Nothing to Prove

Ikey Owens and the sonic politics of race

Then, in the space of two weeks, his girlfriend dumped him, and he got laid off. Reeling from that karmic double-whammy, his old life easily reclaimed him. The guys in Mars Volta's dub project DeFacto invited him to play on their European tour. He jumped at the chance to take a vacation from his rapidly imploding world.

Despite freaking out audiences with his skin color and musical choices, he had a fantastic time in Europe and realized he had been ignoring his real goals—writing music and making his own album. So he cut back on school, quit working the nine-to-fives and stopped saying yes to the many bands offering him session work. He got a part-time job as a clerk at Fingerprints Records in Long Beach and began looking for like-minded co-conspirators.

One guy was J. Like Owens, J was a black guy who grew up in a white world (in his case, Riverside). He related to Owens' experiences of not fitting in, but, like Owens, he also saw a lot of benefits.

"If I didn't grow up where I did, I wouldn't have heard so much good music," J says. "Stuff that was originally black, like ska, reggae and jazz. I learned it from white and Mexican kids who appreciated that music."

Owens and J say they're already thinking of the next Free Moral Agents album. As far as any major-label action goes, though, the prospects are pretty grim.

"There are no black, non-hip-hop or R&B bands signed to major labels at present, outside of some jazz bands," says Darrell M. McNeill, director of operations for the Brooklyn-based Black Rock Coalition, a nonprofit supporting musicians of color in an often-unfriendly industry. "You have the Roots on MCA, but it's widely known that they pretty much had to slug it out for years before they could build enough clout to get proper financial support. They still don't command the same dollar value as, say, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Puddle of Mudd, Incubus, Weezer or whoever."

The absence of black faces in rock can make it tough to get a gig even in backing bands, says Owens. People who package tours hire musicians like casting directors hire actors. They're searching for a specific look, and black skin often doesn't fit.

"I was going on auditions for different things, and there were bands I couldn't play in because I don't fit the image. I'm a big black guy. It doesn't look right if I was playing with a guy like (white guitarist) John Mayer. They want people to look like him."

So why do it? Why should a black man play rock & roll when he's just going to get punched in the face? For Owens and J, the answer lies in reclaiming freedoms both artistic and personal.

"To be George Clinton, who just stopped doing Motown and picked up Marshall amps and guitars, meant he no longer had to prove anything to anyone. He was beyond everything else. That's what my aspirations of a black artist are," Owens says. "It's about becoming secure in your art and yourself, being able to do whatever you want."

Free Moral Agents perform at the Continental Room, 115 W. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-4529. Mon., 9 p.m. Free. 21+.
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