Nothing to Prove

Ikey Owens and the sonic politics of race

Photo by Jeanne RiceTouring with indie rock faves Mars Volta was a typical rock-star journey for Ikey Owens. There were rabid fans, criminally boring van trips and nights of keyboard banging with a band he loved. The crowd reactions were typical, too: "Who the hell is that black guy onstage?" "What's he doing in a rock band?"

"Kids thought it was strange. People thought I was Mars Volta's bodyguard," says the six-foot, 240-pound Owens. Rock fans weren't the only ones hung-up about race. Many white musicians revealed their myopia in backhanded ways.

"They'd say what we were doing was just like the Beatles doing 'Let It Be' with Billy Preston," Owens remembers. Were these delusions of grandeur on the part of white musicians? Did these guys have no context of black musicians outside of Preston's famed keyboard session work with the Beatles?

Maybe it was both, yet Owens never let the racist slips of the tongue or the dirty looks overwhelm him—it was all just part of the hazard of being Ikey Owens. To many, he has always been "the black guy" playing in a host of bands in Orange County and Long Beach, some as well-known as Sublime, Reel Big Fish and the Aquabats.

But Owens' rock & roll career tells the bigger story of his 28-year-old life. He was one of the few black kids raised in largely white Lakewood. Friends and neighbors couldn't figure out how a black kid liked "white" music like Tom Petty. They thought it odd that a black kid was enrolled in the gifted classes and not special ed. Then there were the often unintended but cruel asides from the mouths of supposedly liberal, open-minded people: the familiar "I don't like black people, but I like you" was a frequent conversation stopper. And their sting lingered long after for Owens—petty prejudices and affronts that sliced like thousands of paper cuts until he felt as if he was bleeding.

"If you want to talk to some of the angriest black people, talk to one from the suburbs," says Owens. "You live among your enemies. If you open your eyes, you can see how much people hate you. You can't win. If you have what they have, they're jealous. You can't figure out why they would dislike you because you're supposed to be the 'good example' of your race.

"You have everything: you're not committing crimes, you have high SAT scores, you're going to college, your parents do well. And the bottom line is you still live next door to people who are, at their core, prejudiced. Directly or indirectly, they don't want to live next to a lot of black people," says Owens.

Black people were just as narrow-minded. They'd shoot Owens the evil eye for having white friends, listening to "white" music, or dressing like a punk or a surfer.

To those who know him, Owens' outspokenness may seem surprising because he never comes off as an angry firebrand, says his former manager, Vince Pileggi (who manages Reel Big Fish and a host of other bands). "He's not the stereotype that people want him to be, playing in rock bands. I don't ever recall having a political conversation with him. We talked about music, mostly. Politics? We probably laughed about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky."

Owens' aural acts have made him something of a rebel, but recently, he has delved into music that all those quick-to-pigeonhole people he ran up against in his youth would expect of him: hip-hop, with his new project Free Moral Agents. But this isn't commercial-radio bling-bling hip-hop. Even Owens admits that branding it hip-hop is something of a stretch.

"I romantically like to call it hip-hop," Owens says. "It's my version of lo-fi hip-hop and soul mixed with high school band sounds."

It's an apt description. Free Moral Agents' music consists of soulful, bluesy sounds floating from Owens' Wurlitzer and Roland keyboards. They slip into a cocoon of every sound a Pro-Tools production can muster: flutes, hip-hop beats, stony distortions, plus the tongue of J (born Ernest Jarrett), Free Moral Agents' other half. It's music to scare bland hip-hoppers like P. Diddy to death.

That's because Free Moral Agents are riding high on the cut-and-paste aesthetic of today's electronic underground. The Agents' sounds either crash into the feedback of a wild Sun Ra star storm, or they'll stride gracefully on an Astor Piazzolla-like spectral tango, sometimes during the same song. The Agents' music is played live; there are few samples.

Most of their songs follow a similar logic where one style will wipeout into a completely different type of music. A brass quartet, a Mad Lib-like tumble through cranky jazz keyboards and some somber orchestral arrangements all share the same sonic space on their unreleased full-length (their single "Laydown" is out on Long Beach-based Pete Records). Free Moral Agents are about chaos, beauty and keeping listeners guessing.

Like any interesting art, it almost didn't happen. By 1999, Owens was sick of rock & roll. His band, Teen Heroes, got a video played on MTV, then he quit before typical Behind the Music tensions caused the band's crash and burn. A middle-class life beckoned, so Owens took a job as an assistant bond trader in Huntington Beach and was talking marriage with his girlfriend. His parents loved it. He was feeling so satisfied with his choices that he rarely played his keyboards.

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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