Just Like Hendrix

Rush -- quite possibly the whitest band on earth -- has a surprising number of black fans

It all began late one Friday evening at the Houston radio station KTSU, during a broadcast of the popular rap show Kidz Jamm. Stevie C. and his crew were in the booth spinning choice cuts while a couple ladies struck up a conversation in the lobby.

As the time approached midnight, many a Dirty South rapper had ridden the airwaves during the past two hours. But then, suddenly, a rock song broke through.

"What is that?" one girl asked the other as the tune blasted out of the overhead speakers. And she didn't sound intrigued, either -- she sounded pissed that a hard-rock tune was hogging radio time that another crunk Lil Jon joint could've easily filled.

Another guy in the lobby (let's call him, um, me) walked into the booth to ask who and what the hell was playing.

"Rush," answered the DJ working the turntables. "'Tom Sawyer. '"

"Tom Sawyer"? Rush? On a rap show?

"I usually start off my mixes with that," the DJ replied.

And that's how my search began for black people who like Rush. Since then I've heard quite a few people of color go off about what would seem an anomalous love for the wildly polarizing band.

Although it's been widely documented that rock 'n' roll originally came from the blues and soul of the early and mid-twentieth century, black folks have long disowned it, what with all the mediocre white artists flooding the genre. But some African Americans still have a thing for rock music, no matter who performs it. And in an age where we seem to have to like what we're supposed to like, it's refreshing to find black people who have picked up a copy of Hemispheres or Permanent Waves.

But why Rush, of all bands? With its overly technical and funkless playing, Tolkienian mysticism, Ayn Rand fixation and attendant right-wing bent (not to mention its birthplace in the Great White North), Rush is quite possibly the whitest band on earth. But nevertheless, the group's black fans have much love for frontman Geddy Lee and his combo of steady bass-playing and powerful vocals, Alex Lifeson and his soul-rattling guitar licks, and Neil Peart and his masterful drum solos. Members of Living Colour even admitted that Rush was a big influence on their music.

"A large part of the problem are these artificial divisions between music styles, races and classes of fans, and bogus expectations that certain types of people are only interested in certain types of music," says Darrell McNeill, director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition, a nineteen-year-old rock-band-of-color association co-founded by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. "As a result, people are conditioned to believe that certain music is 'not of their tribe. '"

Now, I'm not a Rush fan. It's not because I dislike the music -- I just don't know that much about it. I know Rush is a power trio from Canada, together for about 30 years now. But the only Rush recording I've ever owned is Rush in Rio (last year's concert DVD), though after sitting though it, it's not hard to see what would make even black people dig the band. The undivided attention the trio earns from a soccer stadium full of Brazilians -- enraptured by such extravagant faves as "Red Sector A," "The Trees," and "2112" -- is undeniably fascinating.

For more info on these guys, I sought people who knew their Rush, like Ameenifu Raheem, a former member of the reggae/funk/world band D.R.U.M. Raheem, still in-the-house at 50, first caught Rush live in the early '70s, when the trio opened for fellow mystical arena-rockers Jethro Tull. "I think the first song they opened up with was 'Trees,'" recalls Raheem, who further remembers that the set was brief.

Short show or not, Raheem was sprung over the band from then on. He calls Rush's sound "invigorating" and has a surprising comparison in store: "It kinda reminds me, in a certain way, of when I first saw Hendrix, three-piece. Even though you [only] got three pieces there, there's so many dynamics. And when you're not too familiar with their material, you kinda tend to hone in on the things that kinda catch your ear or catch your fancy."

For his part, the Black Rock Coalition's McNeill says he isn't a Rush freak, but adds, "Yes, I do get my Rush on from time to time." He caught the bug back in high school -- he loved the music, but couldn't get down with the fan base. "I did think that hardcore Rush fans were a little weird," he admits. "Scary weird."

How so?

"Well, no disrespect, but most of the Rush fans I knew were/are type-A hardcore intellectualists and anal retentivists -- thirteen-, fourteen-year-old kids reading heavy stuff like Atlas Shrugged and Catcher in the Rye. When you have guys who've never played an instrument in their lives break down note for note and inflection for inflection every Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart or Geddy Lee solo ever played -- well, that's a tad scary, dude. I'm probably generalizing."

Nevertheless, McNeill retains his love for the classics. "The newer stuff is okay, but it's too much 'Been here, done this,'" he says. "'Trees,' 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Living in the Twilight,' 'Fly by Night' -- that's how I'm living."

Both McNeill and Raheem live by the rule that as long as the music is good, there should be no impediments about who should listen to it. And people shouldn't turn into music Nazis when somebody they know listens to something that is "not of their tribe."

"There's always been massive disrespect for other people's music tastes," McNeill says. "There's always been false hegemonies created for music. Old people not liking young people's music. Young people not liking old people's music. White people not liking black people's music. Black people not liking white people's music. White people not liking other white people's music -- we can go on forever with this. I think there's been a growing disrespect by all peoples of all music, period. The bottom line is, folks can disagree all they like. It's meaningless until you start playing the records one after the other and use your ears instead of what you've been told to like or not like."

Spoken like a true "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" fan.

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