You’re either in… or out!
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The way we frame Black rock is critical. 

In an effort to prove it’s different from what’s available to the masses, Black rock has fallen into the corporate pigeonholing trap where everything requires a specific label (no pun intended!), it’s own little box.  Unfortunately, Black rock’s box is in no way related to the music experiences of the majority of Black folks who are weaned on a daily diet of commercial hip hop and R&B.  Problem is, the current frame doesn’t easily make room for new sounds or categories.  In an effort to bring a bigger audience to this music, managing expections is going to be a key challenge. 

Seriously, we absolutely have to stop calling it “alternative,” as in “alternative Black music.” Here’s why.

Look up "alternative" on and here’s some of what you get:

employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment: an alternative newspaper; alternative lifestyles.

Yes, it’s true that Black rock in all its forms exists outside the established world of commercial black music.  In fact, “commercial” Black music forms the entirety of the world for most people.  But, we’ve got to stop using this word.  To the average person, it sounds vague (needs further qualification) and at worse it conjures up images of some weird-sounding shit that they probably don’t like.  So, it’s for all of those people who are turned off by the word “alternative” that I say stop using it.

Here’s another definition:

one of the things, propositions, or courses of action that can be chosen

This isn’t exactly correct either: I’d venture to guess that the majority of Black folks don’t even know that this music exists.  Given that—if you’re not aware of the option—then it can’t be a choice, which means that it’s not an alternative.

The other challenge that arises from the use of the word are the connotations.  For those who’ve had little or no exposure to the music, “alternative” or “Black rock” makes them expect something that’s completely unfamiliar from anything they’ve heard.  Now, that could be good or it could be a bad thing.  Either way, you’re taking a chance.  For most, my assumption is that whatever this “alternative” thing is, it’s going to require work for them to process.  The reality is that, for the most part, the music is much more accessible than most might initially think. 

Here’s some advice for artists: The next time someone asks you what kind of music you play, just say, “The kind of stuff you like.”  No, I’m not telling you to lie.  I’m just stressing the need to help people orient themselves and get their ears and minds prepared for something different.  If you say “rock,” then you’re fighting against some heavy preconceptions of what that is, i.e., it’s loud, the domain of white boys and largely devoid of anything they understand as soulful.  That’s a specific frame, one in which there’s little room for you.  What I’m suggesting is that you find a way to talk about your music in terms of that they’ll readily understand.  People have no anxiety when they’re dealing with the familiar.  So, If you can get them to listen without the anxiety, to willingly look for the familiar, you’ve just made it easier for them to take a step towards this wider spectrum of music.

Marketers at brands large and small are struggling with how to make their communications clearer for multiple audiences.  Those of us involved in Black rock are not exempt from this challenge.  In fact, we might—as some marketers are discovering—begin to develop different communications for audiences that come to the music in various contexts.  The challenge and the goal is to develop communications that can be calibrated and customized based on a specific consumer’s familiarity with the both the music and the concept of Black rock.

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  • Peter H.

    The challenge you’re describing reminds me of my friend Ted’s observation about writing:

    “Writing is an exercise in empathy. We test our writing by forgetting our own hard-won knowledge, positions and interests and reading our work from the perspective of the stranger. A turn of phrase that’s familiar to us may be baffling to someone who wasn’t in the room when that phrasing emerged. We can only know how baffling if we can suspend the self for a moment and read like someone who has no idea what is going on here. Good writers are able to suspend the self for sustained periods — to be both the stranger and the insider in turn.”


  • This is well said, Peter. In their book, “Made to Stick,” Chip and Dan Heath talk about the curse of knowledge, which makes it hard for subject matter experts to imagine how it would be to be someone who has no such knowledge or expertise. Thus, you end up with poor communication because the “receiver” doesn’t have the same frame of reference as the sender.