Before singer Axl Rose auto-destructed on 1989's "One in a Million," bringing his band Guns 'n' Roses along with him, the summer of 1988 saw a phenomena that would seem to have presaged an altogether different future. New York City-based black rockers Living Colour, with Vernon Reid on guitar, released their debut album, Vivid, which featured the great song "Cult of Personality." MTV picked up the video, and the song won the 1989 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. Vivid went double platinum and, for a heady moment, rock seemed at a crossroads. Would it reward Rose's cramped vision of a white America hemmed in on all sides by minorities and gays, or would it embrace Living Colour's expanded vision of rock 'n' roll rebellion?
"Cult" opens with a clip of Malcolm X promising to speak in "a language that everybody here can easily understand." This call is followed, after a beat, by the response of the song's unforgettable opening riff, linking lead guitarist Vernon Reid's virtuosity to X's black universalism. "Cult," which astonished me on the cusp of adolescence, was as compelling as Melle Mel's pioneering 1982 conscious rap "The Message." Only—unlike that latter song, which my suburban Midwestern ears heard as a reportorial on a gritty and remote other world—"Cult" spoke to the dilemmas of being a black person awash in a sea of white. The song managed to perform black historical memory in a "white" idiom, while simultaneously undertaking an immanent critique of black identity. It did so by linking the then-growing cult of Malcolm X to a broader problematic of authoritarian personality in modern society, a mode rock has always challenged. Was it possible, in 1988, that a pop single could have exposed political [End Page 183] charisma with arresting juxtapositions like "Joseph Stalin and Gandhi"? That radio could have embraced a song that so unmoored the complacent anomie of teenage paranoia, exposing instead the more rigorous challenge of dwelling among difference?
Before Guns 'n' Roses urged me to suppose differently, I assumed rock was black music and that Vernon Reid's virtuosity was black virtuosity. In Kandia Crazy Horse's excellent new collection, Rip It Up, Paul Gilroy, in his essay "Bold as Love? Jimi's Afrcyberdelia and the Challenge of the Not Yet," notices how the "shocking power of amplified sound solicits identification differently" (37) from visual culture, an observation that Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover underscores in the line from "Cult," "when the mirror speaks, the reflection lies." Living Colour "dispatched [us] to new bodily predicaments," as Gilroy writes of Jimi Hendrix's showman shamanism (37).
But Gilroy's emphasis on the shamanic, over and against showmanship, bespeaks an ongoing difficulty in black performance criticism. The emphasis on music over performance hinges on a regrettable dualism between sound and vision. A more sympathetic attitude to showmanship might be found in the example of Little Richard, whose song gives the collection its title. Conjuring the gender defiance of a Little Richard—a theatricality that can be read across both his stage persona and his musical virtuosity—is especially refreshing at a moment when a single and overdetermined mode of black male authenticity is, ironically enough, shutting a generation off from its authentic heritage. The shamanic hermeticism of Hendrix was not the only modality within which black rock aesthetics have resisted the narrowing straitjacket around black performance.
Because black rock is perceived as part of the rock scene, rather than the black music scene, its impact has been minimized. While performers like Ruth Brown and Little Richard are...