Interview with the Black Rock Coalition Director Darrell M. McNeill
A Non-profit Organization for Black Musicians
The Black Rock Coalition (BRC) www.blackrockcoalition.org is a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding and advancing opportunities for Black musicians. The insular US music scene, in particular, has limited the potential for Black artists to get the appropriate acceptance within certain genres of music. The BRC represents trend setting artists of a variety of genres, devoted to pushing Black music and culture to their next evolutionary phase.
The main chapter of the BRC is located in New York City. There’s also a chapter in Los Angeles. Membership, however, extends to all regions across the globe. The organization is run by volunteers who are dedicated professionals with a common desire to see the goals of the BRC reached.
The BRC provides many services to its members: performance opportunities; music clinics where different musicians, producers and other creative people present hands-on demonstrations of technique, tips and business advice in practical terms; panel discussions with music industry professionals on a wide variety of subjects; and good networking opportunities. Music industry pros that have participated in the past include Nile Rodgers, Sean "P Diddy" Combs, and Nona Hendryx.
The BRC supports its members! Members who are on the Internet receive the BRC weekly e-mail listing concerts, events and activities of interest. BRC members and bands are featured prominently in the listings. These benefits keep members hooked up no matter where they live.
The BRC welcomes to its membership anyone who supports Black music on the cutting edge, from musicians to industry execs to all who support Black artists thinking outside of the box. Individual membership is an inexpensive $25 per year. Band membership is $100 (check their site for restrictions).
People join the BRC for a number of reasons. Many have built a community with like-minded individuals who share a genuine passion for music that challenges the status quo or to developed alliances with other musicians as they try to do their thing. The resources alone are worth the annual dues. There’s a kinship /support system within the BRC that isn’t common in a music industry organization. I talked to Darrell M. McNeill, BRC Director of Operations, to get his take.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] How did the BRC get started?
Darrell McNeill The BRC started in 1985 with several late night commiserating phone calls between the three principal founders, TV/film producer Konda Mason (who at the time was managing legendary Black rock all female group Ibis) journalist/musician Greg Tate and guitarist Vernon Reid. Frustrated with the limited expression allowed by the commercial music industry and the paucity of outlets for Black artists who did not fall into the narrow confines of Black pop at the time, the three were prompted to action. Dialogue began in a series of gripe sessions at RUSH Arts Gallery in Tribeca, owned by Danny Simmons (Russell Simmons' brother). Notable participants in those early meetings were poets Tracie Morris and Sekou Sundiata, producers and musicians like Craig Harris, Craig Street, Geri Allen, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Regina Carter, Don Byron, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Michael Hill and many others. But the BRC in the early days also invited non-musicians, people from all walks of life who supported progressive Black music and artists of other disciplines. These were the people who helped shape the BRC's political viewpoint. Out of this, the organization was formed. Tate drew up the manifesto and the BRC was born.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] What part did Vernon Reid play in it?
Darrell McNeill In addition to being the BRC's first president, Vernon was a catalyst who helped jumpstart the dialogue and political action. His connections with various musicians and people in the arts community - Vernon is also a respected journalist and photographer - proved invaluable in the early going. Plus, obviously, as he soldiered on with his band, Living Colour, it would give the Black Rock Coalition and its agenda a national stage. Vernon was invaluable at the time in terms of helping to give the BRC its initial footing in the public mind.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] How would you describe its goals?
Darrell McNeill Our overall goal, very simply, is to act as an advocacy group for "nontraditional" Afro-American artists and their complete and unmitigated creative freedom. We seek to even the playing field - on economic, political, cultural and historic fronts - to garner the same respect our White counterparts enjoy as a matter of course. The methodology varies, of course, with the marketplace. When the BRC first started, our objective was to find ways of integrating with the music industry structure. Over time, experience has taught us that corporate resistance to cultural change (call it racism, call it the intractability of capitalist modality) made this methodology unfeasible - and considering the onerous nature of most music industry contracts, many would consider it untenable. Now we are more interested in the possibilities afforded by independent production, distribution, marketing and promotion, particularly as the Internet has eroded the industry's long-standing monopoly on the distribution network. But our overarching goals remain the same.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] What do you consider the biggest benefit of the BRC?
Darrell McNeill The benefits of the BRC vary depending on what each member is looking to get out of the BRC - not everyone comes to us with the same goals, skill sets, ideology or frame of reference. But I would argue the biggest benefit is the sense of community, the ability to connect and dialogue and interface with people who are moving in the same direction, even if they follow their own paths or have different destinations/points of departure. It's the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself and having a safe haven among other people who have a similar ideology to yours. Let's face it, in the eyes of mainstream popular culture, we're considered weirdoes, freaks and misfits, so it can be a lonely and isolating experience. It's very gratifying to not feel like you're carrying the entire burden by yourself and that you have allies who'll support you in your efforts.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] Why do you take on so much responsibility as a volunteer?
Darrell McNeill For my part specifically, I am an artist, journalist, producer, historian and political activist, with a particular emphasis on human rights and Black progressive freedom struggle. Most of my activity towards this end has focused on the arts community. The Black Rock Coalition, for me, covers several bases that are in congruence with my interests:
1) the complete and equal right to freedom and cultural expression for all people under any and all circumstances;
2) the unmitigated correction of Eurocentric propagandized history and media;
3) the complete and equal right to access to the same benefits of the dominant society for all peoples.
I'm a devout believer that Black creative expression is the bedrock of world culture and must be acknowledged and respected as such. It must also have the freedom to grow and progress - as must all cultures - lest it stagnate and die on the vine. I can't imagine another organization more on the same page with that concept than the Black Rock Coalition.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] Why do you think there’s so much support and respect within the BRC?
Darrell McNeill Again, I think it stems from a camaraderie between the people in this community. It's not as small as people would assume - especially the commercial music industry - but at the same time, it's not so huge that it prevents us from developing real human connection and interaction. We go see each other's shows, buy each other's CDs, and talk about music, life, love, politics. At the core of this - and this is critical - we LOVE music. All music. All genres. As long as it shows quality, originality and touches us in a fundamental and visceral way, we love, respect and honor it. One of the sad things about most commercial pop music is that it's purposely created to be disposable - music as "background noise" or "lifestyle backdrop." I suppose we're all throwbacks to a time when music was not only an integral part of your life - it could literally transform your life. The people who support the BRC embody this ideal.
[ Daylle Deanna Schwartz] What would you say to someone who was considering joining?
Darrell McNeill Know why you're joining. If you're an artist, come in with very clear and specific goals/concerns. The BRC may be moving in synch with what your objectives are. Then again, it might not be. If you're looking for the BRC to make you a big rock star, there's only so much we (or anyone else for that matter) can realistically do. We can make suggestions, offer advice, provide networking opportunities, but you essentially have to do your own work.
I can't tell you how many people have come through our ranks disappointed or brokenhearted that the BRC did not get them signed to a major label deal with all of the so-called "rewards" of fame, fortune and the like. There have been countless Black rock bands - Living Colour, Eye & I, The Family Stand, Follow For Now, Fishbone, Weapon of Choice, Sophia's Toy, bad brains, 24-7 Spyz, Corey Glover (solo), Vernon Reid (solo), Rachid, The Veldt, Dionne Farris, David Ryan Harris, Brand New Immortals, Screaming Headless Torsos, Sandra St. Victor - who have been signed and dropped by major labels because the labels refused to devote the necessary finances, resources and marketing to ensure these artists' success. Understand up front, the BRC has zero influence with the bean counters at the five major music conglomerates.
However, for people who are looking to be part of this rapidly growing movement - independent artists in general and progressive Black artists in particular - whether as artists, supporters or fans, we are a direct conduit to that scene. Understand, that the most critical aspect of our work is promoting and agitating the dialogue, "Why can't Black music be like this?" As evidenced by the emergence of The Roots, Common, Chocolate Genius, Res, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Bilal, India.Arie, Lauryn Hill, Cody Chesnutt and many other cutting edge performers who've emerged in recent years, the underground rumblings of this dialogue are getting louder and louder. Sooner than anyone thinks, it will be impossible to ignore.
To join the BRC, send check or money order for $25 to Black Rock Coalition, PO Box 1054, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276. The BRC can be contacted at
BRCMembersInfo@aol.com or their hotline: 212 713-5097.
Daylle publishes “Daylle’s News & Resources,” a newsletter for supporting indie music. www.daylle.com/monthly.html , Revenge Productions.