Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine and music journalist was thrown out from the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation after saying that black and female musicians “did not articulate at the level of white musicians.” This perspective has called into question the longstanding historical erasure that black and female rock and roll artists have faced, regardless of their creative influence, at the hands of the music industry’s legacy white male shapers.
The business tycoon is promoting his new book “The Masters,” which features interviews with legendary rock musicians such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bono and many other rockers told the New York Times that when it comes to women, “just none of them were that articulate enough on that intellectual level,” noting that Joni Mitchell “wasn’t a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll.” And when addressing artists of color, said he: “Of black artists – you know, Stevie Wonder, a genius, right?” He continued: “I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘master,’ the mistake is in using that word . Maybe Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate themselves on that level.”
After he was unanimously removed from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation board, Wenner apologized. He said his comments “diminished the contributions, genius and impact of black and women artists, and I apologize wholeheartedly for these comments.”
Wenner’s comments clearly reflect decades of conditioning a stereotypical image of what a rock star is. Of course, as a former editor and co-founder of Rolling Stone, a former pillar of music journalism, his comments are telling: until its reputation waned in the last few years. He used to be someone with a lot of creative input and a wide range of choices at a renowned music and culture magazine. His decisions about which celebrity or musician should be plastered on the cover of a magazine would sell to people across the United States and around the world. As much as I want to ignore his ridiculous comments, I know the impact such comments have from a person like Wenner with wealth and influence.
These types of comments only continue to perpetuate the same type of comments The music industry insists on perpetuating the silence and erasure to maintain this system of white heteronormative patriarchy. In fact, the same artists Wenner mentioned, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, occupy some of the most important spots in the rock genre, and it’s no surprise that they have all been undermined in a genre so dominated by images of white, old people male rockers like those Wenner interviewed and who he calls his close friends (some would call this an unethical conflict of interest).
Mitchell is one of the greatest living rock stars of all time. She is also the model musician that most male rock stars like to call an all-time great, but even in Wenner’s damaging views, he was unable to call her “Great.” Wenner said she was not at the same intellectual level as her white male colleagues. It’s not that Mitchell is unfamiliar with this erasure, she has enjoyed critical and public support and longevity throughout her career. But unfortunately for Mitchell, she has the fate of being a woman, which means her greatness will always be questioned by the same hypocritical “tastemakers” of rock and roll. The very idea that Greatness or genius is naturally only attributed to white men is tired and rooted in so many evils and our society’s hatred towards women and minorities.
In the case of the iconic black artists Wenner mentioned, Wonder and Gaye redefined what genre-bending musicians looked like back then, and their tidal wave impact still reverberates in music today. Gaye’s estate has sued artists including Ed Sheeran and Robin Thicke over potentially similar-sounding songs. A Motown legend, Wonder jumped between soul, R&B, rock and pop on dazzling hits like “Superstition.” As Wonder’s predecessor, Gaye’s impact rings similarly true. While his music at its core focused primarily on R&B and soul, his influence extended to more “traditional” rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. His groundbreaking sound on early Motown singles like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” contributed to the rock revolution that began in the early 1950s. Artists like Gaye and Wonder literally laid the foundation with their works, which spanned multiple genres such as R&B, blues, boogie-woogie and uptempo jazz. These artists helped develop the idea of what traditional white rockers look and sound like today.
Ultimately, any old white guy could never diminish the historic and legendary generational impact of musicians like Mitchell, Gaye and Wonder. Regardless of Wenner’s opinions, they stand as absolutes, and it is clear that he will pay the professional price for his fundamentally misguided and racist comments. We all consider these artists to be touchstones in our lives, but most importantly, they need to be respected for their contributions – and not relegated to the sidelines of a white guy’s diversity token chip when he feels cornered, because it is not inclusive enough. These musicians are certainly important because of their race and gender, but they also transcend these tenuous boundaries of identity as simply articulately brilliant and genius musicians.
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