Alan Freed or Beyonce? False debate rages around Rock Hall

Beyoncé at her "On the Run" tour stop with hubby Jay Z at the Rose Bowl on Sunday.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

An exhibit featuring an urn filled with the late DJ Alan Freed’s ashes was recently removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, just a week or so after Beyoncé’s wardrobe moved in.

The overlapping events birthed the idea that revered rock history has been tossed out of the museum to make room for Bey’s Givenchy purple feather mermaid gown.

“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ousts DJ Alan Freed’s ashes, adds Beyoncé’s leotards” read CNN’s headline. “Rock music is constantly reinventing itself,” stated a piece in Billboard, “such that even the style’s initial promoter, Alan Freed, must eventually step aside to make room for Beyoncé.”

Freed had a radio show in 1950s Cleveland on which he’s credited with popularizing the term rock ‘n’ roll. But more important, he was an avid R&B fan who played a major role in exposing the work of black artists to white audiences, essentially desegregating the airwaves. Freed died in 1965 at age 43.


There’s no clear indication from the museum or Freed’s family that his ashes were removed as a direct result of Ms. Carter’s stage costumes moving in.

That narrative -- Pop Diva Tramples Rock History! – is a product of interpretation, and that dynamic in itself tells you a lot about where attitudes still lie when it comes to choosing who’s worthy of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The museum, which features other nods to Freed, including representation in its Architects of Rock and Roll exhibit, said the decision was a matter of changing standards. “The museum world is moving away from exhibiting remains” Executive Director Greg Harris told CNN. “Museum community colleagues across the country agree.”

“I’m more than disappointed,” Lance Freed told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in reference to the museum’s decision. “After 12 years, we thought this was going to be his final resting place.”

Lance Freed’s disappointment is understandable. He wants his father’s memory and contributions honored in a meaningful -- and permanent -- way.

But the consensus that Beyoncé somehow sullied sacred ground is as predictable as it is puzzling.

After all, her crossover fame is at least partly due to groundwork laid by Freed. She rules the pop world – black and white – because (a) she’s good and (b) barriers were broken decades before the 32-year-old singer was born.

In another era, she likely would have been relegated to Billboard’s “Race Records” charts, music by African American artists for African American listeners, or the segregated world of “black music.”

Freed – along with plenty of other pioneers including Ruth Brown, Little Richard and Berry Gordy -- were instrumental in moving those boundaries.

The fact that Beyoncé is now being honored by an institution that’s been criticized for not representing enough female or R&B and hip-hop artists is a good thing, and there’s no evidence her inclusion came at the expense of Freed’s place in its halls.

Beyoncé's inclusion simply happened to overlap with Freed’s exit. In a sense, what better way to honor the man who helped make moments like this one happen?