ALL EARS This is the first time I’ll be making this presentation, but I’ve been preparing for it all through my career,” composer and musician Mark Montgomery French told me over the phone. He’s giving an immersive, multimedia talk at the Museum of the African Diaspora Wed/20 called “All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black” which investigates how and why so many Black music pioneers have been erased from the standard American music narrative.
“I’ve led two parallel lives. I’m a musician who’s played in bands and composes film scores, which I’m currently doing with my partner under the name Spiky Blimp. I’ve also been a creative director in the Bay Area site the late 1990s, back when the Internet was called the Information Super Highway, so I’ve made presentations for clients around the world. This combines both of my loves into one thing.”
Beyond his bona fides, however, Montgomery French is telling a vital story: Even today, people are amazed that black people invented rock and roll, let alone techno. I had a lively conversation with him that touched on topics like music stereotyping, the Grammys, and Spotify’s almighty (and biased) algorithm.
48 HILLS Can you give us a little taste of what to expect from “All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black”?
MARK MONTGOMERY FRENCH There’ll be lots of music, and moving graphics. It’s sort of like a minor Ted Talk in terms of style, but I find that talking about music is rather dull unless you’re actually playing some. [Laughs.] In terms of content, I start with rock, but then rock subdivides. In 10 years, you get into other subcultures. I also get into country too, which is pre-rock in a sense.
This is what I want to audience to think about: Imagine you’re in school and you see two different groups of people who aren’t talking to each other. There might be the stoners on one side of the cafeteria listening to metal, and the art school kids on the other side listening to Kate Bush. And they don’t like each other, so they ignore each others’ music. At least not until later, when they all get Spotify. [Laughs.]
But there’s a whole image that goes with the music that defines these groups, from the way they dress to the way they act. And much of the time, that image has been packaged for you by someone at a record label, and their rationale is to maximize profit as much as possible. The way for them to do that is to basically take everything out of it that could be “questionable.” And that’s how you get something like Pat Boone singing rock on TV in the ’50s, because he’s much more “presentable,” relatable with a certain audience that’s permitted to buy his records and image. This principle extends to race, and to all genres. The music gets sanitized by the marketing. And if you control this narrative, you control the history.
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48H Previously you did an online series called “28 black music documentaries in 28 days” …
MMF Yes, and it was one of those things where you had to ask, “Why has no one done this? I guess it’ll be me.” It was such a great excuse to watch a great number of music documentaries. An you also realize how many there aren’t. You would think, after 68 years in the game, there would be a comprehensive Isley Brothers documentary. There is none, I’ve looked!
48H What germinated the idea behind “All Your Favorite Music Is (Probably) Black”?
MMF Part of it goes back to being in a band in the ’90s. I would walk in with an acoustic guitar and the booker at the club would go, “Oh, blues!” and we’d say, “Uh, no.” And then my drummer would walk in with dreads and they’d say, “Oh reggae!” And we’d say, “No…” And this would happen every club, every booker. The band’s name was Endangered Species and we played what was called progressive funk, but it was definitely rock and roll. That was never the assumption, however.
Everyone knows Jimi Hendrix, but Hendrix was an anomaly. And there have been others, like Living Color, Lenny Kravitz, who were big. But for the most part, if you’re a Black guy with a guitar, you’re anything but rock. You’re probably a ska guy—well, maybe! And I knew enough about history to think, “Well there were Black people doing these things. In my parents’ lifetime! The first 10 acts who got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Every Brothers, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. That’s 60 percent Black people. This year? There’s one: Janet Jackson. That’s not because Black people stopped making music. There’s an erasure.
Even from behind the scenes, it’s the same thing. Tom Wilson was a producer: He produced the first Frank Zappa record, he produced the first Simon & Garfunkel record, He took “The Sounds of Silence” and expanded it from being just voice and guitar to the song that we know. He produced “Like a Rolling Stone” for Bob Dylan. His career is completely erased, almost no one know who he was, one of the major Black guys working in rock and roll at that time. And then there’s the offshoots. On of the biggest names in rock is Led Zeppelin, and Zeppelin basically started by raiding Chess Records. It’s things like this that inspired me to put this together.
It seems like step by step the deck chairs are moving to the right, and suddenly there’s no Black people in country, there’s none in pop… there’s none in techno, started by three Black dudes in Detroit, and now the face of techno is a European white guy with a giant mouse head mask.
48H Right now I’m watching people on my Twitter feed discover that Ariana Grande is a white girl. And then we just had the Grammys …
MMF I wish that the Grammys had as much gravitas as the Oscars. One can look at an Oscar awarenesses, especially in the technical categories, and for the most part say, “That person rocked. That really was the best of the year.” I’ve always found the the Grammys, because they don’t go out of their way to get more of the unpolished but brilliant musicians into the voting categories, you’re going to get a more super-shiny group of nominees, much less winners. So if you do get someone who wins who deserves it, it’s a miracle. Stevie wonder won Best Album three times in the ’70s, and everybody agreed, “Yep!” Those were the best albums.
Was Cardi B’s the best rap album of the year? Not for me, but I wouldn’t take it away from her, especially since she’s the first woman to win it since Lauryn Hill won 20 years ago! Was “This is America” the best song of the year? I don’t know, but I’m impressed that something that uncompromising managed to get the voters to agree. It’s very hard to write a song that’s actually of the moment and good. Usually you have to pick one or the other.
48H You mentioned Spotify earlier. How do you feel about the new environment of streaming music, where almost everything is available, and does it help or hinder the rediscovery of the Black roots of a lot of music?
I’m of two mind. If I could only tell my impoverished high school self, “One day, for $10 a month, you can listen to just about anything until you pass out…” That to me is fantastic. One summer recently, I committed to listen to every Miles Davis album in order—because I could! There’s no way I ever could have afforded that. After a while I sort of bailed, I mean he did like 50 albums. [Laughs.]
But there is still an inherent bias in the algorithms that present things to you. For example, Prince is a rock star. We all know this. It’s in the way he dresses, and he plays crazy shredding guitar. But if you go onto his Spotify and you hit “Fans Also Like,” everybody in that category is an R&B person. It’s Rick James, it’s Gap Band… Who I love, but if you like Prince, it is possible you like Carlos Santana. It is possible you like Stevie Ray Vaughn. It is possible you like Eric Clapton. But none of those people show up. Prince himself loved Joni Mitchell, you can definitely hear the influence in him. But good luck seeing her name pop up. So you can see that even the most faceless technology is biased when it comes to music and who makes it.
“ALL YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC IS (PROBABLY) BLACK”
Wed/20, 6:30pm, $10.
More info here.