Music raised me. R&B showed me how to set the mood. Hip-Hop told me what to say. And funk showed me how to let loose. Surrounded by sounds my entire life, my earliest memories do not include rock music. I remember hearing the cries of B.B. King and Ray Charles pouring out of my grandfather’s Cadillac, but rock…? The music that defined 60s and 70s counterculture had no bearing on my early development, at least not directly.
It was in high school that I found myself on vacation, sitting in a bookstore. Because naturally that’s what one does on vacation. As I walked through the labyrinth-like décor of the now-defunct Borders, I came across the music section. Inquisitively, I looked for something new. At the time, I was still listening to Common’s Electric Circus religiously, but had recently coupled it with N.E.R.D.’s Fly or Die. It was a different time in my divergent musical trajectory. As it were, I walked in total control of my auditory surroundings, the new wave hip-hop blasting through my headphones, drowning out the symphony of bustling feet and rustling pages.
“Jimi Was a Rock Star,” said Erykah.
Without skipping a beat, I replied, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
For me, rock was something foreign. I could dig a Dave Matthews concert and Radiohead has always held a special place in my heart, but rock never really felt like it was mine. Even with my affinity for pastel colored sweaters and lightly tapered chinos, I still identified with those things considered “black.” Rock was what the white kids listened to, not me. But, at the behest of Erykah, I gave Jimi a “chance,” much to the chagrin of my two closest friends at that age, arrogance and ignorance. I am thankful for that moment. Even in my superficial indulgence of Jimi’s greatest hits, I was moved. Instantly, the notion of “black music” had been redefined, perhaps even deconstructed. The music of Jimi Hendrix connected the dots. Somewhere between my grandfather’s blues and my ensemble of contemporary sounds was an untapped history of electric noise.
When I first listened to “If 6 Was 9,” I heard “Breakout.” I heard “Electric Wire Hustle Flower.” It was rebellious in that way only teen angst can comprehend. Enraged by consumerism, racism, sexism, and every other quasi-political –ism we begin to learn of in those formative years, I felt it. To me, the stakes were, in fact, quite high and Jimi got that. It didn’t matter if the sound was “black,” “white,” rock or rap, the message was so painfully clear.
Jimi was a rock star, but also a great teacher. Through him, I learned to engage those things that I believed weren’t for me, that didn’t fit into my supposed demographic. I learned to not place barriers upon myself because of who I am or what I look like. That’s not rock & roll and it’s most certainly not “black.” Those words have no limits. Word to Percy.
Jimi should have turned 70 today, but the world took him well before his time. Premature death is something common in music and so we eulogize him by appreciating what he gave us in such a short period. Reflecting on his genius today, I say thanks. I’m a better person because of it.
Written By: Paul Pennington