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KENDI: “White People Music” & the Legacy of Jimi Hendrix on His 78th Year

Kendi K.
Nov 30, 2020 - 10:35

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I grew up listening to all sorts of music. 

I can rap the entirety of Kanye West’s “College Dropout” and know every riff on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” I have memories of air playing along with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello’s killer “Ghost of Tom Joad” guitar solos, and blasting Johnny Lang’s blues albums on long roadtrips. 

For the majority of my life, music had no race. Nothing was Black or white. It wasn’t until I got to middle school that I learned of the divisions. Of course I knew that all the rappers I listened to were Black, but I didn’t think of rap as exclusively Black music. I also didn’t think of rock as white people music, until others told me it was.

“That’s white people shit,” my Black and Brown friends would say when they asked what I was listening to and I’d show them Rage Against the Machine, The Doors, or early John Mayer. 

I rolled my eyes, thinking it was stupid to cast off entire genres of music due to some strange notion of their attachment to race. Yet, I understood where my friends were coming from. Nearly all of the rock icons I knew were white men. Rappers looked like us, like our uncles and cousins and friends. They were Black and Brown and talked about things we knew about, things we connected to. 

We understood their music because their music was about us. It can be hard to connect to legends like Bruce Springsteen when he’s singing happily about being “Born in the U.S.A.” and you have a strained relationship with this country. 

That’s what makes Jimi Hendrix all the more incredible. 

Described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” his contributions to the genre outweigh most. Obsessed with the guitar since childhood, he taught himself to play by listening and imitating classic blues records. At 15, he formed his first band and quickly realized he’d need an electric guitar to be heard over the others.

His love of the instrument he would become famous for revolutionizing was born, but this love often got him in trouble. 

After being caught in a stolen car and forced to enlist in the army as punishment, he was soon discharged for lack of commitment, and spending all his time playing guitar. Once released, he started taking on low-paying gigs across the country, but found his first real taste of fame in the United Kingdom. While he gained popularity across Europe, and among white audiences, he struggled to break through to Americans, especially Black Americans. 

They, much like my friends, saw the music Hendrix played to be that of white people, despite the fact that a Black man was creating it. He would later speak on how much this rejection from his own people bothered him, and how uncomfortable the hypersexualized, drug addicted caricature white people saw him as made him feel. He wanted to be respected for the incredible music he created, but couldn’t find this audience in his lifetime. 

At 27 years old, Hendrix died of asphyxiation from a drug overdose.

Now, he is adored by Black audiences, and recognized for his musical talents by all. This is the way of many artists: fully appreciated only after they have died. 

Jimi Hendrix is a prime example of why the attribution of race to music is damaging. Rock was revolutionized by Black artists, as the majority of music genres were. It is just as much for Black audiences as for white ones. Just as there are endless styles of rap that speak on all facets of life, there are rock songs that speak directly on the Black experience. 

So for anyone who has cast off a genre of music as “too white,” whether it be rock, folk, or even country, I encourage you to give them a try. You’ll be surprised at the diversity of artists and stories within them all.

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