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How Jann Wenner exposed himself and the racism embedded in Rock and Roll institutions

Sometimes people put their foot in their mouth and sometimes they shove that foot down their throat. Well, we have a glaring case of foot-in-mouth or shoe-in-poop syndrome to report. Yes, this guy really stepped in it. Who are we referring to? Why, Jann Wenner, the 77-year-old editorial director of Wenner Media and co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine, long considered the bible of Rock and Roll music. In a recent 15 September 2023 New York Times interview entitled “Jann Wenner Defends his Legacy and his Generation’s” intended to promote his new book, The Masters, in which he republished interviews with a conspicuously white and male group of musicians, Werner spoke about why his magazine had so rarely celebrated and promoted the music and accomplishments of black and female musicians. To our horror, Wenner explained that black and female musicians did not meet his criteria of being able to discuss their work on an intellectual level. Regarding women, he explained, “none of them were as articulate enough in this intellectual level”. Of black musicians he stated, “maybe Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield or…they just didn’t articulate at that level”. He went on to claim that the problem was in the use of the term masters which he defined as those (only white men) who were philosophers of Rock and Roll.

Are we disturbed by this naked racism and sexism? Yes. Are we surprised? Sadly, we are not. American (and Canadian) racism, like its western antecedent, is based upon a racial hierarchy through which white people asserted their supposed superiority not merely in body, but in mind and culture. The devaluation of black intelligence through colonialism and slavery was underpinned by prohibitions on literacy which allowed white enslavers to keep the tools of education and aspiration away from black populations. But it would be foolish to assume that literacy was the only or the best measure of intelligence during this or any other period. Although oppressed within the institution of slavery, enslaved black people relentlessly pursued education and refused to relinquish their African spirituality, knowledge, and cultures under the weight of prohibitions enforced through systemic brutality. Indeed, it was black intelligence and cultural ingenuity that resulted in creolized cultural forms like – wait for it – Rock and Roll. As Michael T. Morgan has explained, in his ground-breaking article Rock and Roll Unplugged: African-American Music in Eighteenth-Century America (1994), “rock and roll’s ancestry includes grandparents called work songs and spirituals, great-grand-parents called field hollers and ring shouts, and great-great-grand-parents called La Calinda and patting juba, all of which are musical forms performed and perfected by our African-American ancestors”.

We want to point out the stunning white washing job that Wenner has tried to pull off by overseeing what is arguably one of the most celebrated English-language music magazines in the world and writing books that centre white male contributions to an African American musical form while claiming that black rock icons had and have no place in this pantheon. Can you spell D-E-L-U-S-I-O-N-A-L? A quick history lesson is in order, since it seems that many people have forgotten or never learned the correct cultural and racial origins of the most pathbreaking, innovative, and influential musical genres on the planet. Spirituals, Gospel, Blue Grass, Jazz, Blues, Soul, R n’ B, Disco, Funk, Rap, Hip Hop, Ska, Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso, Soca, Merengue, Bachata, Salsa, and yes, Rock and Roll, all share African American (continental) roots. Rock music icons like Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clyde McPhatter, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Big Mama (Willie Mae) Thorton, B. B. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ben E. King, and Tina Turner made music history while being forced to endure the indignities of entering grand theatres through the back stage or kitchen doors to play for segregated white audiences. And later came the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Prince.

The extent of Wenner’s self-deception and sheer ignorance is remarkable and what was clear from the Times interview is how much Rolling Stone Magazine was less the Rock and Roll bible many had been duped into believing and more of a white man’s vanity project. When asked how he selected his interview subjects who inevitably ended up on the covers of the magazine, he spoke about his friendships and desires to understand the musicians he selected. He did not pretend to have any objective criteria. Well, ok, it was his magazine you might say. He had the right to do with it what he wanted. True. But a little integrity would have been nice. How about calling the magazine what it actually was, Wenner’s personal playground, and not a news forum which purported to objectively assess and critique popular music? There are several lessons to be learned here, but one of them is surely that we must beware of those wielding vast personal privilege who have the power to create and cement institutions in their own limited racist vision.