“Heavy metal for the black people”

February 6th, 2012 by | Tags:

I did this Q&A thing on Tumblr the other day, probably because I was both bored and felt starved for attention. It was neat. I liked this question below a lot, so I’m going to repost it here and expand on my answer some:

Anonymous asked: Had you ever posted anything about Mos Def’s “Rock’N’Roll” from Blackstar?

I haven’t. I listen to Black On Both Sides every couple of months, and I’m always happy that it’s aged so well. “Umi Says” is as weird as anything Blu has done, “Mathematics” is still fire, and “Mr. Nigga” still goes in.

I loved “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in high school, mostly because it preaches a point of view I was really fond of. I feel like a lot of my time growing up and figuring out who I am wasn’t about taking a position so much as taking a position opposite from another position. The idea that rock was stolen from black people was an attractive and emotionally valuable one when discovering what being black is all about (which I’ve learned is mostly your white friends going “What do you mean you never listened to The Beatles growing up?! How is that possible?!” and cops looking at you funny).

“Rock’n’Roll” is not just about how rock music was stolen, but how modern rock sucks and classic black music is better. “You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they could never ever rock like Nina Simone.” “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Little Richard is rock and roll!” I was all about that back then. Stealing back the culture, maybe, or demanding to be heard by being as strident as possible. One part attention-getting spite to one part sincerity.

Now that I’m grown, I still like the song a whole lot. I can and still do sing along with the whole joint, even. Mos’s flow is great and unbalanced, the beat goes, the Bar-Kays sample sounds so much like “Nautilus” at first listen it isn’t even funny, and I’ll never not love that Mobb Deep sample. The difference between now and then is that I disagree with parts of it now. I think he’s pretty much correct when talking about who gave birth to what and who’s specifically iller than who, but the main position of the song, the white versus black thing, doesn’t work for me any more. I mean, I understand nuance now, for one thing, and know a little more about rock history. I’m also less concerned with proving the worth of what I choose to enjoy or the lack of worth of something someone else likes.

The song still bangs, though. The transition from slow flow lazy raps to bang your head clatter is a good one. It’s only now that I’m older that I can appreciate what the progression the music takes from blues to punk rock represents and the seamless switch, if there is one, from punk to rap between “Get your punk ass up!” and “Company — MOVE!” on through “Rock and roll for the black people.”

I get the song better now, if that makes sense, as a statement, than I did when I believed the statement behind it. I probably actually like it better now that I disagree with that tiny bit of it.

It’s still not the best Mos Def song with the word “rock” in it, though. That would be “Body Rock” off that Lyricist Lounge Vol 1:

Tash basically steals the show (“but I’m doper than sherm, plus the way I put it down could burn the perm off Big Worm” yooooo), but Mos gets it in with that “Barkin that you want a bout, but son you know the comeabout.”

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2 comments to ““Heavy metal for the black people””

  1. “I’m also less concerned with proving the worth of what I choose to enjoy or the lack of worth of something someone else likes”

    I wish the internet as a whole would catch on to this point of view.

  2. I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that you had said something about the song in the past. I was thinking about two Black Metal groups when the question came to me. One group having a disturbed, racist front man, and another with a singer who said the one full studio album the band managed to produce was created in a dark time in his life. The racism bothered me enough to want to ask about this particular track.