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The Isley Brothers, Rock and Race

In anticipation of the soon to be published, The Isley Brothers 3+3, author Darrell M. McNeill reflects on The Isley Brothers’ place in music, culture, and history – a place that cannot be denied.

The Isley Brothers have been an integral part of my ecosystem since I was two years old. One of the first records embedded in my cognitive memory was their Motown hit, “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You).” As the Isleys sound evolved, the “3+3” album—their breakout masterpiece—planted seeds in my nine-year-old brain to embark on a 40-plus year career in music. They influenced legions of artists like The Beatles, The Mamas & The Papas, Whitney Houston, Living Colour, The Yardbirds, The Doobie Brothers, Ice Cube, George Michael, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Palmer, Notorious B.I.G., and Thundercat. Few articles have told the Isley’s story and the group is usually portrayed as adjunct to other popular figures, but their 67-year career is testament to them as multi-generational legends in pop music, culture, and history.

However, despite their impact, the Isleys remain a criminally slighted keystone within American pop music, especially with regard to its Black cultural foundation. As one of the first groups on the scene when the rock and roll genre broke, they spent their peak years fighting through an environment where rock morphed into a White-exclusive arena. Countless Black legends—Sly & The Family Stone, Labelle, Shuggie Otis, Richie Havens, Rufus, Betty Davis, Mother’s Finest, Funkadelic, and others—have been erased and reduced by the industry, being classified as “R&B and soul” acts, with fewer economic opportunities, and never getting recognition equal to their White peers.

Black artists like the Isleys were victims of falsehoods like “Black people don’t play or listen to rock,” “Black performers can’t sell albums,” or “Black music doesn’t sell in ‘general markets.’” Despite no support from rock music outlets, and White performers allowed to dominate rock in the 70s, the Isleys had a stretch of gold, platinum, and double platinum albums between 1971 and 1978 selling in equal volume to icons like Heart, John Lennon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eric Clapton, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Allman Brothers, David Bowie, and others (several of whom were influenced by the Isleys). This book dissects how social biases and practices minimize Black performers like the Isleys, despite their success.

One admitted shortcoming of my book is I wasn’t able to talk to the Isleys, due to their hectic schedule (I’ve interviewed the group a few times in the past). I wished to give them flowers while they are still here (Rudolph Isley sadly passed during the book’s production, leaving Ronald, Ernie, and Chris Jasper as the last surviving members). Regrettably, I wasn’t able to immerse deeper in their creative process, nor have more candid conversations about them navigating industry racism for nearly seven decades, while still building new generations of fans. Nevertheless, I still drew excitement from research and discovery, using bios, articles, and Isley interviews from press archives, to piece together their story. Juxtaposing their experiences against the array of people, places, and events they interacted with proved fascinating and revealed a more nuanced understanding of their journey. I developed a greater appreciation for their work, especially in the face of all their challenges.

Racism in entertainment and media is a fixture, and this book couldn’t be any timelier, as tightly held myths of rock and race have recently come under fire. Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone co-founder, got called to the carpet on his blatant racial myopia running the magazine. (Full disclosure: I co-authored the Black Rock Coalition’s statement in Rolling Stone’s op-eds on their former publisher.) Rocker Lenny Kravitz criticized Black media over its blind spot to Black rock artists. With conservative extremism attempting to shove Black history and culture back into the closet, all hands must be on deck, not just to push back, but to expand and codify Black history and culture.

I believe fervently that the Isleys’—and countless other Black artists—must be in the same conversations as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and other White rock icons. A more authentic conception of rock, with greater direction from those who were responsible the genre’s creation (i.e., people of color, women, LGTBQIA) can go a long way to foster deeper consideration from wider audiences. With rock in decline for lack of inspiration and original ideas, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the genre continues to rob it of any legitimacy and hope for a resurgence.

Darrell M. McNeill

is a Santa Barbara-based producer, musician, composer, arranger, contractor, promoter, critic, and journalist. He is director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition (BRC), a grassroots 501c3 advocacy, promotion and production nonprofit for artists of color who defy the music industry’s stereotypical constructs regarding Black music, and has written for publications such as The Village VoiceVIBESPIN, and RAVERS.

The Isley Brothers’ 3+3 is available to buy in bookshops and online, including at Bloomsbury.com.

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