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Black Alternative Musicians Do It Themselves at Bla/Alt Festival

Reclaim Your Space

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Nicholas Robinson is tired of being seen as a token black dude.

"For most of our career, we've been told our diversity was marketable — that if you were black in an alternative band, you were viewed as a part of the marketing," Robinson says. The 25-year-old singer, guitarist and founding member of the Charlotte indie-pop band The Business People suggests that this kind of thinking is cynical, at best; at worst, it's racist. "We are not commodities," Robinson says. "We are not the latest fashion to be sold off to the masses like new shoes."

For that reason, The Business People have signed on to perform at Charlotte's first black alternative rock fête, the Bla/Alt Music Festival, which takes place Saturday, Oct. 21, at the sprawling Camp North End complex on Statesville Avenue. The event, organized by singer-songwriter LeAnna Eden, aims to empower the city's black alternative musicians, events organizers, vendors and other people of color to make money off of their own talent and not just line the pockets of white entrepreneurs.

Nic Robinson of the Business People says, "Gimme indie rock!" (Photo by Brian Twitty)
  • Nic Robinson of the Business People says, "Gimme indie rock!" (Photo by Brian Twitty)

"I wanted people of color to feel comfortable and respected and accepted in the Charlotte music scene, so I decided to create spaces that would be safe for us to be in charge, to take over, to put on events like Bla/Alt," Eden says.

She's sitting on a porch swing at Camp North End on a quiet Thursday afternoon, in black jeans, black combat boots and a black t-shirt with [bla/alt] scrawled in white lowercase letters across the front. Her own band, LeAnna Eden and The Garden Of, will perform at the festival, too, along with Charlotte rockers Blu House and Favelas, the art-punk music project Lofidels, Nige Hood's Folk Rap Band, the Latin alternative group Chócala, as well as SunQueen Kelcey and the Soular Flares, from Greensboro; Foxture, from Winston-Salem; and headliners Johnny Popcorn, the indie-rock side project of Philly rapper Hezekiah. [See schedule.]

Black country-rock singer Kandia Crazy Horse, author of the 2003 volume Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock 'n' Roll and a former music editor at Creative Loafing Charlotte, is well aware of the minefield Eden is attempting to navigate in this city. When Crazy Horse began writing about rock music in New York City in the 1990s, she was considered a novelty, she once said, because "a black, young female wasn't the picture of a rock critic." She praises Eden for keeping the torch lit in Charlotte.

"One would have thought that the success of [national festivals such as] Afropunk signaled that the [black alternative] scene would be saturated," Crazy Horse says. "But there's obviously still a regional necessity to explore what strength there is in organizing amongst ourselves and finding voices that the dominant culture doesn't always welcome to the party."

Johnny Popcorn is led by Philly rapper Hezekiah (second from right, in glasses).
  • Johnny Popcorn is led by Philly rapper Hezekiah (second from right, in glasses).

The Bla/Alt Fest represents a local variation on a movement that has spread across the globe like kudzu and grown exponentially in the 13 years since the first Afropunk Festival was staged in Brooklyn, New York. Launched a year after a documentary of the same name was released (which starred members of the bands Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, TV on the Radio, along with various young fans), Afropunk is the scrappy stepchild of the umbrella organization Black Rock Coalition, which formed in 1985. That year, at the height of hip-hop's golden age, a hot young jazz and rock guitarist, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, teamed up with music and culture critic Greg Tate and filmmaker Konda Mason to advocate for change in a music industry that increasingly stereotyped black musicians as either R&B or rap.

"I well remember when the Black Rock Coalition was founded and later when the Afropunk movement emerged," Crazy Horse recalls, "so it's interesting to see younger players take up that flag and feel the need to convene in a space separate from the mainstream."

Favelas hope the Bla/Alt Music Festival is the "start of a revolution in our hometown." (Photo by @redbearspirit)
  • Favelas hope the Bla/Alt Music Festival is the "start of a revolution in our hometown." (Photo by @redbearspirit)

BRC gained momentum when Living Colour's debut Vivid reached No. 6 on the Billboard album chart, and its single, "Cult of Personality," won the 1990 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. As the digital age set in, young black punk rockers began to bond online, creating a movement that the aforementioned 2003 film Afro-punk documented. In the decade-plus since that first Afropunk Festival, in 2004, the line-ups have included hundreds of acts as wide-ranging as '70s Detroit proto-punk rockers Death, pioneering D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains and Jada Pinkett-Smith's metal headbangers Wicked Wisdom, as well as mainstream rockers Lenny Kravitz and Gary Clark Jr., familiar hip-hop-associated acts like Lauryn Hill, Kelis and Questlove, and such singer-songwriters and neosoul artists as Alice Smith, Lianne La Havas and Janelle Monáe. Afropunk has become so big now that it has expanded to Atlanta, London, Paris and Johannesburg, South Africa.

But Eden sees local Bla/Alt fest as different. The Charlotte event, she says, was not conceived to be another Afropunk, a festival that features big-name acts from around the world. Bla/Alt is about nurturing mostly local, independent, unsigned artists. "This is not about copying what Afropunk does. It's about celebrating black alternative bands, most of which are from here," Eden told me a few weeks ago over coffee. "It's a local celebration of black artists of all kinds, and something Charlotte has needed for some time. We have so much talent here that goes virtually unrecognized."

Robinson puts it this way: "Bla/Alt is long overdue." He looks forward to watching the local festival, like its national predecessors, grow and expand. "The hopes are that it starts a wave of festivals, as did Afropunk before it," Robinson says. "To spread and multiply, allowing other musicians who simply don't have the money, resources or connections to be a part of a festival."

Lenny Muckle/Lofidels
  • Lenny Muckle/Lofidels

Lofidels mastermind Lenny Muckle seconds Robinson's emotion. "I hope that as Bla/Alt grows, year after year, the festival manages to not only awe, but inspire," Muckle says. "Friends and strangers, former and would-be artists could all feel motivated by the uniqueness of the artists involved with this festival."

Both Robinson and Muckle come from a music world — indie rock — that for years was a bastion of white bonding and privilege. In 2013, the music journalist Martin Douglas, who was raised in High Point, wrote a game-changing essay for MTV Hive about the travails of being a black indie-rock fan. Entitled "The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show," Douglas wrote, "When I listened to rock music as a kid, it often felt like I was sneaking past the guards of racial barriers and into a cool party I wasn't invited to. But I didn't want to feel that way.

"There was no individual precedent for my love of alternative and punk culture. My family and neighborhood friends all exclusively listened to contemporary rap and R&B," Douglas wrote. "In a way, I knew I was sabotaging the uniform order among black kids my age. But mostly, it felt like something I could claim for my own, a part of American culture that wasn't handed down to me or illustrated in history books. It wasn't my parents' music."

But Douglas' defiance didn't come without a cost. In the essay, he recounted typical exchanges he often met with at indie and punk shows — such as this one between him and a white friend of an ex-girlfriend at a show by the black indie-rock band TV on the Radio:

"Ex's Friend: Oh, hey man! How are you? I kinda thought you'd be here!

"Me: I'm doing OK, I guess. Yeah, I couldn't miss this show. TV on the Radio are so great.

"Ex's Friend: I figured you would love these guys.

"Me: Why's that?

"Ex's Friend: Well, because you're black and you like indie music."

Blu House rocks the house. (Photo courtesy of Blu House)
  • Blu House rocks the house. (Photo courtesy of Blu House)

Eden is familiar with such conversations, and she's tired of having them. Up until the age of 4, she lived in a black world. But then a white couple adopted her, and between ages 4 and 14, she lived in a totally white world. She learned about bands like Sum 41, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and she liked them.

"I felt like the only black person in the world," Eden says. But when she graduated from middle school to high school, everything changed. She was suddenly thrust into a mixed student population. "It was like a culture shock, because I'm this black person who's been surrounded by white people, and I'm scared of the other black kids because I don't know how to talk to them, I don't know how to interact with them, and they can sense that I'm different and they can sense that I'm weird." By then, she says, "I liked Paramore, I liked Death Cab for Cutie — I basically liked white music, you know."

SunQueen Kelcey has guitar, will travel. (Photo by Aaron Scott)
  • SunQueen Kelcey has guitar, will travel. (Photo by Aaron Scott)

Eden left home, got an acoustic guitar and became a singer-songwriter in Milwaukee. Eventually, she moved to Charlotte, where she would bump into sympathetic black musicians who were into rock — like Nic Robinson, Lenny Muckle, Eli Red of Saving Saturday and Terrence Richard of Junior Astronomers. She wanted to be friends with them. And then she had a dream: What if these black rockers in Plaza Midwood were to mix and mingle with black kids from other neighborhoods who were making great hip-hop beats in bedrooms across the city. What if they did this in the same living rooms and clubs?

She immersed herself into R&B and hip-hop — the music most identified with her own culture. And earlier this year, Eden finally launched a weekly series of local R&B and hip-hop shows called Session: A Listening Party, at Petra's on Commonwealth Avenue. More recently, she started another series a block away, at Common Market, made it strictly hip-hop and named it Hip-Hop Wednesdays. Bringing together black musicians of different genres in Charlotte has become Eden's passion.

Nige Hood ponders folk rap. (Photo by Carey J. King)
  • Nige Hood ponders folk rap. (Photo by Carey J. King)

"I didn't grow up listening to hip-hop, and a lot of times I don't totally understand it," she says. "But I know that, as a black person, I'm supposed to give a fuck about hip-hop, I'm supposed to like it, I'm supposed to know all the dances. So I feel like that's why I'm always trying to support hip-hop and always booking hip-hop shows and supporting that community. This is like going to school for me — listening to hip-hop and being around people who produce it."

Eden gets excited when talking about all the people she's met and accomplishments she's achieved in the past few years. "And now I have the language and I have the appreciation," she says. "I understand what people are talking about when they talk about hip-hop."

Black Linen
  • Black Linen

In both hip-hop and rock, budding artists have for too long been at the mercy of mostly white promoters, who often require young musicians to sell their own tickets to shows, and then only give them a pittance in return. The promoters of these events, called pay-to-play, tell the artists that the benefit of playing for free is the "exposure" it gives them. In a CL story earlier this year, Charlotte rapper Solomon Tetteh, aka Black Linen, talked about the demoralization of pay-to-play setups. He recalled the last time he agreed to participate in a pay-to-play in which the organizers had promised him the "opportunity" to schmooze with Big Duke of Atlanta's Boyz n da Hood.

"We went hard that night," Tetteh said. "I'm taking my shirt off, I'm jumping in the crowd, I'm doing this and that. And I did get to talk to [Big Duke], you know what I'm sayin'? And he was hot at the time, and I'm such a Southern rap fan — I'm thinking, I know Southern rap better than anybody — so I'm thinking, man, this is gonna happen, I can already see the CD cover!"

The next morning, reality hit Tetteh like a hangover, and he had an epiphany. "I was like, 'I don't think it works this way. I don't think this is how it happens.'" He decided, "I'm going to do it another way. I think I'm going to do things my way." Not long afterwards, he met LeAnna Eden, who wholeheartedly supported Tetteh's "Fuck Money, Get Free" mantra.

Eden. (Photo by Jonathan Cooper)
  • Eden. (Photo by Jonathan Cooper)

After all, Eden had found herself in similar circumstances. "I've been in showcases where some white guy organizes these things, and we have to go out and beg people to buy tickets, and we pack the room, but we still don't make any money," she says. "But [the organizer] makes money." She shakes her head. "I don't want any of us ever to have to be in situations like that again."

For Bla/Alt, Eden says, "I'm only hiring and putting on black people — it'll be run by black people, with black people on the stage, in black spaces." Not that it's exclusive. Anyone is welcome to come enjoy the free show. "I just don't want culture vultures coming in and running everything," Eden says. "I don't want white people making money off of us. I'm tired of that."

She points to her agreements with the two local clubs in Plaza Midwood where she's held her weekly music events. "That's why I like Common Market. [White owner Blake Barnes] gave us a budget to come in and do what we do," Eden says. "He understands that Common Market needs people of color to come in here and do what we do in order for his business to make money." She nods to the other club. "And that's why I like Petra's — they don't take a lot of money from the door," Eden continues. "It's not like some white guy is booking these shows and taking all the money. I'm able to keep 80 percent of what we're making and pay [the musicians] appropriately."

Robinson appreciates what Eden's done to level the playing field for indie musicians of all kinds, but particularly indie musicians of color. "We want to support a festival that respects and understands that having PoC members means a different altogether approach to music," Robinson says. "There are bars you can't play, and festivals that won't have you. There will be different standards and treatments for different members. These, and so many more things, happen to bands every day. We just wanna put one tally in the column for the good guys. Boiling down to this: LeAnna is passionate and talented, so we believe in the vision."

Winston-Salem's Foxture makes sparkling dream-pop. (Photo by Jim Pica)
  • Winston-Salem's Foxture makes sparkling dream-pop. (Photo by Jim Pica)

Eden knows she's made a difference in the city's hip-hop underground, and that's what's emboldened her to put so much energy into Bla/Alt — to bring togther black musicians of all the different genres she loves for one big blowout. She wants to expose rock 'n' roll — music that was invented by black musicians — to hip-hop kids who may have the mistaken idea that it isn't for them.

"At the end of the day, I don't make hip-hop music; that's not what I do," Eden says. "And that's OK. That's what I'm trying to get across: Being black is not a skin color or a type of music. Being black is being OK with your skin. The minute that anyone senses that you are uncomfortable with yourself, they treat you like you're different. But I'm not uncomfortable anymore. I'm black and I love being black and I love my skin and I love myself. And now everyone's OK with me."

Says Robinson, "[Bla/Alt] celebrates black alternative musicians and their band mates, showing the power behind a passion: that nothing matters once the music starts — no race, no gender, no cares except the music you are creating in that instant."

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