(September 24, 2023). Last week, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cofounder Jann Wenner—also cofounder and former chief editor of Rolling Stone magazine—got into a bit of trouble for making blatantly racist and sexist comments to writer David Marchise during a New York Times piece in which Wenner explained his decision to exclude Black and female artists from his upcoming book featuring his interviews of rock’s “Masters.”
The book—audaciously titled “The Masters”—will be out Tuesday (Sept. 26) and contains interviews with seven white guys: Bono, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Townshend. Only Springsteen’s is a recent interview while the others are culled from old chats Wenner conducted for Rolling Stone.
The problem wasn’t so much with the inclusion of those seven artists—all undisputed legends of rock—nor was it merely about the exclusion of Black people like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, or women such as Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, and Patti Smith.
It was mostly in the explanation Wenner gave for his artist selection (and non-selection)—both apparently in the upcoming book’s liner notes as well as in the interview with Marchise.
To sum it up, Wenner’s reason for only including white male rockers was that Black performers were “not in his zeitgeist” and that neither Black nor female artists could “articulate on this intellectual level” as those he included.
You have to give it to him.
In an era where people often hide behind ambiguous statements or dubious imagery online and in music videos that allow them plausible deniability when it comes to having race- and sex-based biases, Wenner made it abundantly clear where he stood when it comes to Black and female musicians.
They’re categorically not good enough for him…not smart enough. They can’t “articulate” at some undefined intellectual level.
And in the twilight of Wenner’s years—he’s now 77–with his career largely behind him, the misguided former RS journalist and RRHoF gatekeeper (who in the same NYT interview congratulated himself, his baby boomer generation, and rock-and-roll for their contributions to social change, of all things) likely is suffering from the same case of late-in-life, unfiltered verbal diarrhea that caused Quincy Jones, for example, to carelessly dish on Michael Jackson’s “plagiarism” a few years back, without so much as a care as to what it might to do his own legacy going forward.
What the NYT article’s publishing on September 15 did to Wenner’s legacy—besides exposing his full-on fanboy ignorance to millions beyond the faithful RS readers who already knew of it—is cause him to be removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Board (on which he had served since its founding 40 years ago).
Ironically, in an account of the emergency meeting the Board called on Saturday, Sept. 16 in the wake of growing criticism of his statements–as reported by Billboard magazine—it was Wenner’s inability to “articulate” that doomed him in a failed mea culpa that ultimately couldn’t save his job.
And now the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has finally rid itself of the man who for its entire existence has influenced its policies, its practices and, to a large degree, who got in and who didn’t.
With Wenner no longer at the helm, it’s worth taking a look at how Black and female artists actually fared under his reign as chief gatekeeper to rock and roll’s most hallowed institution, the Cleveland-based HoF where its creators, innovators, influencers, purported geniuses and legends (and some not-so-legends) are enshrined.
Upon review, Black inductees (133 of them) have fared far better than females (50) when it comes to inductees in all categories (Performers, Early Influence, Musical Excellence, Non-Performers). In fact, the number of Black females in the RRHoF actually outnumber their white counterparts 26-24. (Notably, the first thirteen women to be inducted into the RRHoF were all Black.)
Given that there are 376 total enshrinees (including those that are counted for their multiple inductions in different categories or as part of separate entities like Stevie Nicks both solo and in Fleetwood Mac), that means Black entities account for 35.4 percent of the total, while women account for only 13.3 percent.
When it comes to Blacks in the three musician-based categories of Performer, Early Influence and Musical Excellence, the share is even higher. Of the 321 inductees in those categories, 122 are Black (38%).
Women account for 47 (14.6%) of those inductees, which is also a slight improvement from the overall total share.
But if you look at only the coveted “Performer” category—the one where voting committees (industry experts) decide both the nominees and the winners—the numbers are slightly diminished for Black musicians and improved for females. Of the 251 inductees as “Performers,” 82 (32.7%) are Black, while 38 (15.1%) are female.
On first glance, it would appear that Blacks have fared pretty well in the RRHoF under Wenner’s era, especially given that we only make up about twelve percent of the U.S. population.
Such a conclusion, however, would ignore the disproportionately high role that Black musicians played in rock and roll’s early development, with the Hall’s inaugural Performer inductees rightfully including pioneers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke (or six out of the ten artists who were included in that first class in 1986).
But a deeper analysis also shows that Blacks have had a diminishing presence among the more recent inductees, particularly during the second half of the 37 years the Hall has been actively inducting people.
Only 26 of the 82 Black acts in the Performers category have been enshrined since the year 2005–the midpoint between the RRHoF’s first induction and today—which suggests that most of the earlier entries recognized the Black pioneers of rock and roll, blues, and to a lesser degree R&B/soul, while latter day R&B artists have been left out.
By comparison, of the 169 white artists in the Performers category, 83 were inducted before 2005, while 86 were added during or after that halfway point, a more even spread over the two periods.
Women, on the other hand, have a much bigger axe to grind when it comes to gender disparities. They make up more than half the American population while females and female-led acts represent less than one in every eight Hall of Fame inductees.
White women have an even bigger cause for protest. Only five of them (Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell—a non-philosopher of rock according to Wenner—Dusty Springfield, Bonnie Raitt, and Brenda Lee) were inducted in the Performers category during the first half of the Hall’s existence, with the remaining 16 having been added since 2005, including six (Carole King, Pat Benatar, Carly Simon and Kate Bush inexplicably late among them) in the past three years.
The numbers get even bleaker when delving into the non-performers category—aka the Ahmet Ertegun Award—which recognizes those non-musicians who’ve significantly contributed to the advancement of rock and roll (and its derivatives). Think of iconic DJs Dick Clark, Alan Freed, producers Phil Spector and George Martin, and record moguls Berry Gordy and Ertegun himself.
Of the 55 non-performers enshrined in the Hall, eleven are Black (20%), while only three are female (5.5%). The lone Black female in this category is the late Sylvia Robinson, the Sugar Hill Records pioneer who was just inducted this year on the eve of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
The other two women—Carole King and Cynthia Weil—share songwriting inductions with their husbands Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann, respectively, meaning Robinson is the only solo female among 55 inductees (and the only one recognized for her business accomplishments).
Otherwise, no other non-performing females were deemed by the Hall to have had a significant impact on rock and roll in the nearly 70 years of its existence, or in the 37 years that the RRHoF has been acknowledging them. Not Carole Bayer Sager, not Valerie Simpson, not Laura Nyro (as songwriter), not Sylvia Rhone.
Should all of this data and the disparities they reflect be pinned on Wenner’s shoulders?
Of course not.
There are deeper societal issues at play here regarding how the white-male dominated music industry values those who make music they define as true rock and roll. Artists who skew dance or R&B are usually kept on the fringes while only people like Jimi Hendrix and to a slightly lesser degree, Prince, are exalted as rock gods.
Hip-hop music, despite its unprecedented commercial dominance over the past six years (thanks mainly to streaming), remains a categorically maligned genre—artistically speaking—among rock purists (even those in the industry whose pockets are heavily lined by it, I would contend).
And, with Black mainstream music leaning more hip-hop over the past two decades, the future for newer Black musicians who don’t rap being recognized by the RRHoF doesn’t look bright at this juncture.
Of the Black artists that started recording professionally after 1980 who’ve been inducted, only two don’t rap: Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston. Eighties superstar Lionel Richie was inducted as a solo artist but began his professional recording career with the Commodores in the 1970s.
The remaining Black inductees who’ve only been recording since 1980 (acts recording before 1999 are now eligible for the RRHoF)—are all rappers: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, and LL Cool J.
Part of the disparity between contemporary Black and non-Black artists among recent inductees may lie in attitudes that are similar to Wenner’s.
In a Facebook music group to which I belong, a regular NCAA-style, single-elimination song tournament is held regularly where records from a given year compete in one-on-one matches with votes by the group’s members—mostly older, white-males—determining which tunes get to advance to the next round, until the last remaining song is crowned champion.
In the 29 tournaments that have run since 2013, 27 of the winning songs have been by white male acts, while only two have been by white females (Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”).
None have been by Black (or Latino) artists.
But playing an even bigger role in what will likely be a continuing disparity long after Wenner’s departure may be the lack of long-term Black artist development and the increased marginalization of soul and R&B music since 2010. Only recently have artists like SZA and The Weeknd made it a viable mainstream genre again.
Rock music itself is also at a crossroads. Increasingly, the genre is being buoyed by legacy artists whose touring and decades-old album catalogs keep it afloat. Few new acts, regardless of race or gender, hold the promise for traditional rock music the way artists of the past did.
As for the women, the fact that only 5 percent of producers of today’s biggest hits—according to a recent report from Fix the Mix—are female, means that the pool of contenders for future recognition in the non-performers category remains small.
Similarly, with the advent of streaming technology, the increasing role of consumer-driven social media platforms (like TikTok) and with radio and TV having less impact on the development of musical trends than ever before, we’ve likely seen the last of the truly influential, non-performing rock and roll pioneers of any race or gender, particularly those on the level of a Dick Clark, Alan Freed or Don Cornelius, which will further drag the candidate pool down.
While all of this is not Jann Wenner’s doing, his interview and book lays out for us in plain sight what we pretty much already knew.
As a gatekeeper, his biases towards acts like the do-no-wrong Rolling Stones (for whom he named the magazine; plus see his comments in the NYT interview about his pal Mick Jagger), heavily influenced the kind of exposure he gave to certain artists at the expense of others during the magazine’s and rock music’s more formative years.
That extended to his time as overseer of the Rock Hall of Fame, which has faced criticisms since its inception about those who have and haven’t gotten in.
As an institution, the Rock Hall may never be perfect and it certainly won’t please everyone’s tastes or cater to their opinions about what constitutes true rock and roll.
But whatever changes come about in the post-Wenner era, if any, will be interesting to watch.
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.
You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.