October 21, 2017

Jimi Hendrix and Identity Politics

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You ExperiencedSeveral months ago, PBS aired a 2-hour documentary on Jimi Hendrix. I recorded it at the time but forgot I had done so and only recently got around to watching it. I've always loved the music of Hendrix and was surprised by just how little I knew about the man and his short life. Since I've been thinking about identity politics lately, I found myself reflecting on how Hendrix was never just "a Black guitarist" to me but someone who seemed to transcend pretty much every group and category.

Of course, Hendrix was indeed Black. And he was Black in the 1960s where it was unheard of to have a Black man fronting a rock group. Black men were supposed to be doing blues, soul, or R&B. Hendrix was doing something very different even though he played blues too. He put together a band with two White guys, but he was the leader in every respect. Watching the footage from his performance at Monterey Pop again, I found myself thinking that the appalled expressions on the faces of some of the White kids in the crowd might have had as much to do with his race as his fantastic playing or stage antics.

There is little question that Hendrix's race was relevant during his life and shaped his experiences. One of the things I hadn't realized was that his popularity grew largely without the benefit of television. Unlike almost every White rock act of the era, he was not invited on Ed Sullivan and similarly important shows of the time. He had to work harder than many of his White contemporaries to break through in spite of his talent.

I do not remember hearing Hendrix until the early 1980s, and it would not be the late 80s before I really started getting into his music. At that time, his race was not particularly salient to me. What drew me to him was his talent and his style. Even though he'd had his share of imitators by this point in time, I don't remember any being successful in matching him. He struck me as a true original, and I couldn't get enough of his music. If I had to sum up my overall impression, I'd say that I thought he sounded like freedom.

Based on what I've seen of today's identity politics and outrage culture, I imagine some people would eagerly accuse me of racism because Hendrix's race wasn't more salient to me. They'd accuse me of claiming "color blindness" or something along those lines. Others might accuse me of "cultural appropriation" and insist that I don't deserve to enjoy Hendrix's music for reasons only they can understand. I'm glad I've never let any of this get in the way of listening to whatever music I like.

I don't listen to Hendrix today because he's Black, and I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of listening to his music because he's Black or out of some odd notion of "cultural appropriation." I listen to him because I consider him one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and his music still moves me. I'm not sure why it needs to be any more complicated than that.