In this edition of Progressive Forum, we continue our celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition with a tribute to the three co-founders of the organization: Guitarist/band leader exemplar Vernon Reid, musician/journalist Greg Tate; manager/video and film producer Konda Mason. In this second installment, we speak with Greg Tate, author of the BRC Manifesto and conceptual architect of the Black Rock Coalition.
How did you end up getting in the mix with Vernon and Konda?
I first heard Vernon around 1979 and he came through DC with the band with the band Defunkt. It was really the first time I’d seen a guitar player who was my age that was playing on his level and in that context. It was just like, “Wow, this is really kind of hip. The cat can really play.” And he connected with these pretty impressive characters as well. We formally met after I came from DC to New York, about two years later. And we just started talkin’. Then he was playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson and one of the first pieces I got assigned by Musician magazine when I got here was to do a piece on Ronnie Drayton playing with James Blood Ulmer and Vernon playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson. I went out to their homes and interviewed them and got tight with both of those brothers around the same time. So Vernon and I were always just talkin’, rappin’. And he felt there was a need to have just a discussion about the state of Black rock music and of the Black musician relative to Rock culture. We decided to hold that meeting at this place called Jams, an art gallery down on Broadway, where I had worked at one point. And Vernon and I were tight with the director, Linda Goode-Bryant. Parenthetically, Jam was the place we held the first meetings for the BRC. Konda was one of the people brought in by [Fred] “Flip” Barnes. Konda also turned out to be real close with Craig Street, who was really like a founding member. Craig and Konda knew each other from California, they actually worked together on some festival situations out there. It was kind of like a small Black world coming together. It seemed like we all had known each other for a while anyway. Flip and I go back to Howard, so I’ve known him for a few years. Melvin Gibbs was present at those early meetings. Geri Allen and I had gone to Howard together as well. There were a lot of deep connections that were already in place.
I’m sure that there were a lot of people at the time asking why it was necessary for an organization like the Black Rock Coalition to be formed.
What’s interesting is that we really started out as a way to air out certain gripes that people had about the “glass ceiling” in music for Black musicians. Particularly instrumentalists who really wanted to stretch out and were being told by, let’s say the “R&B” side of the industry, that “Black folks don’t wanna hear loud guitars” and feeling the response from the rock ‘n roll side was that “Niggers can’t play rock ‘n roll.” What started out as a bitching session, really became more about a proactive and developmental approach to the issue, which was, instead of talking about how we’re locked out of the Master’s house, why don’t we just build our own? And that was when it fundamentally came together as an organization. If it had just been about being mad at the music industry, probably no organization would have been formed. But when we started to think about this whole tradition of people in jazz, like Lester Bowie, Art Ensemble of Chicago, when they started their organization in Chicago, the AACM, they just put on their own concerts. When regular clubs didn’t wanna book ‘em, they just put on their own in different meeting spaces. We said we can certainly do that and start to develop our own audience and our own venues. And we also started to think about other ways that we could make an impact in support of our community of musicians. What happened was, when people heard about the cultural agenda of the Black Rock Coalition, that’s when we noticed more and more started appearing at the meetings, and people from a broad walk of life, people from very different walks of life. Early on, there weren’t really so many musicians involved. There were a lot of professional musicians who kinda gave Vernon the vibe, like, “You’re rockin’ the boat. You’ll never eat lunch in this town again. It’s definitely gonna affect your career to be involved in this militant music organization.” But the people who came in were people like Tracie Morris, Don Eversley, people who were lawyers, there were folks who worked on Wall Street, who definitely had some of the fire and the idealism of the ’60s. They knew Vernon and they really wanted to be part of a Black situation where you talk about the cultural, political and social situation of Black folks in the country. There were times in those early meetings when we talked about music, but we talked about everything else that was going on, too. We talked about Yusuf Hawkins, Michael Stewart and a lot of different things got raked over the coals at those first few meetings. It was definitely, in a lot of ways, more of a political activist musical organization than it is now. People were interested less in the plight of the musicians than they were in the plight of how the music could be applied to improving the situation of Black people or speaking to that in a direct manner. And once Living Colour hit, then we definitely saw more of an influx of musicians.
The fact that there was so much of an emphasis on the political aspects in the early days rather than the musical, did this help or hinder the organization in the outset?
Well, I think it helped a lot in terms of just broadening the audience base. A lot of people told us they came down because of the BRC Manifesto. They really identified with what the manifesto was talking about. They identified with the militancy of it, the Black identification of it. A lot of these were also music people. Not everybody played, but everybody was a serious listener, serious consumer and listened to a broad range of things. And we had great bands who were part of the organization at the time. Melvin and D.K.’s band, I & Eye, Johnny Edwards’ Uptown Atomics, there was J.J. Jumpers. In that beginning phase there were some serious, serious bands out there. We put on some great shows early on. And a lot of people who came down were saying they thought they didn’t like rock, but once they heard what the BRC was doing, they realized that maybe they had to change their idea of what they thought rock was.
I gotta figure that part of the struggle early on-indeed, part of the struggle that continues now-is the definition of what rock ‘n roll is supposed to be or not supposed to be.
Right. Definitely because the organization was initiated by a guitar player who was very much concerned about the state and position of the Black electric guitar player in rock music, which is the most progressive forum for a guitar player. There was an emphasis on the guitar definition of it, but we noted in the manifesto that if Sting puts together a band with half of Wynton Marsalis’ band and half of Talking Heads is Black folks, it’s still considered a rock thing. But there’s an association with White artists. Because rock essentially, for White artists, it’s just a definition of musical freedom, musical privilege. It’s a license to do whatever you wanna do and have it be sold to the widest possible audience and promoted that way by the business. At least it was at that point in time, as opposed to the energy of the whole Britney-N’Sync-Spice Girls moment we’re in right now, where the industry could give a damn about rock, period, to certain extent. It was definitely about a definition that allowed for musical freedom and musical diversity. That’s what was represented and I think is still represented. You just go to any of our group shows. You’re gonna hear a range of different aesthetic ideas.
Over the course of your over 15-year association with the BRC, have there been any particular watershed moments for you?
Oh, definitely. The first public event was this party we had at the Jam space, December 7, 1985. It was called the “Drop The Bomb” party. I remember we had a picture of Little Richard and the Japanese rising sun flag behind it. That was just a beautiful event. It was a great coming together of people. And it really cemented the camaraderie of the organization. Then the first musical event was the apartheid concert, around the time of Martin Luther King’s birthday, January of ’86 at The Kitchen. That was our musical coming out. It was definitely saying, “Yeah, there are some young Black players out there who are a force to be reckoned with.” And then next year we did the first of the Stalking Heads concerts, which was two nights at CBs, about ten bands. There were jam sessions at the end with Ronnie Drayton, Vernon and Dr. Know from bad brains. I remember one of the things they did was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a three-guitar version of that. So that was definitely a major, major salvo of the musical events from the Coalition. One of the things Vernon and I always go back to were the weekly meetings at the Jam space-and it was live. It was all the way live, all the time. It was the conversations and the characters that would come through, the diversity of viewpoints. And then we all used to get together afterwards, go eat lunch at a spot around the corner down in Soho and the conversation would be even more wide ranging. Like, over there. People would just talk about all kinds of stuff. Comic books, films, just life experience, different things that happened to folks growing up. It was just a really great bonding experience in terms of the organization. Everybody was kind of into their mid-to-late twenties at that point. Everybody’s career is not set up-
A lot of youthful energy.
Yeah, a lot of youthful energy, but then a lot of adult focus, too. Folks focused on really making things happen for themselves. A lot of folks really went on to do very considerable things, considerable names for themselves in whatever it is they’re doing. Tracie Morris is somebody whose decision to become an artist was pretty much nurtured inside of the BRC and encouraged and inspired in a lot of ways. Because Tracie was definitely more political activist-minded in those days. And I think she really started to think about another way of expressing herself, changing her position in life from being in a BRC context. And it’s really great just to see somebody like a Tracie really flower through the auspices of the organization.
What kind of an impact do you think the organization has had?
I definitely think that Living Colour would not have happened without a BRC. And it doesn’t take anything away from the musicianship of those cats, but in terms of making a noise around the band, there was definitely more noise around Vernon as the head of the BRC than there was around Vernon as the leader of Living Colour. In a lot of ways, until you get that record deal, until you get that first hit single, that hit video, you’re just another cat mouthing off on the mic in a lot of people’s eyes. The early audience for Living Colour was definitely a Black BRC audience. And it really kept that band’s name alive and afloat until things really started to happen for them, really even after the release of the record. The record was out about seven months until “Cult of Personality” really hit, when that video came out. On that basis alone, the organization had considerable impact. But I think if you look at something like the Orchestra and the presence that it has in city now. It has such a prominent reputation as a repertory ensemble for African-American popular music. And it’s also created the opportunity for the kind of events that Vernon’s been involved in at BAM now, or the Prince show with The Roots, or the Joni Mitchell tribute. It’s like the seeds for all of that is definitely Black Rock Coalition.
And there were other cats like the M-Base Collective,
Yeah, who were really a part of it in the beginning. Geri Allen was one of the founders of M-Base as well. And Steve Coleman, Graham Haynes, Gerg Osby were all part of early BRC events. It allowed for a real dialogue between different schools of the music that evolved in the 80s and 90s as well. ‘Cause a lot of times, cats can just get into their clique vibe. I think the BRC really helped break down some of that competitiveness between different schools of thought in the music. In a way, it allowed a platform for folks to say, “Okay, let’s just deal with being musicians and playing. Let’s deal with the love of the music which got us into this thing in the first place anyway.” It was very instrumental on those few fronts in terms of creating a platform for repertory presentation of historic music and then, as well, just breaking down the competitive barriers between different schools of thought, different schools of submissions as well. And for building a greater sense of camaraderie between the musicians and the community.