By Klive Walker
Sate is a Toronto-based African-Canadian rock dynamo. She's a singer whose big, substantial tone services an intense vocal of rugged beauty. Her new album, Red Black and Blue, was released in June. It’s about rebirth. As a Black woman negotiating the rock world, she is clear about the obstacles obstructing her journey as an artist.
“No matter what I look like or no matter who I say I am, I’m expected to sing soul; soul will always come first then it will be R&B or jazz. Anything associated with being Black,” she says.
That comment is not about Sate’s relationship to her Blackness, which is positive, but speaks volumes about how the music industry deals with Black artists. They are placed in neat categories of soul, R&B, jazz, hip-hop or reggae, but not rock. Rock is seen mainly as white.
When you think of rock icons, you think Elvis, Clapton, Janis Joplin, the Stones or the Beatles, but the truth is that the origins of rock are rooted in racial segregation. The main influences of many white rock legends are African-Americans who never achieved the same levels of success: Elvis was influenced by Arthur Crudup; Clapton emulated Muddy Waters; Joplin was inspired by Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith; Chuck Berry influenced John Lennon and Keith Richards, while Little Richard did the same for Paul McCartney; Bill Haley & His Comets' “Shake, Rattle and Roll” is considered a pillar of rock and roll, but it was cover of a Big Joe Turner song of the same name that was released just four months earlier in 1954.
There’s an argument that blues and early African-American rock and roll were just raw material used by white artists to create something very different, but it’s not entirely accurate. Why? Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix was the ebony fly perched on that brick of vanilla ice-cream. He was the innovative icon who revolutionized 1960s guitar rock. He became the main, if not only, agent of rock’s journey from adolescence to adulthood.
But Hendrix was not the beginning or the end of Black rock. Smith, Waters, Berry and Little Richard are just some of the huge talents who created the tradition that produced him, while Hendrix’s contemporaries included Tina Turner, the queen of rock and roll, as well as Sly and the Family Stone. After Hendrix there was Parliament Funkadelic, Mother’s Finest, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Prince, Slash of Guns and Roses, Living Color, Lenny Kravitz, Skunk Anansie, TV on the Radio and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, to name some high-profile examples.
Bob Marley, the global reggae legend, was also a Black rock star. His hair, his style and his dramatic concert performances were not just compatible with rock – they enriched it. He chose gifted African American blues-rock guitarists Al Anderson and Donald Kinsey to serve the interests of his roots reggae. Peter Tosh, another reggae great, also worked with Anderson on rock-infused reggae tracks like his classic “Stepping’ Razor.” Rock’s lens does not encourage that understanding of 1970s reggae, but it does explain why Tina Turner, Sly and Prince are often categorized as R&B and funk and pop – anything that doesn’t underline their ability to rock.
Eric Clapton, David Bowie and the Stones have infused blues, funk, reggae or even disco into their work and yet it’s never compromised their rock status. All that history is necessary to understand the full weight of Sate’s comments about her experience with segregation in the music industry.
“It definitely put obstacles in my way,” she says. “Because no matter what, people are going to want me to sing soul. But that’s not what I do. Quite frankly, when I listen to people like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden I hear a soulful voice. It’s just because he’s white that he can get away with being in a rock band. …There’s a guy [Nathaniel Rateliff] that sings a song called ‘SOB.’ When I listen to that song it’s a straight up blues gospel stomp. But it’s played all over rock radio. Now put my [music] there with my face and they will be like, ‘I don’t know where to put this. It’s soulful, so why don’t you go [into] the urban [category].’ That’s the problem.”
Sate is not alone. A Black rock scene has existed in Canada for several decades, and it’s just as diverse as it is in the U.S. or the U.K.. Murray Lightburn’s the Dears, Danko Jones, Fefe Dobson and an earlier incarnation of Molly Johnson. The reggae-rock of guitarist Carl Harvey and singer-bassist Errol Blackwood, the rock-dancehall-hip-hop amalgam of Michie Mee with Raggadeath, or K-os’s fusion of rap and rock. Then there’s the intoxicating mix of rock-flavoured soul, funk and r&b in the work of Blackburn, Blaxam, guitarist Adrian Eccleston and Saidah Baba Talibah (as Sate was formerly known).
There are also rock bands with diverse line-ups, such as Big Sugar. They recruited bassist Gary Lowe and at one time singer-guitarist Mohjah, both Black musicians from Toronto’s roots reggae scene. Mainstream success for Black rockers in Canada, however, remains elusive.
“We don’t get these opportunities a lot,” says Sate. “What makes me happy is that Fishbone, Living Colour and Bad Brains are all going to be there. They are the trifecta.”
Those extraordinary bands were at their artistic height in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Living Colour won Grammy awards, toured with the Stones and their debut album, Vivid, reached the Billboard top 10. Bad Brains is a hard-core punk band that also explored dub reggae and are cited as a major influence on Black Flag and the Beastie Boys. Fishbone, with their incendiary fusion of punk, funk, soul and ska, inspired the Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt. They also directly inspired a 14-year-old Sate, who was introduced to them by her sister.
“When I was finally able to see them live, I was like, that’s what I want to do, that’s how I want to be,” she says.
Does it make her journey more daunting that Fishbone were never able to achieve a consistent mainstream presence?
“Sure it’s daunting, but I’m a fighter. I’m a warrior. I am not willing to give up,” she says. “There’s lots of little boys and girls out there that wanna rock out and they want to see examples of themselves onstage.”
Klive Walker is a music historian, author and cultural critic.
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