In my 30-year entertainment journalism career, I’ve been openly questioned about my credentials by readers and others because I’m a Black woman. This is not speculation. One actually wrote, “When I saw your picture, I thought, ‘What could she know about rock music?’ but now I like your stuff.” Uh, thanks?
So it’s not a shock that gatekeepers in entertainment and media — who decide who breaks through and who tells the story, as “Hamilton” put it — exist. What blows my mind is when they’re so comfortable laying out the blueprint for exactly who they’ve kept away from the gate and why. And then they’re like, “Yeah, I said it! What of it? Hand me that shovel. I haven’t dug this hole deep enough!”
That’s what happened last weekend when Rolling Stone cofounder Jann Wenner played a particularly brutal game of what’s known as “FAFO,” or “F--k Around and Find Out.” In an interview with The New York Times, the 77-year-old publishing veteran was asked why “The Masters,” a collection of interviews with musical legends, only features white men like Mick Jagger and Bono. He told journalist David Marchese that none of the pioneering Black artists that could reasonably be included in the conversation, like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, were of his “zeitgeist,” and none of the female artists, like Joni Mitchell and Grace Slick, “were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”
Joni Mitchell. Joni “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot“ “I could drink a case of you” Mitchell. Inarticulate. Sure.
Not only was Wenner unfettered in his candor, but there were no publicists leaping into frame to tackle him and stop him from messing up everybody’s money. Never mind that rock was based in Black music. That his former magazine’s very name came from a 1950 song by Black blues singer Muddy Waters. That Mayfield and Wonder were writing elegiac opuses about the social ills of the time, which qualify as “deep things about a generation,” one of the criteria Wenner named. I guess racism and the inner city weren’t in his zeitgeist.
Wenner’s “Finding Out” stage came less than 24 hours after the release of his quotes, when he was bounced from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, and later saw Rolling Stone, where I once dreamed of working, distancing themselves from him. Wenner released an apology through Little Brown and Company, which is publishing “The Masters” (and, in full disclosure, published my 2020 memoir), but it was — in the words of Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis, two other Black music legends — too much, too little, too late.
“I want to say that it’s appalling, but I’m not surprised,” said Conrad Heinz, a musician, video production artist and owner of Brothers Music, an instrument shop on Charles Street in Baltimore City. ”You kind of come to expect that kind of behind-the-scenes behavior, because that’s how society is, or even how Baltimore is. There’s a hierarchy, a system. You could have had the same conversation 50 years ago.”
Heinz said he’s seen gatekeeping, “for example, in hip-hop, because audiences were made out to be a menace and people didn’t want to book hip-hop shows. I don’t know if that was because they couldn’t manage the crowds or to use that as an excuse to keep people out of certain industries.”
I marvel both at the incredible entrenched privilege that made Wenner so willing to admit his biases without expecting consequences, and the tragedy of imagining how many artists not in Wenner’s “zeitgeist” never got featured in what was then the cultural magazine of the time, perhaps stunting or preventing their careers.
It’s telling that the former magazine editor said “maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism,” not because he considers them qualified, but as a token to keep those inferior non-zeitgeisty people off his back.
“Who gets to decide & enforce what the ‘Historical Standard’ IS, is EXACTLY what ALL this is REALLY about. The Canon & The GATE,” wrote Vernon Reid of legendary Black rock band Living Colour on X (formerly known as Twitter). He also quipped that Wenner could have just titled the book “My Super Talented White Dude Multi-Millionaire Friends.”
Younger people might not understand how entrenched media biases and the gates they created were in the pre-Internet age ― how high “the barriers to entry,” Heinz said. There were only so many ways to get widespread attention in media, and Rolling Stone was one of them for its music, cultural and political coverage. You can see how someone like Wenner could keep out top talent that he didn’t consider worthy of covers and inside pages.
The same crap was happening on MTV, which famously didn’t play Black artists until pushed by people like David Bowie, or when CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all of his label’s videos off air if they didn’t play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (Jackson himself was at the center of his own Rolling Stone controversy when Wenner wrote the label that the singer’s “Off The Wall,” at the time the biggest-selling album by a Black artist, was “not a cover story.”)
Baltimore food personality Chyno, host of “Plate It, Baltimore,” recalls confronting such gatekeepers when he tried getting the attention of local media and marketing firms, running into many obstacles despite his marketing degree and credentials. Undeterred, “I knew that the only thing was to create my own table,” he said, creating influencer dinners and now his own 45-client marketing firm. “I thought, ‘Are you keeping me away because I’m a Black man, or are you keeping me away because I’m gay, or because I’m flamboyant?’” he said. “These are systems long overdue for an overhaul or a refreshment.”
Despite my failed auditions for “The Voice,” I am not a music artist, but rather a chronicler of them. I know about pitching stories about Black artists and being told they weren’t well-known enough for the audience, or literally being quizzed at rock concerts about whether I knew enough about the bands to write about them. I even introduced myself to an actor from “Eight Men Out,” a favorite movie, on a film festival red carpet, who looked at me confused.
“But you’re a girl!” he said. “That’s a baseball movie.”
Yeah, the baseball movie I collected memorabilia from and named my cats after. But I’m a girl, though. OK. Next question!
That actor had something in common with Wenner, and MTV VJ Mark Goodman, who tried to defend his network’s poor track record with Black artists to Bowie by explaining that kids in the Midwest might be “scared to death” of artists like Prince who was literally from the Midwest. They were so ensconced in their bubble that it didn’t even seem weird to say the quiet part out loud. Chyno, like me, was incredulous that Wenner was so comfortable making those statements when “we live in an Internet age. There’s no way, once you say something, to take it back. It’s out there.”
Some boundaries are still fairly impenetrable, but the digital age has made it possible for people like Heinz, who became a video capture artist in Austin, to help promote artists who wouldn’t have had a platform, or Chyno to create his self-made table.
“If I would not have had the Internet to propel my gorgeous, juicy pictures, food creations and sassy personality, it would have taken a lot longer,” Chyno said.
I keep coming back to all the artists who didn’t get covered during Wenner’s tenure at Rolling Stone, and what may have happened to them if they had been.
In the words of Fats Domino, yet another Black artist without whom there would have been no rock and no “Rolling Stone,” ain’t that a shame?