Rolling Stone magazine founder and music journalist Jann Wenner has been kicked out from the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation after his comments that Black and female musicians “didn’t articulate at the level” of the white musicians. The perspective has called into question the longstanding historical erasure Black and female rock and roll artists have faced at the hands of the old white male shapers of the music industry regardless of their creative impact.
While promoting his new book “The Masters” which includes interviews with iconic rock musicians like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bono and plenty of other rockers, the business magnate told The New York Times that when regarding women “just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” and remarked that Joni Mitchell “was not a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll.” And when addressing artists of color, he said, “Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right?” He continued, “I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”
After he was unanimously removed from the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, Wenner issued an apology. He said his comments “diminished the contributions, genius and impact of Black and women artists and I apologize wholeheartedly for those remarks.”
Wenner’s comments obviously signal decades of conditioning of what a stereotypical image of what a rock star is. Of course, his comments are telling as the former editor and co-founder of Rolling Stone, a former pillar in music journalism — until its reputational hits in the last handful of years. He used to be someone with weighty creative input and choice at a high-profile music and culture magazine. His decisions of which celebrity or musician to plaster on a magazine cover would be sold to people across the U.S. and the world. As much as I would like to ignore his laughable comments I know the impact that comments like this from a person like Wenner with wealth and influence.
These types of comments only continue to perpetuate the same type of silencing and erasure the music industry insists on perpetuating in order to uphold this system of white heteronormative patriarchy. In actuality, the same artists that Wenner mentioned, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye hold some of the most important spaces in the genre of rock, and it comes to no surprise that they all have been undermined in a genre so driven by images of white, old male rockers like the ones Wenner interviewed and calls his close friends (some would call that an unethical conflict of interest.)
Mitchell is one of the greatest living rockstars of all time – period. She is also the token female musician that most rock male stans are comfortable with calling an all-time great, but even in Wenner’s harmful takes — he was unable to call her great. Wenner said she was she was not on the same intellectual level as her white male counterparts. It’s not like Mitchell is unfamiliar with this erasure, she has experienced critical and public support and longevity in her career. But unfortunately for Mitchell, she has the fate of being a woman which means her greatness will always be called into question by the same hypocritical “tastemakers” of rock and roll. The very idea that greatness or genius is naturally only assigned to white men is tired and rooted in so much of our society’s ills and hatred towards women and minorities.
In the case of the token Black artists that Wenner mentioned — Wonder and Gaye redefined what genre-bending musicians looked like at the time and their tidal wave-like impact still reverberates in today’s music. Gaye’s estate has sued artists like Ed Sheeran and Robin Thicke for potentially similarly sounding songs. A Motown legend, Wonder hopped from soul, R&B, rock and pop in knockout hits like “Superstition.” As Wonder’s predecessor, Gaye’s impact similarly rings true. While his music mainly focused on R&B and soul to its core, the scope of his impact extended to more “traditional” rockstars like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. His pioneering sound in the early Motown singles like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” helped form the rock revolution that began in the early 1950s. Artists like Gaye and Wonder literally laid the groundwork with their works that inhabited multiple genres like R&B, blues, boogie-woogie, and up-tempo jazz. These artists helped form the idea of what conventional white rockers look and sound like today.
Ultimately, some old white guy could never diminish the historic and legendary generational impacts of musicians like Mitchell, Gaye and Wonder. They stand alone as all-time greats regardless of Wenner’s opinions and clearly, he will pay the professional price for his fundamentally misguided and racist comments. These artists exist to all of us as touchstones in our lives but most of all they need to be respected for their contributions — not relegated to the afterthoughts of a white guy’s diversity token chip when he feels cornered about not being inclusive enough. These musicians are certainly important because of their race and gender but they also transcend these measly identity boxes as just articulately brilliant and genius musicians.
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