Black artists being overlooked in rock industry

Kele Okereke, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Bloc Party, is pictured above standing with his guitar on stage. Bloc Party was first formed in 1999, with Russell Lissack playing the lead guitar, Louise Bartle on drums and Harry Deacon on bass. // Photo by Sloan Salinas Student Publications

African American culture and musicians have always been at the forefront of musical progress. In fact, nearly every genre traces its origins back to the ingenuity of Black musicians. Such talent, however, remains largely unacknowledged by those outside communities of color, primarily due to the institutionalized racism and discrimination that has been rampant within the music industry since the very beginning. 

Even in today’s seemingly inclusive society, many Black musicians face predatory recording contracts, hostile work environments and significantly fewer opportunities for success in the music industry than their white counterparts. 

Bias against Black musicians is not hard to spot, either. Consider the Grammy Awards, which, year after year, pigeonhole artists of color into particular genres like “Progressive R&B” (formerly known as “Urban Contemporary” before being changed due to controversy), regardless of whether their music would objectively fit better into another genre like pop. 

Black artists have historically been discouraged from venturing into larger, white-dominated styles of music. Genres such as R&B pose the highest likelihood of success for non-white artists. This trend dates back to the 1940s when “Billboard” coined the term as a replacement for the problematic genre title of “race music.” Industry executives believed that genre was only for African American listeners.

This systemic restriction of musicians of color to a limited assortment of genres leads to a significant underrepresentation in others. Even for the few artists who attempt to make names for themselves as Black artists in predominantly white genres, they often do not get the recognition they deserve. This happens often in rock. 

Like most other music genres, rock music’s foundations stand on the contributions of the Black community. Still, the industry fails to give the same praise to Black artists as they give their white counterparts.

One could say that “rock and roll” was born in the 1950s when popular disc jockey Alan Freed used the title to describe a music style that blended elements of various genres, including rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel and country. Freed was one of the first white DJs to play music by Black musicians on a radio station that had a white audience. 

While the term may have originated with Freed, the characteristics that made the genre unique were all derived from the artistry of Black musicians. 

Rhythm and blues, arguably the most significant component of rock and roll, was also, at its core, an amalgamation of African American culture and musical stylings. The genre began taking shape around the 1920s, when large African American communities were moving from the rural areas of the South to larger cities like Chicago, Harlem and Los Angeles.

Though the pioneering artists behind rock and roll music included names like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, people frequently associate the genre more with white musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, all of whom received influence from the Black musicians who came before them. 

Over the years, rock music has expanded dramatically, branching into different subgenres and gaining more popularity than in the 1950s. Despite their cruciality to the genre’s birth, overshadowing occurred quickly for African American artists. Today, though, numerous Black musicians on the alternative scene are working to build a following while simultaneously fighting against industry stereotypes. Listed below are some of these musicians. 

Joshua Roberts and Joe Horsham –  Magnolia Park

Magnolia Park is a five-part alternative rock band from Orlando, Fla., made up of Joshua Roberts (vocals), Tristan Torres (guitar), Freddie Criales (guitar), Vincent Ernst (keyboard) and Joe Horsham (drums). The group curates their sound by infusing their music with elements of the emo, nu-metal, pop-punk and hardcore subgenres, with dashes of hip-hop. The resulting instrumentals combine with Roberts’ standout vocals to create a sound unique to Magnolia Park. 

Promoting their music through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, the band writes about important topics that the members themselves can personally relate to, such as mental health struggles and, as part of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) community, experiences with police brutality or discrimination based on their race or ethnicities. Roberts often talks about his experiences within the music industry and receives comments about how, as a Black man, there are specific genres that he should “stick to.” 

On the band’s website, a quote from Torres, one of the band’s founding members, reads, “Our goal when we’re together is to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to face as much racial backlash for being a rock band. In the industry, people look at us a certain way and try to impose things on us — and we want to make sure the next generation of rock bands don’t have to go through what we’ve been through.”

Kele Okereke – Bloc Party

London-based indie rock band Bloc Party was first formed in 1999, making them veterans of the alternative music world. Currently, the band’s official lineup includes Kele Okereke (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Russell Lissack (lead guitar) and Louise Bartle (drums). In 2023, they brought on Harry Deacon (bass) as a touring member. 

Critics have categorized Bloc Party within sub genres ranging from post-Britpop to art-punk. Blending impressive guitar riffs with open and raw lyrics, the group has the versatility and skill to move between the laid-back, nostalgic feeling of indie soft rock and the racing sound of 90s punk. Some compare their sound to bands like Joy Division, The Pixies, Radiohead and Depeche Mode. No matter what style they have embraced, the band has found success, whether embracing the emo scene of the early 2000s or returning to alternative rock stylings with their newest release, “The High Life EP.”

Throughout their discography, the band has touched on relevant issues such as personal traumas, queer relationships and experiences with racism. While they may not be as popular as they were during emo’s heyday, many emerging Black artists like Willow Smith, Genesis Owusu and KennyHoopla cite Okereke and Bloc Party as a significant influence, having felt inspired by seeing a successful musician who looked like them. 

Cullen Moore – Sleep Theory

The newest of the bands on this list, Sleep Theory began as a solo project by retired Army veteran Cullen Moore and became a duo when he met Paolo Vergara, a bassist who had moved to the United States from the Philippines several years prior (2016). Between 2019 and 2023, the two musicians found two more band members, brothers Daniel and Ben Pruitt (guitar and drums). 

The goal of Sleep Theory was to find a way to create a hard rock group that incorporated elements of R&B, hip-hop and a little bit of pop. The group saw nearly instant success when they posted a TikTok with a clip of their debut single, “Another Way,” and the views and likes poured in. In September 2023, they released their first EP, “Paper Hearts,” a collection of songs that showcase just how unique the band’s multi-genre sound is. 

Emphasizing lyrical vulnerability and vocal experimentation, Sleep Theory quickly rose in the ranks of rock and metal, opening in amphitheaters on their first-ever tour. Though Moore is the principal vocalist — his powerful vocals communicate their music’s emotional intensity — every band member sings, contributing harmonies and backing vocals to the songs. Spurred by such overwhelming success, Sleep Theory has plans to continue working on new music for 2024. 

Edith Victoria and Téa Campbell – Meet Me @ the Altar

Not only are rock and its various subgenres incredibly white-dominated, but they are also incredibly male-dominated. But Meet Me @ the Altar challenges that narrative; women of color comprise the three-piece pop punk band. 

When Téa Campbell (guitar/bass) found Ada Juarez’s drum covers on YouTube in 2015, the two quickly decided to start a band despite living in  different states. They hosted online auditions for a vocalist and eventually welcomed Atlanta-native Edith Victoria into the band in 2017. All three young women recognized that they had not grown up seeing artists who looked like them in the music they loved, so they decided to be those artists for others, no matter what it took. 

During an interview with “Popsugar,” Campbell said, “We always knew that there was no one in the scene who looks like us. There’s no one doing the type of music that we’re doing that isn’t a straight white guy. That’s all that there was. But we always felt very comfortable with taking on that role, because we knew that we would want to have it. And we were super comfortable with being that for other people.”

The band utilizes grungy, early 2000s instrumentals and Victoria’s cheerfully feminine vocals to revive the sounds of MySpace pop punk from the eyes of BIPOC women in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Through their music, they address topics like struggling with self-esteem, hateful comments online and allowing yourself to feel the bad and not just the good. Though they have met significant pushback, from aggressive comments on social media to opening for all-white, male bands who clearly did not want them there, the women of MM@tA are persistent and determined to carve a place for themselves in the genre that they love, even if it does not always love them back. 

Magnolia Park, Bloc Party, Sleep Theory and Meet Me @ the Altar are all tackling different areas of rock music and, in doing so, are helping to ensure that Black musicians and musicians of color get the recognition they should have received from the beginning,inspiring a new generation of BIPOC kids. 

However, it is essential to note that this list was barely the tip of the iceberg of Black artists and artists of color beginning to make waves in rock music. 

Take the time to look into those artists and similar artists in other genres not listed, in which people of color do not see the representation or praise that white musicians do. Who knows, your new favorite artist could be one song away.