Rockin' It in Blue: A Black Existential Essay on Jimi Hendrix

By Gordon, Lewis R. | Discourse (Detroit, MI), Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Rockin' It in Blue: A Black Existential Essay on Jimi Hendrix


Gordon, Lewis R., Discourse (Detroit, MI)


How ironic it is that rock 'n' roll, a black art form, has been so whitened that one of its practitioners, arguably the greatest rock guitarist, could be located as an exception to its rule. Yet (white) rock 'n' roll is not necessarily always a racist product. Many of the early great white rock 'n' roll artists, especially those in Britain such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, were actually lovers of the blues and simply sought to participate in music they loved. They created their brand through ultimately being themselves. Black existentialism raises questions of such ironic twists, as presentation and representation unfold in unique ways not only in performance but also in content and as themes of what it means to be human, to struggle for freedom, and to sing, shout, and play music-often without being heard by the dominant yet loved by the oppressed-come to the fore. These questions become even more poignant as the blues sensibility of rock 'n' roll, as the leitmotif of modernity, receives reflection. In that spirit, I offer here reflections that I hope will (1) contextualize philosophically the work and significance of the de facto greatest guitarist and one of the greatest figures of blues and rock, Jimi Hendrix; (2) offer a black existential reading of his contributions; and, as a musician myself, (3) consider some analyses of musically specific elements of Hendrix's playing.

Though primarily a drummer, I also play a variety of instruments, including piano. I have directly experienced in musical contexts the whitening of black music about which I have just remarked. I recall in the late 1970s setting up instruments to perform at a club in New York City. A group of black boys passing by were intrigued by the instruments and asked about the gig. We invited them to come to the sound check and also come by later to hear the performance.

"What kind of music?," they asked.

"Jazz," we responded.

"Jazz? Naaa. That's white people's music!," they protested and walked off.

Think about it. Jazz-a music born of the fusion of Africa and Europe, a medium that shook up racism in producing an array of artists whose status as "geniuses" was undeniable and that broke the grip of presumed white legitimation of musical excellence-was by then perceived as "white people's music." To make matters worse, although we were black musicians, the reality by then, and pretty much exacerbated since, is that playing African American classical music-the preferred term of the teachers at Jazz Mobile, the artist collective in New York City, in the 1970s and 1980s-pretty much consigned black musicians to majority white and, in some cases, entirely white audiences. Add the devastation created by neoconservatism and neoliberalism in the United States and Britain since the 1980s, and that demographical change emerged among musicians as well, where the performers of jazz became increasingly white and, as with European classical music, Northeast Asian.

At this point, I would like to state, unequivocally, two positions I take on an issue that would immediately come to mind from what I have said thus far. The first is the cultural appropriation thesis. I have so many reasons to reject this thesis, of which, for the sake of brevity, I will here only mention two. The cultural appropriation thesis is premised on a fallacious understanding of culture that reduces culture to mere folkways and mores instead of the reality of its human modes of being and disclosing reality. (I will return to this claim.) Anything created by human beings that is of use for other human beings will work its way through our species and ultimately belong to humanity. This is a position argued well by Claude LéviStrauss in his discussion of the ax.1 Whether made of stone or steel, the ax is a technological innovation that humanity understood belongs with the production of fi re, wheels, arrows, and much more. The idea that it "belongs" to whoever originally created it is absurd. …

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