Black History Month – Living Colour

Black History Month – Living Colour

In general, much of the Black History Month posts here are taken from my less-objective blog at Thinking Beyond the Box.  As a thought if you are new here for the first time, consider following the Foundation blog so you get notifications of new posts–and you can do the same for TBtB.

The Foundation believes in incorporating new ways and subjects into education–regardless of level.  With Black History Month, what gets taught SHOULD be taught all year round.  Black History here is AMERICAN history and lumping it into only one month, referring only to M. L. King, Jr. and Rosa Parks in that month is wrong.  There is a good aspect for BHM though–from the perspective of a young black boy or girl.  In schools that take teaching Black History seriously during February, they get to study people of similar look and background rather than what is pithily called ‘the story of dead white men.’

These stories don’t have to be about kings or billionaires–history is much more than that.  This is one of those cases because it sheds perspective on problems in society within music and the world of business.

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So… “Living Colour.”  They are a band from the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s known primarily for their big hit ‘Cult of Personality’ and one that didn’t chart (too political), ‘Funny Vibe’.

Cult of Personality:

Funny Vibe (contains stuff that WILL make many people uncomfortable):

Both songs are from 1989.  It’s possible you may not have heard of the band since we are three decades into the 21st century..  Here’s the sad thing…are you aware this album is the last time a black rock band made it to #1 on the rock charts?  Did you know that for Living Colour to get their record produced, the Rolling Stones told their company that either Living Colour gets a deal or the Stones would refuse to record again?  Think about what that says, both in terms of society, but also the people who were and ARE in charge of signing bands to contracts and publicizing them.  Now think about who gets pushed in advertising.

  • Attractive women of any race
  • Bands around 40+ years, appealing to Boomers
  • Boy Bands, mostly white with rare exceptions (such as the current trend towards k-pop)

You can find ads and hype every time a new Taylor Swift album’s coming out, hype when The Who launch their final, last, really-done-this-time, ending-and-we-really-really-mean-it tour (their first ‘final tour’ happened back in 1987 or so…and here we are 30+ years after it…).   Living Colour fits none of the above categories .  Want something in a modern context–when’s the last time you saw a prime-time campaign of any sort for a hip-hop album dropping?

To be clear–I don’t listen to hip-hop, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the value of something or why it’s important.  Heck, I’ve argued that record executives ignoring minority rock bands like Living Colour is what helped create rap music–and rap is actually what rock music is supposed to be about in the first place.  Rap’s boom created new minority-run labels–the most famous is probably Death Row Records which created the careers of Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg.

The story of Living Colour should raise discussion questions and topics of interest with students:

  1. What is rock?
  2. Where did rock music get its start?
  3. What role did black Americans play in rock’s evolution?
  4. What factors explain their marginalization from this form of music during the 1970s/80s?
  5. Are there other topics where one group creates a new art form or technology–and then loses influence/credit for it?  (This could apply to women, immigrants, small business vs. corporations, etc)

Those questions can head in a lot of different directions.  As an example with #1–is there a distinct musical framework for rock?  Is rock more about attitude than the music?  Can adults like rock music–because if it is about rebellion, adults are part of the system…so is it still rock if it does not annoy your parents?

With #2–you can look at the influence of blues, jazz, gospel–think how these come together with Elvis Presley…and then the criticisms hurled at Elvis when he first appeared on the scene.

Get the idea?  The important thing is–you can use Living Colour’s story as an entrance for exploring a lot of different questions and issues–you get kids thinking, you get kids researching, you get kids listening to music styles they may never have before.

One last Living Colour song–and with personal bias here…we need more music willing to address the problems of society, draw attention to them, so we may begin/continue work fixing them.

Open Letter to a Landlord