Black people are expected to stick to certain boxes when it comes to music: either R&B or rap and hip-hop. Other genres such as pop, alternative, and rock are seen as foreign. Black people who preferred rock or metal music instead of what was mainstream were, and still are seen as unusual and are bullied for their different interests. However, in the new decade, we are seeing a change of events with the new rise of pop-rock from newcomer artists such as Olivia Rodrigo with her recent songs, “Good 4 U” and “Brutal.” While this resurfacing of this genre has become more appreciated by different groups of people it’s important to recognize those who have been doing pop-rock even before they were accepted into the genre.
Pop-rock in the early 2000s was only seen as “white people” music, making young Black teens who enjoyed the genre feel like they were pariahs. Their blackness would be questioned for enjoying a genre that had been co-opted by white people. Rock being seen as “white music” is contradictory because it originated from Black people. The origins of rock, along with blues and all other forms of African-American music can trace back to the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1619. While enslaved Africans were going through the Middle Passage, their captors would encourage slaves to sing and dance in order to keep them alive until they arrived at their destination. Black-American music only continued to expand, deriving influence from Africa and the Caribbean and making it into their own. Old slave songs evolved into rhythm and blues while folk music into rock & roll and soul which is still influential to this day.
In the early 2000s, a subgenre of rock known as pop-rock became popularized with the Canadian singer, Avril Lavigne. While Lavigne became well known during that era of music, another Canadian pop-rock singer stayed in the shadows. Fefe Dobson, born in Toronto, was overlooked in a white-dominated genre because she chose to express herself in a way that wasn’t common for people who looked like her. She channeled her anger and teen angst around heartbreak and daddy issues into hit songs like “Bye-Bye Boyfriend,” “Take Me Away,” and “Unforgiven,” with heavy guitar riffs, heavy black eyeliner, and eyebrow rings that weren’t accepted by labels because she was Black. As a teen Dobson faced racist attempts to rebrand her into a completely different artist when record executives gave her the name “Brandy Spears” as in Brandy Norwood and Britney Spears because she was Black with a “white, pop” voice. In a genre that originated from Black people and has predecessors like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tina Turner, and Brittany Howard, she was still seen as an outsider. Dobson recalls when Avril Lavigne dropped her song “Complicated” in 2002 knowing that she wouldn’t be able to compete because Lavigne had something that Dobson didn’t have: white skin. After releasing her third album “Joy” in 2010 which she calls the album of healing, Dobson plans to make a comeback after an almost 11 year hiatus.
As pop-rock begins to reemerge with diverse faces being at the front, it is important to remember those who came before when the world wasn’t as willing to let them into the rock scene. Willow Smith’s new upcoming album, “Lately I Feel Everything,” is said to be a rock album which her audience is eager to hear. Her hit single, “Transparent Soul,” instilled hope into young Black girls that rock will be more open and accessible for people who look like them. Her second single off the album, “Lipstick,” confirmed that rock is her sound and that she has cemented her place in rock and will open more doors for Black girls who want to do the same. Of course, while many don’t know it, such shifts in culture would not be possible if people like Fefe Dobson didn’t break boundaries and stick their true sound. Black women have been doing rock for ages, whether they were accepted or not. Cammie Gilbert, the lead singer of Oceans of Slumber, captivates people with her somber, soulful metal and rock voice. Alexis Brown, the lead singer of Straight Line Stitch, surprises listeners with her insane vocal range as she incorporates the death growl, also known as screaming, into her regular vocals. Diamond Rowe, the lead guitarist for the Atlanta-based band, Tetrarch, is known for their shredding skills and being the seventh-best metal guitarist in the world. It’s refreshing to see Black women step out of society’s predetermined box and stick to their truth. The reemerging of rock, especially with Willow’s new album and Fefe Dobson’s comeback, is creating a new, accepting place for Black people that they are rightfully owed. Representation matters in all forms of art.
- Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Vai Yu Law. “Fefe Dobson Is Ready To Let It All Out Again.” Interview, 24 June 2021,
- “20th Century Music | History Detectives.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/20th-century-music/
- Burchell, Charles, et al. “The Lasting Legacy of the Slave Trade on American Music.” Soundfly, 27 Jan. 2021, flypaper.soundfly.com/discover/the-lasting-legacy-of-the-slave-trade-on-american-music/.
- Weiler, Emily , “The Roots and Impact of African American Blues Music” Whitworth University (2017). African American History Since 1865: HI 241. Paper 1. https://digitalcommons.whitworth.edu/hi241/1