Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker {film} / "There were times where I had to turn the camera off, times where a non-black filmmaker would have exploited [certain footage]. I came to them like a brother, and the questions that I asked made them open up"

exclusive feature
Laina Dawes
The Liberator Magazine 9.1 #24

“We’ve been blacklisted in white America … Because we play Rock n’ Roll”
~Angelo Moore

Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker opens with Fishbone’s legendary 1991 performance on Saturday Night Live. The band is in its prime -- youthful and exuberant. Bare-chested singer Angelo Moore menacingly circles the stage, defiantly wielding his trademark cane as the music swells from the acoustic introduction of “Sunless Saturday” to a full-out sonic boom. The rest of the band suddenly spring into action, their dreadlocks and multi-colored outfits flying. Despite the fact that the footage was shot more than 17 years ago, you feel like you are in the audience feeling the heat and sweat emanating from the electric, frenzied band.

A few minutes later, Moore reappears. It’s been over a decade since the SNL performance and time has weathered not only his skin but also his demeanor. He’s resigned and deflated until he recounts the early days of Fishbone -- naive and just playing the music that they were passionate about. His eyes glisten and a hint of the mischievous grin that served as a trademark for the legendary punk/funk/metal band slowly appears. But just for a second.

While the documentary contains several interviews of both acclaimed and little-known black rock bands and musicians, it is Moore who serves as an unwitting symbol of what director Raymond Gayle set out to document. The once-extroverted bandleader represents the youthful enthusiasm that slowly fades over time, saddled by years of economic and emotional struggles. The unbridled, unique talents of black rock musicians that, despite critical acclaim, rarely find -- if any -- commercial success. Why?, Gayle asks, splicing together an impressive collection of live concert footage to prove his point. By providing a musical and visual analysis of the trials and tribulations of black rock musicians, Gayle argues that the record industry that -- for a hot minute -- recognized their unique styles but was unable to properly market them, eventually abandoned them. Second, and even more importantly, so did we.

Through the narratives of musical luminaries such as Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and the sickeningly talented Lonnie Marshall from the Los Angeles rock/funk outfit Weapon Of Choice, Gayle investigates the reasons why and how public support for black rock musicians can be a hindrance to commercial success. While these rockers signify a freedom and liberation from conformity, that freedom is not respected and admired -- only questioned and shunned. While Gayle doesn’t point fingers, African-American communities who have a myopic view of black culture are just as guilty as anyone. By providing a thorough explanation of the history of rock n’ roll and shedding a much needed light of the contributions of both Bluesera musicians from Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, to jazz impresario Miles Davis and guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, the documentary provides much needed information on the contributions of African-Americans in the development of American rock n’ roll.

Released a few years after the underground hit, 2003’s Afro-Punk, Electric Purgatory takes a more in-depth analysis to blacks in a predominately white musical culture, challenging the viewers perceptions, quite interestingly, instead of shying away from the complexities of racial identity in what is considered a “white” musical culture, Gayle chooses artists who know that those social constraints are not only false, but argue that their racial identity is even more pronounced and celebrated than the rock scene.

Gayle mentions that his only regret is that the majority of the artists interviewed for Electric Purgatory were men, and he wished he had been able to narrate the experiences of female rockers. And while there is a handful in the documentary, such as New York rocker Shelly Nicole, further investigation as to how race and gender factor into maintaining a career as a rock artist would have been interesting -- especially after the chilly reception Jada Pinkett Smith’s band received during the first few shows at 2005’s Ozzfest. “People where calling them niggers and throwing stuff at them, and they got death threats,” says Gayle from his home in Houston. “That upset me. People on music forums were saying the reason that people were throwing things at them was because they sucked and the reason why black bands don’t make it is because black people are the minority. People believe this ignorance. So my job as a filmmaker is to put it out there. I can’t worry about people who aren’t going to get it. You keep teaching. You keep moving on.”

Liberator Magazine: When creating this documentary, who was your target audience? Who did you think would benefit from the interviews and concert footage?

Gayle: Fans of music, of good music. My whole point of doing the film was letting the artists speak for themselves, which is where the live performances come in. Just to open the doors to new fans. I didn’t want to limit the film just for fans of Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Fishbone or Bad Brains -- this is for people who love music.

LM: Despite the reluctance from the general public in recognizing that rock music was being pioneered by black musicians, there are parallels between rap, hip-hop and rock music -- in relation to the energy and aggression. So why is the thought of black rock musicians so foreign to some?

Gayle: One of the reasons why I did this documentary is to educate. Black people need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with this type of music. It’s ours. We created it. We need to understand our history, and it’s a shame that a lot of black publications don’t focus more on these types of bands. There is a fear that the public is not going to accept it but I think they would accept it. It’s like Whole Foods or soy milk -- how do you know if people are going to buy it if you don’t put it out there? It’s just laziness, and ignorance and fear just rolled up into one in terms of the black community not doing their part. I think Oprah could do a better job on her show, instead of having all these traditional (musicians) like John Legend and Alicia Keys. Have some of these rock artists on there. I know she had Prince, but again, he’s kind of ambiguous, but there are a lot of talented artists. She could have been the first to have TV On The Radio on her show. That’s a great band, with a great story. Quincy Jones, he should know better. As a musician he should know more than anyone about the struggles of these black rock cats. It’s long overdue. That’s why I made this. I wanted Electric Purgatory to say, “hey, it’s okay to put this in your publication, we can talk about this. Put it out there.” A lot of these fans are so colorful, they would love it. Go to a Fishbone and see who’s there. The same people -- white people who are at a Fishbone show will be at a Roots show. You don’t deviate too far [between hip-hop and rock] in terms of musical style. I just think that they could do a better job in promoting it.

LM: What was it like, as a fan, to interview these bands?

Gayle: These guys are like my brothers. I met Jimi Hazel [from 24-7 Spyz] years ago when they opened for Jane’s Addiction and that show was sold out. I went to the back where the tour buses were and I went up to Jimi and said, “hey man, can you help me out?” And he was like, “sorry man, there’s nothing I can do.” I ended up paying a janitor who took me in the back way into the show. And it was like, once 24-7 Spyz’s set was over, I left. I didn’t stick around for Jane’s Addiction. I was hardcore! With Angelo (singer for Fishbone), I went to his house and met his daughter, and it was really trippy because it was somebody that I admired, and I can call him up … I know these people now. This whole experience puts me on a whole different level with them, spiritually. It’s like a brotherhood now with those cats. I’m bleeding right there with them and they see it. It’s been a beautiful thing to have fellowship with people that you admire so much. And I’m hoping this film will inspire young filmmakers to not give up, to just find a way. I think that it has been a unique and profound experience for me to have met these people and be inspired by them and to still keep in touch with them.

LM: Have they seen the documentary? If so, what did they think?

Gayle: A lot of them have seen it, and it has been very emotional for them. When I screened it at the Pan African Film Festival in 2006, a vast majority of LA-based musicians came out. [Fishbone’s] Angelo Moore brought his mother to the screening. She gave me a hug and thanked me. And that was very touching for me as I felt what she was communicating to me was, “Thank you for showing what my son has gone through all these years.” It’s very rare that you see black men being articulate on film. These guys are expressing themselves, they’re not splitting verbs, and that meant a lot to a lot of people. Angelo called me when I was at the airport the next day and he said, “dude, I was literally fighting back tears.” This film has really resonated throughout the [black rock] community, which is what I wanted -- to have people relate to it and understand it and appreciate it. I heard them when I was listening to the records. I understood where they were coming from and I wanted to show their pain. But I wanted them to tell it, not me. I was just a vessel.

LM: Do you think it helped being a black filmmaker? Do you think the artists would have been less candid with someone else?

Gayle: That’s hard to say. There were times where I had to turn the camera off, times where a non-black filmmaker would have exploited [certain footage]. I came to them like a brother, and the questions that I asked made them open up. I even had a couple of them call me up a couple of days later and say, “Dude, I really had a good time talking to you. You helped me purge a lot of stuff I was holding in.” Bcause up to that point, no one really talked about this in great depth about what these guys have gone through, and what they are still going through to this day. You know, I always say that a white filmmaker is going to make a similar film and it’s going to go to Cannes and it’s going to go to Sundance. When white people tell black stories, that’s when white people want to hear it. It’s ok. I can’t tell a story about my people because I’m just a black man screaming about racism. And it’s sad it’s like that, but it is what it is.

LM: In one review of the documentary it was written that, “The film attempts to figure out whether labels, musicians, or fans are to blame for rock being a genre dominated by whites.” Is it about blame, or education?

Gayle: As a filmmaker, you can’t worry about that. You are going to have people who are close-minded. They don’t want to know the truth, they like living in a bubble, living in a comfort zone where they don’t want to rock the boat. What I tried to do is simply say, “look, I’m not saying it, the artists are saying it.” I wanted them [the artists] to tell the audience what is happening. Any journalist that writes that, shows me they don’t want to admit there’s been any wrongdoing. It’s that white guilt as well. Any time a person of color talks about the atrocities that have befallen them it’s like, “Okay, just go in your little corner and just don’t talk about it. You can think it, but just don’t tell us about it. We don’t want to know.” If I can’t talk about what is going on with me, then there is a problem. They just don’t want to hear about it. But I can’t worry about that. I have to do what I have to do. All you have to do is go on music message board sites and see the blatant racism, the venom that registers on the forums that starts with, “black people just need to get over it.”

LM: The Black Rock Coalition was founded in 1985. How did they factor into the documentary?

Gayle: Vernon Reid spearheaded the BRC to help promote Living Colour. [The band] was strictly underground, urban radio wouldn’t touch them; traditional rock radio stations weren’t helping them out either, so Reid [and co-founders Greg Tate and Konda Mason] wanted an organization to help push a lot of those bands that were coming out of that region. The sole belief was, “hey, we want to support black bands that want to deviate from what’s on the radio today.” I don’t think anyone’s waiting for the miracle to happen anymore. They’re not waiting for a label to come and discover them; they’re just doing things on their own. They’re releasing things independently and they are booking their own shows. And the good thing about that is that they’re learning the business side of it and making a profit because they are cutting out the middleman. The one good thing about southern rap, especially with some of the local guys like Slim Thug, was that those guys were selling millions of records out of the trunk of their car. They knew the business side before a lot of people on the East Coast and West Coast. They knew about distribution because they did it themselves, tracking their sales. I think now that a lot of the musicians featured on Electric Purgatory are using that model themselves. And you’ve got the Internet, which, in the last four years, has totally changed. They’re using any means necessary to get the word out.

LM: There is a crop of black rock musicians emerging on the Indie scene. Do you think that they are being influenced by some of the artists that appear in your documentary?

Gayle: Bands back in the day -- it was like no one wanted to take that chance. If you look at a band like TV On The Radio, they were definitely inspired by Bad Brains and Fishbone, but they were also influenced by David Bowie and other groups. I think the way culture is in our society it’s easier to be eclectic and diverse. It’s easier to take that chance then maybe it was ten years ago, when people would say, “Okay, now I’m going to be in an R&B group.” These guys that I interviewed are trailblazers. They were doing this in the late 70s early 80s, so yeah, I think [the younger artists] are influenced, and I think it’s a good thing that they don’t let themselves have any boundaries, and not be labeled. Black bands are playing more music than is expected of them, but we created it and I call it “going back to our roots” because it’s all ours, all of it.

Originally Posted 3/9/2009 (Updated w/ article from The Liberator Magazine: "Documentary filmmaker Raymond Gayle’s four year exploration into the gritty underbelly of the black rock scene.")

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