The White Erasure And Black Reclaiming Of Jimi Hendrix
On September 18, 1970, at the young age of 27, Jimi Hendrix‘s four-year mainstream music career ended on an abrupt note when he choked on his own vomit in his sleep. The guitar virtuoso would’ve been 75 today.
Hendrix has been immortalized since his death, his innovative guitar playing and otherworldly persona still discussed to this day. But there’s something else that contributes to the artist’s long-lasting impact — his influence on black artists. From George Clinton and Sly & The Family Stone to Kanye West and Pharrell, Hendrix’s artistry foreshadowed the possibilities of what black music could look and sound like. Although the reverence he’s received from black artists and people alike since his death is important, it’s tragic to know Hendrix wasn’t able to witness that for himself considering how important his blackness was to him.
Hendrix was a black artist. Playing on the Chitlin’ Circuit alongside Ike & Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke; and serving in backing bands for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, Hendrix learned how to not only play guitar but also how to be a performer and frontman from the black artists that preceded him. Through them Hendrix also gained his musical foundation, learning about R&B, soul, and blues from the artists that became seminal figures of those genres.
But Hendrix wanted to be more than a sideman, which is why he relocated to New York City’s Greenwich Village where he immersed himself in the neighborhood’s diverse music scene, and ultimately met the man who changed his life forever — Chas Chandler. After seeing him perform at Greenwich Village nightclub Cafe Wha? Chandler brought Hendrix to London, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience alongside bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.
Hendrix began to build a reputation for himself in London. He upstaged Cream frontman Eric Clapton by playing a cover of Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Killing Floor” at the London Polytechnic; performed for Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and others for one of the Experience’s first shows at London nightclub Bag O’Nails; and had set his guitar on fire (for the first time) during a show at the London Astoria.
But, with that reputation came the sensationalizing of Hendrix. Following his London Astoria performance Hendrix was labeled the “Black Elvis” and the “Wild Man of Borneo” by the London press. Rolling Stone even went on to refer to him as a “Psychedelic Superspade,” the latter word used to describe black people who were exceptionally talented. These descriptions foreshadowed the challenges Hendrix faced as a black man navigating a “white” genre of music. But they were also indicative of something else, an unfortunate truth that, still to this day, arguably hasn’t been rectified — that although rock was born from the foundation of black music its creation is credited to white artists.
“While bands like the Rolling Stones ransacked black musical styles and reaped adulatory reviews, Hendrix was accused of ripping off white artists like the Who — who, of course, characterized their own music as ‘maximum R&B’ derived from black American musicians, many of whom Hendrix had played behind as he was getting his start,” Anthony DeCurtis, a Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone, wrote in his piece “Jimi Hendrix: Rocking The Racial Divide.”
Hendrix was the embodiment and a reminder of that harsh truth, a black artist that had to work twice as hard to succeed in a genre that belonged to his people but now wasn’t seen as such. Because of that, Hendrix received hostility from both black and white people; the former felt he had betrayed his own race for catering to predominantly white audiences with white bandmates during a time of Black Power and separatism, while the latter was intimidated by him.
“Various biographies of Hendrix noted that many of the white musicians he encountered had little exposure to black people and had difficulty accepting Hendrix as a superior musician,” CNN’s John Blake wrote in his piece “How Jimi Hendrix’s Race Became His ‘Invisible Legacy.'” “Some of their resistance to him was rooted in ego as well as race.”
Along with this, Hendrix became a stereotype to white audiences — a hyper-sexual, drug-addled black man who was more a spectacle than a prolific artist. Toward the end of his music career, Hendrix seemed adamant about reconnecting with his blackness. He replaced Redding and Mitchell with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles on bass and drums, respectively, to form the all-black funk rock trio Band of Gypsys; held a free show in Harlem two weeks prior to his Woodstock performance; and had befriended trumpet virtuoso Miles Davis, who encouraged Hendrix to experiment with his sound.
As the last full-length album Hendrix released before his death, Band of Gypsys’ self-titled record offered a glimpse into the new sonic territory the guitarist was venturing into. Blending R&B, funk, rock, and soul, the album was a strong influence on a number of black artists who became pioneers in their own right: George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Nile Rodgers, Vernon Reid, Slash, and Lenny Kravitz.
Since his death, Hendrix has been reclaimed by black people. His mere existence did so much in terms of black representation, his form of black expression simultaneously a homage to the black artists that came before him, while also being a blueprint for those that came after him. He’s so intrinsic to the fiber of black artistry that it’s impossible to not see his influence on everyone from Andre 3000 and Young Thug to Frank Ocean and Kanye West.
“Jimi Hendrix helped remind the world that black art wasn’t meant to be shackled by the expectations of racism. Or defined by it. He let his freak flag fly,” Stereo Williams wrote in his piece “How Jimi Hendrix Set Black Artists Stone Free.”
Although Hendrix is no longer with us at least there’s a comfort in knowing that he has and will continue to live on as black artists continue to push the boundaries of not only music but what it means to be black.