BY: JOEY REAMS
June is African-American Music Appreciation Month, and it’s never too late to celebrate. When most people look at an indie or alternative rock bands, they will see the genre is predominantly white, with very few African-American musicians in the picture. Although their presence isn’t always recognized, one can’t deny their involvement and influence on the genre. There have been several artists in recent times that have helped project the genre onto a new platform. Of course, there have been plenty of African-American artists to influence music for decades, but we’re focusing on more recent artists, specifically indie/ alternative bands.
Brittany Howard is a singer-songwriter best known for being the lead singer of Alabama Shakes and has previously fronted the bands Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle. She was one of the founding members of Alabama Shakes in 2009 and stayed with the band until their indefinite hiatus in 2018. During that time, the band received nine Grammy nominations, including “Album of the Year” for Sound & Color. Alabama Shakes eventually won four awards, including Best Alternative Music Album. Following the hiatus, Howard pursued a solo career and released her debut album, Jaime, in 2019. The album received seven Grammy nominations while winning ‘Best Rock Song’ for “Stay High.” In high school, Howard began listening to rock bands such as Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd.
“I’d be in the back of this Buick and be like ‘What’s this? This is really cool’ and my friends told me it was Pink Floyd and I was like ‘Whoa’, it blew my mind,” Howard told The Line of Best Fit in 2019. “I started getting into all the classic rock stuff, like Yes, Cream, all that stuff.”
Toro y Moi
Toro y Moi, otherwise known as Chaz Bear (born Chazwick Bradley Bundick), is a singer-songwriter from South Carolina who associates with indie rock and chillwave. In high school, Bear formed an indie-rock band, The Heist and The Accomplice, with three of his classmates. His career officially began in 2008, and since Bear has released eight studio albums, with 2019’s Outer Peace being the most recent. Aside from studio albums, Bear has released a handful of other music, including four EP’s, four mixtapes, a live album, and a compilation album. His music contains elements of techno, psychedelia, and other genres yet still hold an indie-rock foundation. On June 27, 2017, Berkeley, CA, announced that day would be ‘Chaz Bundick Day,’ in honor of his contributions to music. This year he released an instrumental album of Under the Pine for its 10th anniversary.
“Recording UTP really pushed me to learn the proper way to record with multiple mics and acoustic space,” Toro Y Moi said in a statement to Pitchfork. “I was listening to a lot of disco, funk, astral jazz, and psych-rock. The lyrics were once again the last thing I added to the songs, you can hear all of the imperfections and happy accidents sprinkled throughout the record that make so many great moments.”
TV on the Radio
TV on the Radio is a Brooklyn-based rock band with a lineup predominantly consisting of African-American musicians, with only founding member David Sitek being the exception. The band started in 2001 and quickly broke into the rock scene, especially with the help of their hit single “Wolf Like Me.” They have released five studio albums, most recently being 2014’s Seeds. Although they haven’t released any new music in a while, their presence has altered what indie rock bands should look like for two decades. In 2011 the band lost bass player Gerard Smith to his battle with lung cancer.
“I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to make music that I really believe in and it’s great that people are listening to that,” the band told NBHAP in 2014. “If the price for being really rich is serving musical food that’s not healthy, I couldn’t stomach that. Pop music – just like pop food- is pop music for a reason. To think that I can make music that I think is valuable and give that to someone, music that’s authentic and can heal and that I can make a living from that, is very rare and I really respect that.”
Last but not least, we have Young Fathers, a Scottish indie rock band founded in 2008. The band consists of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and Graham ‘G’ Hastings, with G being the only non-African-American member. The trio started when they were all teenagers and have released three studio albums, the last being 2018’s Cocoa Sugar. Their first album, Dead, released in 2014, won the Mercury Prize, an award for the best new album in the U.K. Their early work consisted of rap, but the band has focused more on Lo-fi and indie rock since then.
“I didn’t think that this whole ‘wanting to be more normal’ thing was going to work,” Kayus Bankole told The Guardian in 2018. “It was mission impossible.” It did provide inspiration, though. The band’s third member, Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi, always believed that their uniqueness would come through: “If we try and put ourselves in a box, it’s gonna end up with spikes coming out.”
Many more African-American musicians have helped shape indie and alternative music to what it is today. Since we can’t mention all of them, we’d like to give a few honorable mentions. It’s worth mentioning there is a resurgence of African-American musicians in the punk scene right now, but we’re focusing on indie and alternative bands. Let us know in the comments if there are any artists we’ve missed.
- Black Kids
- Bloc Party
- Benjamin Booker
- Blood Orange
- L.A. Salami
- Melissa Laveaux
- Aisha Badru
- Christelle Bofale
- Angelboy + the Halos