The brilliant documentary film, ELECTRIC PURGATORY: The Fate of the Black Rocker, by filmmaker Raymond Gayle illuminates and challenges the boundaries of African-American racial identity as a substantive testimonial that reveals how the music industry and even some African-Americans themselves subscribe to a limited perspective on our own human potential and artistic ability.
If ELECTRIC PURGATORY is a film,” that examines the struggles of black rock musicians and the industry’s ambivalence towards them,” then it is also a film that examines various cultural blind spots in African-Americans themselves who have been convinced that Rock music is a white man’s creation and cultural enterprise.
Music, as one of our most cherished art forms, is also one of the most potent weapons to address how much of African-American racial identity is based on fear and how said fear limits our perspective on ourselves and our abilities. As I have stated in SLAVE CINEMA,” Often times being black has more to do with the fear of being thought of as ‘wanting to be white’, the proverbial ‘Oreo’ as it was once called… To be black is to collectively think of ourselves as poor even though there is much evidence to the contrary; to be black is to collectively think of ourselves as intellectually inferior even though there is much evidence to the contrary; to be black is to believe in a limited perspective about our human potential in an effort to keep a group of people unified but disenfranchised, bound together but not bonded together, hoping but not optimistic.” (25-26)
ELECTRIC PURGATORY, directly challenges the fallacious origin of Rock n’ Roll as a white man’s creation by tracing the roots of Rock n’ Roll to African-American blues and R&B masters of the past and culminates in the mesmerizing stories of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Rick James and rare footage of early Prince performances on the guitar. The film further provides a living testimony of the struggles of such legendary black rock bands as, FISHBONE, BAD BRAINS, LIVING COLOUR and many others who were at the mercy of their corporate masters who were unwilling and/or unable to coherently and zealously market a black rock band to blacks or whites. In fact, ELECTRIC PURGATORY exposes the definitive and hard line racial divisions between what constitutes white ‘rock’ music and black ‘rock’ music which is surprisingly not the color of the performer’s skin nor the stellar quality of their performances, but instead Corporate America’s greed induced need to keep music markets and audiences separate by racial ‘demographics’ so as better to control the artists and exploit their material.
What distinguishes ELECTRIC PURGATORY from other documentaries concerning music is that filmmaker Raymond Gayle wisely and precisely chooses points within the film to move away from the ‘talking head’ documentary aesthetic where someone simply explains the issue to us. Instead, Gayle allows the music to be heard in extended sequences that convinces us better than any expert that rock music was both created and mastered by African-Americans. A major sequence of the film begins with guitarist Spacey T of Fishbone/Sound Barrier in a live performance discussing the legacy of the late legendary Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel. Spacey T then launches into a furious live ‘cover’ of one of Eddie Hazel’s most famous guitar riffs. This moment segues into a recorded live performance of Parliament/Funkadelic with Eddie Hazel and a discussion of the tragic miss-marketing of the legendary Shuggie Otis (Strawberry Letter 23), Mandrill, Mother’s Finest (Niggaz Can’t Sing Rock & Roll), and Sound Barrier. Capping this sequence is a precisely chosen moment during an early live performance by Prince of his full on rock song,” Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” from his eponymous 1979 second album. I say, precisely chosen because Raymond Gayle limits the performance to the powerful guitar solo by Prince which ends the song and highlights the fact that Prince was a master rocker (blending emotional hard rock guitar into his early bad boy persona) and how rock music was never solely the providence of whites as many African-Americans have been led to believe.
At bottom, ELECTRIC PURGATORY re-awakened in me lost memories of the difficulties I had in my early years attempting to create and maintain an African-American rock band in Detroit during the Eighties. More than this, the documentary re-awakened several disturbing rumors that were being circulated in African-American communities across the country during the late seventies and early eighties when white rock musicians created music that was being played on black radio or appealed to blacks in clubs. I remember distinctly when Rod Stewart’s, IF YOU THINK I’M SEXY,’ began to gain some black listeners and the vicious rumor that was spread that the singer had been sent to the hospital with,” 20 pounds of sperm pumped from his stomach.” Of course the fact that sperm would have been measured as a liquid rather than as a solid failed to quench the shock of the rumor at the time. Other rumors circulated around David Bowie and his funky cross-over hits like, FAME and FASHION, as well as The Rolling Stones’ MISS YOU. All of these rumors seemed to have been purposeful and nefarious attempts to keep white rock music separate from black Funk/R&B music even though the genres themselves not only borrowed heavily from each other, but were originally created and mastered by African-Americans. Who started the rumors are not as significant as how the rumors contributed to the ‘mythology’ of rock music as solely ‘white’ people’s music in the African-American community.
When we contemplate the limits and boundaries of African-American racial identity we who are African-American ourselves are often oblivious to the social, emotional and intellectual fear tactics we use to keep ourselves “down” for the cause. These tactics are most often expressed in unmixed company social settings where all of the members are African-American. For instance one such archetypal question that I have heard at various points in my life that is asked with a certain disaffected innocence, yet provides the inquisitor with useful information with which to judge the answerer is: Do you eat chitlin’s? I had often wondered what such a question actually means or what was the purpose of it outside of polite conversation, but now I realize that it is a ‘loaded’ question that fixes the social impression of the person who answers it for the person who asked it. Think of it as the equivalent of the choice between the red pill and the blue pill in THE MATRIX. If you eat chitlin’s then your answer fixes the impression of you as a black person who follows the rules of the social reality that has been limited for you. In the sense that before the emancipation, slaves often had no choice in the cuts of meat they were forced to eat on the plantation. Chitlin’s or Chitterlings are the intestines of hogs that are cleaned, seasoned and boiled into a delicious entrée that is often complimented with hot sauce. On the other hand, if you don’t eat chitlin’s then your answer suggests that you have made a conscious choice as an African-American to rebuke the social reality that has been limited for you and make your own choices according to individual or “higher” tastes.
What does all this have to do with ELECTRIC PURGATORY: The Fate of the Black Rocker? The fact of the matter is that as African-American independent filmmakers we must question, challenge and expose the status quo, even if that status quo is upheld in our own communities, because it is the status quo manifested as conventional thinking and moral conservatism that allows such a limited and demeaning perspective of ourselves to exist and to be circulated amongst each other as a means not to keep us “down” for the cause, but instead to keep us “down” artistically, intellectually, or emotionally. The very purpose of independent film is not to make a corporate calling card to gain the coveted Hollywood Contract, but instead,” to explore and expose with a critical eye, not simply what is collectively known, but what is individually experienced by a- voiceless minority. To paraphrase the late French filmmaker Robert Bresson: voice what, without you, might not ever have been noticed.” (Slave Cinema, pg. 26) The question: Do you eat chitlin’s? is a passive rhetorical strategy that aids in the creation and maintenance of ‘African-American’ elitist perspectives which divides us against ourselves and perpetually weakens our ability to collectively fight for our cultural rights, monies, and in a couple of words: our freedom. What I mean by African-American elitist perspectives, are those perspectives that seduce us to,” exclude other African-Americans who are not in our present company as less intelligent than ourselves.” (pg. 27)
In effect, the boundaries and limitations of African-American racial identity are self-maintained through fear and social coercion that is often laughed about as,” What Black People Don’t Do and What White People Do,” but it is a comedy whose laughter betrays its underlying truth while concealing how these boundaries are punitively maintained. A documentary like ELECTRIC PURGATORY is a powerful illumination of and challenge to these racial boundaries and limitations. Unfortunately, this extraordinary documentary that has been the official selection of a number of significant film festivals around the world has just recently been denied broadcast by Black Entertainment TV. It makes one wonder who’s eating chitlin’s at Black Entertainment TV or if anybody there knows what they are? Well, if they won’t show this film, then I suggest we just buy copies of it and show it to ourselves. (http://www.microcinemadvd.com/product/DVD/1102/Electric_Purgatory_.html)
For if we are as fish, then we cannot see the water we breath and trapped in our ‘negro-quariums’ we fear that in going beyond our boundaries we might suffocate from a lack of blackness; but we are not fish, we are men and any boundary a man makes can indeed be broken.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.
Watch ELECTRIC PURGATORY on Snagfilms HERE.