeles, has helped start an L.A. chapter of the coalition, and after less than six months the movement has caught the fancy of many in the L.A. rock community.

"As soon as we launched it, there were people coming out of the woodwork," said Mason.

One who came out was a guitarist named Tracy Singleton, who goes by the name Spacey T. In 1982, Singleton--who now leads the half-black, half-white progressive metal band Gangland--formed Sound Barrier, recognized as the first all-black heavy-metal band. As Sound Barrier grew in popularity in L.A. clubs, color never seemed to be an issue, Singleton recalled. But once the band signed with MCA Records, it proved a consideration.

"There was a little controversy in the beginning as far as putting our picture on the cover of the album," Singleton said. "I think there was an attitude that blacks can't be marketed in rock."

At the same time, Sound Barrier discovered that its audience was overwhelmingly white. "It's a shame that there are a lot of blacks that despise rock 'n' roll and don't know how it originated," he said. "They don't know Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters started it."

Mason also pointed out that, through the years, blacks such as Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Prince and Michael Jackson have been visible forces in the rock world--as opposed to just the pop and dance circles--but they have been isolated cases that the general public often failed to connect to black culture as a whole.

"It's like when white people have black friends and they say, 'I don't think of them as black,' " Mason said. "That's an insult."

Another L.A. musician who experienced that is Norwood Fisher, a member of the band Fishbone and the related Trulio Disgracias, an aggregation of more than 25 local rock, funk and punk musicians that is currently mulling an offer from Island Records. Fishbone has long been popular with the young white alternative rock crowds in town, but has had trouble breaking out beyond that.

Fisher, who also serves as a director of the coalition's local chapter, recalled that when Fishbone was new to the music industry, he discounted the race issue.

"I made some statements at a press conference in New York saying I didn't feel a lot of prejudice," he said. "But I had to take that back. I watched the Busboys' career and Sound Barrier, how the press and fans picked up on them, but how they were ignored by radio. I have to think that white bands playing the same music would have gotten further."

The L.A. chapter of the coalition, though still young, has already taken on a distinct character. Where the New York membership is mainly black musicians, L.A. organizers estimate that as many as one-third of the more than 100 people attending the biweekly meetings at UCLA's Ralph Bunche Hall have been non-blacks, including members of the press and the record industry. (The next meeting will be Sunday at 1 p.m. For information, call (213) 960-7730.)

One of those non-blacks is Lee Ballinger, West Coast editor of the Rock & Roll Confidential magazine, who is serving on the local coalition's press committee.

"It's not just a black thing with a few whites tagging along," he said. "Part of it is that L.A.'s the music capital of the world. You've got all these people here and an awful lot of music lovers who tend to have wide tastes. You have a lot of frustrated people--the aesthetics of their musical vision are not fulfilled, and here's an outlet for it. And these are the only meetings I go to that are fun. The name James Brown is mentioned and people bang the table spontaneously."

To the coalition's co-founder Mason, the mixture represents a positive sign that the Black Rock Coalition can have a lasting effect.

"It's the only way we can start breaking these barriers down," she said of the multicultural makeup of the local chapter.

The coalition's potential impact in the local rock community is already clear, but it's less so on the black-music industry side. Living Colour hasn't made much of a dent on the black charts.

"Black radio has to expand," said the coalition's Mason. "You go to black communities and people still haven't heard of Living Colour. We plan to go to the black community this summer at outdoor festivals and have our bands perform."

The Black Rock Coalition is also planning an official L.A. kickoff with a concert scheduled for July 29 at the Music Machine. Vernon Reid will emcee the show, which will feature the New York band Eye and I plus three L.A. bands. The show will benefit both the organization itself and its campaign to gain a star on Hollywood Boulevard for Jimi Hendrix.

But to the members, these kinds of events are only the first step to a lofty goal.

"The main thing we've got to keep in mind is we don't want the BRC to be necessary in a couple years," said Fishbone's Fisher. "Then we will have accomplished our goal."

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