"The Only Black Woman in the Room": Black Female Rock Journalists Share Their Experiences

Rock journalist (and author of this article) Jordannah Elizabeth
Rock journalist (and author of this article) Jordannah Elizabeth
Shannon Wallace

The scarcity of black women in music journalism and arts criticism is a topic of conversation that is seldom addressed. Being a black female journalist covering rock music, in particular, is a career that takes patience, passion and stamina in order to ignore the loneliness and cultural isolation that can come with the job.

For me, the introduction to music journalism came through the niche market of the international psychedelic rock and experimental music community (though I have written about a much wider range of music since).

What drew me to psych-rock music was that the songwriters of the bands were still writing about love and mind expansion. I liked that the lyrics were potent and the music, whether neo-psychedelic or revivalist, had a euphoric and nostalgic style that seemed to bond the listeners and musicians together. But even after many years, I noticed that I remained one of the few, if not the only, black female writer in my circle. As my career grew, it became important to me to address the question of why diversity was not advancing in rock and alternative music journalism.

Recently, I spoke with three other black female rock journalists about their experiences and their careers: what attracted them to rock from a young age, and what drives them to continue to write about it. Speaking to these talented and bright journalists was not only enlightening and validating for me — it was healing. There is a quiet loneliness and private confusion that comes with walking through one's career virtually alone, covering corners of the music industry, whether it be bands on the Sunset Strip, the Southern rock of Georgia and Alabama or the outer reaches of neo-psychedelia, where black artists and writers are few and far between.

I found I had a lot in common with my colleagues. Trina Dharma Greene and I both grew up in East Coast, radio-centric families, each with two brothers. Because my two older brothers were always spending time with each other, I had to time to play alone and hone my own talents, likes and dislikes without distraction. Kandia Crazy Horse’s father took her to record shops early in her life where they would talk about music often, which reminded me of when my father played "American Pie" loudly on the car radio on summer days.

There are times when talk is cheap, but in an instance like this, what these black female rock journalists have to say is priceless. We hope this piece pays homage not just to the talented women who shared their thoughts with us but to all the women who dedicate their lives to documenting modern rock music as journalists, bloggers and authors. Too often, their voices go unheard and their contributions are diminished. 

Kandia Crazy Horse, New York
—Musician/music journalist Village Voice, The Guardian, Rolling Stone; editor of Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock & Roll
—30-plus years of experience

I never had a thought that I had no right to do it. I was raised in a revolutionary, cultural, nationalist household. I was the first of my family, which is Southern on both sides, to be born outside of Jim Crow. I had unlimited horizons ahead of me. I didn’t have some of the same shackles that my kin had on their brains about what they were allowed to partake in. I never second-guessed myself.

I was completely immersed in the [Southern rock] culture. I traveled and followed the bands, I went back and forth to Atlanta and [was part of a] community with all the people: the managers, the drug dealers, the fans, groupies and wives. It was a way of life for a very long time.

I am really interested in older, more rural forms of music. If there were more black and brown people [who] would have been playing that music when I started, I would have definitely championed them. There just aren’t a lot of younger black artists that take up that path.

My father was a big Southern folk fan and took me to record stores every Saturday morning when I was very small, and we’d hang out with the guys who’d work there. My father was best friends with Tom Porter, a notable jazz collector, so in my mind I am competing against him.

I am looking for a circle of like-minded people. I don’t want to be an outlier or a loner, but that’s been my lot because I was always interested in something that was not in step with the times.

Trina Dharma Green
Trina Dharma Green
ZB Images

Trina Dharma Green, Los Angeles
—Writer/music editorHigh Voltage Magazine
—10-plus years of experience

The dichotomy of the situation is: Do we want to be represented or known as rock journalists or do we need to have the label of being the black rock journalists? I don’t know which one serves us better. I never really had to think about it because I was always in a white environment and everyone knew, “Oh, she’s the black chick who writes about music.”

I have 10 years of experience mainly covering rock. I grew up in New York and I used to listen to a lot of radio. Not just FM radio but AM radio like ABC and NBC, where they would play everything from Kenny Rogers to ABBA. Then on the FM stations you had Madonna and The Temptations, so I had a lot of music coming at me.

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I’ve always loved to write. I tend to write more than I talk. But when I write, I try to write what I see. So, you’ll get a mental picture of what I am seeing [at the show]. People would end up seeing the bands I wrote about. Doesn’t mean they liked them, but the writing was interesting [enough] for people to want to go check the music out. Eventually, someone asked me to write for their online zine and it snowballed from there.

It was always from the perspective of, “This is what I like.” It was never a color thing, it was a “This is what I like” thing. The weird thing is I would go to venues like the Roxy, the Satellite, the Viper Room, and I would be the only black person in the room. Over the years, that has seemed like an unspoken claim to fame. But I never thought my voice would be different because I was black; I knew [my writing] would be different because I was good.

When I went to Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, I went to the Black Girl Nerds meet-up. I was excited they even had one. One of the reasons why I went was because I don’t run into a lot of black people doing what I do and I felt this overwhelming need to be surrounded by people who look like me who are into the same things as I am. It was so fun and refreshing. Every now and then, it rears itself in my head that I need to see more and talk to more people like me, because I know that there are rock fans out there who are black and people of color, and I am not sure they know where they fit in.

Nia Hampton
Nia Hampton
Stephanie Alexandra Wallace

Nia Hampton, Baltimore
—Author, music journalist, playwright, mixed-media artistDazed and Confused, Baltimore City Paper
—5-plus years of experience

Most music in America comes from black people. It just does. So technically there is no genre that blackness doesn't inform. Rock music is black music; whether the artist performing is black or not doesn't really matter to me.

My mom is an artist, so we were raised around artists, musicians. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill was something that inspired a lot of my writing as a child and is still an incredibly visceral and personal album to me.

I've been blogging about music for years now. In college I wrote on a now-defunct hip-hop blog called Advent Outpost. I didn't get paid, but I got to review artists and albums and feel as though people actually valued my opinion. Today, any- and everyone can be a critic because of the internet, but real, thoughtful, good criticism is invaluable. As a writer and artist I'm always looking to know how what I make affects people.

I think there are a lot of black female music critics. No one is paying them or publishing them, but they exist. That's a problem of racism and sexism, though. As with everything, we have to be careful not to erase ourselves. We're here; the question is, who's paying and publishing us?

I don't feel like I'm a part of the industry yet. That's the beauty of the internet and the crack in journalism that we're experiencing. I'm a freelance journalist, and this month is my first year anniversary of getting paid for my writing. So far my biggest challenge has been getting paid on time and getting commissioned to write about things outside of what people think is the black female experience. Don't get me wrong, I love Beyonce and def had a review of Lemonade in my drafts, but I'd still love to be paid to write about the aesthetic of early-2000s emo music and MySpace.

Jordannah Elizabeth is an author, educator and musician originally from Baltimore. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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