Rock ‘n’ Roll has a complicated history. Like nearly every form of American music, it was created by Black artists. Yet, Black artists have often been made to feel unwelcome in the genre or had their contributions erased.
White men in particular have been overrepresented (to put it mildly) in almost every corner of what was the world’s most popular genre for generations. For years, it was — and in many circles, still is — all too common to attend a rock show and see three bands, each made up of white dudes with guitars.
Seattle, historically, is no exception.
But even a casual glance across the city’s contemporary rock landscape reveals a scene that is anything but homogenous. Though sonically they have little in common, many of the local leaders under the broader “rock” umbrella are Black, people of color, women or members of LGBTQ+ communities. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.) Consider four of the buzziest acts in town: Veteran hard rocker Ayron Jones is having his national breakout, lighting up rock radio across the country. This spring, Tacoma’s earwormy indie rockers, Enumclaw, drew praise from just about every national indie blog that matters, before ever playing a show.
Here at home, garage-y blues-punks The Black Tones have climbed the club ranks to become one of the most beloved and ubiquitous bands in town, while self-described “gunk-pop” trio Black Ends have dazzled local critics and peers, and deserve bigger opportunities as clubs reopen.
Each of those acts are made up of, or at least led by, rock artists who happen to be Black. That hasn’t always been the case in Seattle — and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’ve brought this up with people,” says Eva Walker of The Black Tones, “how there’s a renaissance happening with these bands and artists right now. And it’s awesome.”
Of course, rock has never been exclusively a white male sport, in Seattle and elsewhere. Artists of color, women, LGBTQ+ people have been integral to all eras of the genre, including hometown music icons from Jimi Hendrix and Heart to Brandi Carlile and members of Soundgarden and The Ventures. But in the past few years there’s been a gradual shift, as an increasingly diverse array of musicians are claiming more prominent roles in the local scene.
“In 2011, I don’t think we played a show with another Black band for a while,” Walker says of The Black Tones’ early days. “It’s not that they didn’t exist or something. I just think we didn’t know about each other. Because we all play this music, but most the time we all hide in our rooms because we’re not sure if we should be, because we don’t see ourselves everywhere else.”
Like Walker, Danny Denial recalls feeling uncomfortable — like “there was always this elephant in the room” — among clubs full of white people when the Los Angeles transplant started gigging around Seattle in 2015. At first, the scene felt “pretty much all white” until Denial saw The Black Tones and met Walker, who makes a point of reaching out to new Black or brown bands that land on her radar. (“After us being alone in this, I am not going to isolate other bands or make people not feel seen or welcome,” Walker says. “I’m going to do the opposite of what we had to do in 2011.”)
From there, Denial continued meeting more and more Black artists, and diverse lineups became increasingly commonplace at those once-homogenous shows. By 2018, the solo artist and lead singer of goth-punk quartet Dark Smith was landing national write-ups in outlets like Afropunk — a publication that focuses on alternative and genre-defying Black artists — often alongside other Seattleites. Denial realized something was happening a year or two ago, when the musician and filmmaker started getting messages from artists and fans outside of Seattle, including one astonished Canadian band.
“They messaged me like, ‘Wait, are you and Beverly Crusher and Black Ends, are y’all all in the same city?’” Denial says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we all know each other. We end up at the same shows just hanging out, drinking beers all the time.’ They’re like, ‘That’s crazy! We gotta go to Seattle.’
“It was then I realized, oh, a lot of the bands that are doing things right now are people of color. … It was kinda cool to feel like being a part of that, because it was such a different trajectory from where it started for me.”
Beyond just visibility, networking is key to community-building (not to mention holding space in a local music scene), and on that front Walker has been a catalyst. Aside from hosting and playing underrepresented voices on KEXP’s local show “Audioasis” and Seattle Channel’s music video program “Video Bebop,” behind the scenes, Walker started a small, laid-back jam session for women of color. As the singer/guitarist started meeting more Black and brown women making rock music, she wanted a space where they could be themselves around other artists they relate to, without feeling like they had something to prove.
“There’s a certain kind of you that you can be when you’re around people that either know the struggle or got the same hair as you, and you can shoot the [expletive],” says Walker, noting how she’s felt self-conscious at past jams with all white men.
Until the pandemic paused those biweekly sessions, Shaina Shepherd was among the core group of regulars alongside Whitney Mongé, Tres Leches’ Alaia D’Alessandro, Maya Marie and Nicolle Swims of Black Ends. “I remember the first jam, we were all so nervous around each other because we’re all used to having to compete and earn our weight in rooms of men,” says Shepherd, a singer-songwriter and frontwoman with BEARAXE. “We all have our own ways of getting through that. But when we were in that room, I could see everybody’s own process and it brought us all really close together.”
As supportive as those relationships have been, Shepherd says that unity has been misconstrued and co-opted by white people in the industry, at times preventing artists of color from being seen as individuals or setting them up to compete against one another.
“It’s not even anybody doing it on purpose, it’s, ‘We notice your differences and we group you together,’” Shepherd says. “But then you think about what’s happening internally and it’s like, we don’t want to be grouped together. We became musicians, artists so we could find our individuality.”
Danny Denial knows the feeling. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd last year, sparking worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, there was a rush in the arts world to identify and uplift Black voices. Denial had just put out a beguiling solo record, “[Expletive] Danny Denial” — a set of alt-pop experiments and lo-fi rockers laced with Denial’s brooding baritone. It was getting “waaaaaayyyyy more attention” than past releases, often landing on lists of Black artists to support. “People, I think, had the right intention,” Denial says, “but it came off as this misguided tokenism a little bit. It felt out of the artists’ control.”
Denial recalls feeling “conflicted and weird about it,” like “everyone was kind of picking their representative.” The material support was real, but it felt conditional as long as race issues were “trending,” Denial says. By fall, the boost in Bandcamp sales had dried up.
In response to having his artistry categorized by skin color, the musician and filmmaker created “BAZZOOKA” — a sci-fi, punk rock web series set in dystopian Seattle, proudly featuring a Black, Indigenous and people of color cast and soundtrack. A host of musicians and members of the drag and film communities contributed to the first season, which ended this month and is available on YouTube. The idea of the production with a “‘by us, for us’ kind of vibe” was to showcase the talent and creativity of a diverse group of people, united, but on their own terms.
“‘BAZZOOKA’ was this idea of taking back the notion of grouping us all in, almost reclaiming that,” says Denial. “Because before, it could be frustrating or tokenizing, and sometimes a little bit invalidating in a way, because you put out an album and then almost everything that is part of the discussion around the album is all posturing to talk about Black Lives Matter and Black arts, when it’s like, ‘Well you know, I’m also an artist by my own merits and identity politics has nothing to do with that.’”
While a shift is occurring across the local scene, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when or why it began. (Denial suspects the “Eva effect” and the cultural backlash to Donald Trump’s election have something to do with it.) But really, the local rock community has been pushing back against the idea of white male hegemony for at least the last 10 years.
Around a decade ago, the Seattle rock scene was coming out of its “beard rock” period, a pejorative title given to the lush, pastoral folk rock often made by follically advanced gentlemen. (Think Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes.) Tailing the early-2000s indie-rock boom, it was a sound Seattle and the Pacific Northwest became known for far beyond the Cascades.
Back then, pop-punk pillar Tacocat was a young band making its way in a musical climate that wasn’t necessarily geared toward a band combating sexism with witty punchlines wrapped in garage-pop melodies. “Especially at the time we were playing in Seattle, it still felt very male-dominated,” bassist Bree McKenna said in an interview last year. “There wasn’t a lot of room for the ideas we were having.”
What started as intentional space-making for women in the house party scene grew as the band’s audience did, slowly connecting communities of women, queer people and people of color, she said, acknowledging some of those communities still don’t have enough space. That era saw bands like Tacocat, Chastity Belt, La Luz — and later Thunderpussy — become some of Seattle’s defining rock bands of the 2010s.
While Walker credits Tacocat and Thunderpussy with helping The Black Tones build momentum in the Seattle scene, past movements rooted in feminism — like Olympia’s riot grrrl scene in the ’90s, she says — haven’t always translated to gains for artists of color. Walker acknowledges the importance of women representation, but says she’s unmoved by any bill of predominantly cisgendered white women that excludes men of color or members of the nonbinary and trans communities.
“That doesn’t do anything for me,” Walker says of the riot grrrl era, “because I’ve seen them on TV and in magazines, and they’ve always been the standard of beauty and the standard of this and that.”
But looking at contemporary Seattle, the collective work — both intentional and organic — led by women and artists of color has helped foster a scene that’s more inclusive across the board than it was 10 years ago.
Cameron Lavi-Jones is happy about the progress that’s being made. But no one’s throwing any back-patting parties. The work is far from over, in Seattle and beyond, and trying to measure progress is a precarious endeavor considering rock’s full history, says the singer/guitarist with alt-rockers King Youngblood.
“If there is this concept of enough BIPOC folks in the rock world, I think that we’re kinda chasing something that is difficult to quantify,” Lavi-Jones says. “How do you define whether or not a genre that has been so warped and stolen from the people that created it, how do you quantify it really getting a chance to be returning to its roots? How do you quantify it getting a chance to be what it was in the first place, which was a Black genre?”
Besides recognizing the contemporary Black artists who are leaving their mark on the city, part of what needs to happen to undo the fallacy that rock is a white genre, he says, is getting more people to understand the history. That includes highlighting artists of color who may not have gotten their due during their heyday.
In March, KEXP aired a story about Tina Bell, a Black woman who fronted the proto-grunge band Bam Bam, which for a time, also featured Matt Cameron — later of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam — on drums. A dynamic singer and performer, Bell and Bam Bam’s first EP predated what are widely considered the earliest grunge recordings by about a year.
With its career stalled in Seattle, the band moved to London in the late ’80s. Not long after, Bell left the band and gave up music altogether before her death in 2012.
The grunge origin stories have been mined and regurgitated ad nauseam for decades, yet Bell and Bam Bam are rarely (if ever) included in those conversations, her legacy largely unknown even in Seattle. The piece sent shock waves through the local music community.
“That is a perfect example within our own city, there’s a whitewashing, an erasure of Black people,” Lavi-Jones says.
Ayron Jones has a deep love and appreciation for Seattle’s rock tradition, a lineage the self-taught guitar hero takes with him as he enters a new chapter of his career, stepping into the national arena. In Jones’ early years working the Northwest blues circuit, eventually conquering Seattle rock clubs, he was unaware so many others who looked like him were part of that tradition, too.
“We were just trying to get on bigger and bigger stages. We didn’t realize at the time that we were a part of a legacy of brown bands in Seattle that have been working to do the same,” Jones says, pointing to Bell and the mighty Maktub as examples. “Just like we were following the trail that a lot of these other bands and artists had done in Seattle before us, we were leaving a trail.
“And out of that, when I look at the next generation of Seattle rock, it’s all led by Black women. … It’s kind of an anomaly, to be honest. But I think that’s because Seattle has always been the future of rock ’n’ roll. We’ve always set the precedent for what is to come, and I think that you’re looking at the future.”
As Lavi-Jones points out, that visibility and representation play no small part in encouraging other would-be artists to contribute to a scene they otherwise might think they don’t have a place in. And it doesn’t stop with Black artists. The more that happens, the more everybody wins.
“Here’s the best part, my guy,” Lavi-Jones says. “It means we’re going to get a lot better [expletive] rock music. It means we’ll get way more powerful music, way more intentional music — music with stronger messages — because when Black and brown people are making things, this is second nature to us.”
Note: This story was updated after Eva Walker clarified some of her comments were in reference to a previous era of Northwest music.