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Amid Black Lives Matter Conversations, Black Latinx Artists Urge Non-Black Latinx To Do Better

Johnny Ventura, Lido Pimienta & Jean Dawson

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Amid Black Lives Matter Conversations, Black Latinx Artists Urge Non-Black Latinx To Do Better

Jean Dawson, Lido Pimienta, Johnny Ventura and more talk anti-Blackness in the Latinx community and how music can be one of the greatest catalysts for change

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2020 - 04:51 am

"I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you," writer and poet Audre Lorde cautioned during her keynote speech addressing racism at a Connecticut women’s conference in 1981. Her message was clear: Racism cannot be dismantled until every person fights to eliminate it—that included women who, in world ruled by white males, faced oppression because of their gender, but benefited from whiteness. 

Almost 40 years later, the late writer’s words are even more far-reaching. 

As the U.S. faces trials brought forth by systemic, societal and cultural racism ignited by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, the Latinx community, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, as described by Pew Research Center, are now turning inward to evaluate their own role in a conversation about race, privilege and anti-Blackness. 

The Latinx community is extremely diverse, comprising indigenous, Black and white people (among others). Though it is often unified by the Spanish language, many members are now saying that the community must reckon with its own history of anti-Blackness. Being Black, no matter your cultural background, can more than likely mean experiencing heightened racism such as police brutality—a privilege light-skinned and white-passing Latinx don’t have to worry about. 

As the music industry goes through its own discussion on systemic racism, music leaders are calling for change, in and out of the industry. But how? Latinx have to acknowledge a history of anti-Blackness, rooted by colonialism, to understand why this is a question in the first place, they say.

A history of anti-Blackness

Half Black and half Mexican, Jean Dawson grew up an anomaly to many. He was born in San Diego to a Black father and a Mexican mother, but raised in Tijuana after he and his mother moved there. 

"I was in Mexico and people didn't know what I was," the singer/songwriter says over Zoom. "There was a whole lot of stuff."

Some Mexicans would call him "Kalimba," he recalls. Kalimba, an Afro-Mexican singer, was a part of an influentially successful pop group called OV7 in the ‘90s. He and his sister, M'balia Maricha, were two Afro-Mexicans in a predominately light-skinned Mexican group, and as scarce as hen’s teeth in the overall industry. 

Dawson commuted to San Diego every day for school, something not so uncommon in a border town. He now lives in Los Angeles, though he says that life in the U.S. isn't much better than it was back home. "Police in the United States don't see me as a Mexican man. Even if they do, they see me as a threat," he says. "They see me as all these things rather than being a 24-year-old college-educated musician."

And he isn’t the only music artist with accounts of discrimination. In and out of the U.S., the latest Black Lives Movement protests have Black and Afro-Latinx artists sharing their own personal stories of racism.

In a livestreamed conversation with the newly formed Conciencia Collective, a Latinx group of music professionals addressing race issues, ChocQuibTown’s Goyo shared she’s been taken off a bus in Colombia because she was Black. 

In an Instagram post, Legendary merengue and salsa musician Johnny Ventura recounted a trip to the U.S. that quickly became uncomfortable when an airport immigration officer wouldn’t believe he was staying at an upscale hotel in New York. The officer stopped asking where he was really staying only until after a Puerto Rican co-worker let him know who Ventura was.

Dawson and Goyo’s accounts solidify two facts: No matter who you are, if you’re Black, you’re a target. Also, there are undeniable microaggressions and discrimination towards Black Latinx in the culture. 

Across Latin countries, whether in North, South America or the Caribbean, microaggressions show up in casual expressions. For example, there's the phrase "Hay que mejorar la raza" or "We have to better the race," while family members issue constant reminders to not get too much sun in order to keep skin as light as possible. Such microaggressions perpetuate anti-Black and anti-indigenous ideologies that go unquestioned. 

"There [were] people in my family that when they met my father through my mother immediately were like, 'No, you can't be with him because he's Black,'" Dawson says. 

Light skin, light eyes, light hair—the closer a Latinx person comes to whiteness can often equate to a higher perceived desirability within the culture.

Roughly 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America, according to a 2016 report by Princeton University’s Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America. Slavery by the Spanish and Portuguese plays a role in that number. Despite Black Latinx making up an estimated quarter of the population now, their Black identity continues to be belittled and erased through language and racial identifiers.  

Dominican-American journalist Jennifer Mota noted that calling someone "Spanish" who may not be, as is sometimes done in Latin countries, is erasing their indigenous or Black identity, even if they speak Spanish.

"I am Spanish-speaking.... I was not born in Spain, nor were my parents," she wrote on her Instagram. "Spanish is both a language and a nationality, when you label someone Spanish & they are not, you are erasing their specific culture, nationality, and experience."

Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta adds that doing so is erasing the fact that colonization ever happened. 

“People call me Spanish, I'm not Spanish, I'm Colombian. I speak Spanish, because I was colonized by Spain,” she says.“[Being called] Spanish is this negation, that there was ever colonization.”

Beyond language, eurocentric beauty standards dominate media in many Latin countries. Travel to Mexico, Colombia or almost any other Spanish-speaking country and you’ll see street ads, television soap operas and other programming featuring light-skinned people.  

"Whatever is closest or with more proximity to whiteness in sound, in look, in aesthetic. That's the person that we want, and that's the person that's going to get the platform." Pimienta says of the media and entertainment mindset in Colombia, where roughly 10 percent of the population is Black, and traces of the country's only Black president, Juan José Nieto Gil, have been erased from history, including in books and portraits.

The cover of her recently released album Miss Colombia dismantles these notions of white supremacy, targeting beauty pageants (which are highly regarded in the country), where only two Black women from the country have won a Miss Universe title. Pimienta protests that reality when she, a Black, indigenous Colombian, stands front and center wearing a crown.

The Black erasure and whitewashing that happens in Latin countries is blatant and is a result of colonization, University of Florida assistant professor Jillian Hernandez says. 

"The Spanish basically [formed] a whole cast of different races, the exploitation of indigenous people and then of the enslaved Africans that were brought to Latin America," she says. "Because so many Latinx have light skin privilege, there has been the sort of ideology of white aspiration."

Even when it comes to music consumption, music with Black roots, like reggaeton, is minimized among some Latinx. 

"Black Latinx music [is] often looked down upon as a lesser form of Latinx music, even though it's clearly super popular and clearly super lucrative," Hernandez continues. "Those are again the same hierarchies that we get from the same racist colonialism."

Hernandez adds those hierarchies can also show up at award shows and "urbano" artists can become pigeonholed. "What cultural forms [of music] are ... taken the most seriously or given the most awards?" she asks. Both the GRAMMYs and Latin GRAMMYs have been critiqued for their urban categories. The GRAMMYs have renamed their urban contemporary category and the Latin GRAMMYs have added a reggaeton category. 

Unlearning Anti-Blackness 

Hernandez says these ideologies start at home: "In many ways, we're trained in our families to be anti-Black and anti-indigenous." Johnny Ventura, a 80-year-old singer/musician from the Dominican Republic, has for decades represented Afro-Latinos through salsa and merengue music, both of which derive from Black music. 

Off and on the stage, he’s made a point to celebrate Blackness. If Latinos, he believes, discriminate amongst themselves, they are enabling white Americans and Europeans that engage in racism.

For him, combating anti-Blackness meant teaching his children to love who they are. "In my home, the moment my kids were born, we called them 'Negrito lindo, negrito bello, negrito bello,'" he says. ("Negrito" is an endearing word deriving from "negro," or "Black" in Spanish.) Ventura took care to pair the word with "beautiful" when using it to refer to his kids.

He brought that same mentality to the stage: In Ventura's music, you’ll proudly hear him call himself negro often. "[I do it] justifiably to combat that," he says, referring to anti-Blackness. 

In the U.S., where one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America (according to a 2016 Pew Research study), Latinx are outlining ways to bring these conversations to light at home. 

But in order to truly dismantle white supremacy in Latin culture, Latinx should not be seen as just one thing, Pimienta says. 

"Every [Latin American] country has their thing that they can do, because it's not a monolith," she explains. "And there's not one way of being Black."

University of California San Diego Ethnic Studies assistant professorJosé Fusté agrees that people need to be careful about seeing all Latinos as the same. "I'm Puerto Rican. We don't deal with ICE. We don't have that situation. We need to be very real about our privilege when it comes to that, even though we're colonial subjects," he says.

While he says someone from Central America may not necessarily relate in every aspect to someone from Cuba, many non-white Latinx share being made the "other" in the U.S. 

"We have common ground whether we like it or not. But we also have differences," he says. "I'll never know what it's like to be an Afro-Latino. It's my job to try to find out and understand it for myself and try to convey it to others. It's my responsibility."

Beyond holding conversations at home, educational programs like Ethnic Studies at colleges and universities can help dismantle racism, some argue. An option for those with educational resources or interest in education as Ethnic studies teaches the histories and stories of Black and people of color.  

Black and Latinx artists are using music as a way to educate for without access to Ethnic Studies. ChocQuibTown’s "Somos los Prietos" and Myke Towers’ recently released "MICHAEL X" highlight their experience and share their support for struggles faced by Black people in and out of the U.S.

Dawson released a song called “Policia” or “Police," which he wrote before Floyd’s death but decided to release after to raise funds for inner-city children, the wrongfully incarcerated and trans people. 

Ventura decided not to celebrate his 64th music anniversary this year after Floyd’s killing, which he took personally. "I usually celebrate, but this time I didn’t," he says. "Things that I thought stayed in the past haven’t and Floyd represents all Black people."

A Debt Is Due

The latest Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a wave of accountability that began with the police system and has swept through several corners of society, causing the music industry to experience its own wave of trials. Historically, the music industry has been complicit in systemic racism and erasure of Blackness. White gatekeepers, as Wesley Morris explains for The New York Times Magazine, have too many times determined a song to be "Too Black for certain white people." Or claimed genres for their own without acknowledging its Black roots. 

The relationship between Black artists and the music industry is fueled by a historic dehumanization of Blackness that happens in the U.S. and Latin America.

There is a kind of obsession with Black culture, Fusté says. "There is a kind of love-hate relationship. There is an infatuation with it. There's an obsession with it at the same time that there's a dehumanization of it."

Blackface Minstrelsy happened in the U.S. but also other places like Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico, he notes. 

Online movements #BlackOutTuesday and coalitions like the Black Music Action Coalition have called for the acknowledgment of the industry’s exploitation and called for support for Black artists and music professionals. A similar coalition was created in the U.K.

Companies like Swedish music electronics company Teenage Engineering, which makes products used by dance music producers, plan to begin sharing its revenue with some Black musicians in the U.S. as a way to acknowledge their part in making their products popular. 

Sony Music Group, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group have announced donations aiming to support social justice organizations. Sony and Universal also announced inside initiatives to support their Black employees.

Republic Records, under Universal, has vowed to drop the industry term "urban" in its genres and every other facet of the label. (The "urban" genre has been used as an umbrella term that boxes in Black artists and music industry professionals.)

Leading Latin music publication Remezcla, meanwhile, is taking the same pledge to stop using the Spanish equivalent of urban, or "musica urbana."

"There's so much power in the media, how they frame this," Hernandez says. "If Remezcla says we're not going to see ‘musica urbana,’ that is changing the discourse."

She continues: “It's not going to save anyone's life, but it will change how histories of popular music and culture are written because it is a moment. When inspired by a social movement, a group of people decide, 'You know what? We're going to change the discourse about this particular genre of music.'"

Beyond language, several aspects of the music industry need to rethink who it champions and promotes. In 2018, Amara La Negra explained to a bewildered Breakfast Club how colorism exists in the Latin music industry.

"They’ll always pick the lighter [skin tone]. The ones that look like... [the] J.Los and Shakiras and stuff before they look at us," she said.

There could be less stereotyping and a lot more support for Black artists, especially women and LGBTQ musicians who continue to face sexism and homophobia.

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"The music industry is based a lot on stereotypes that at a marketing level that maybe are not opening doors for artists or for telling Black stories," Goyo said in a talk with Conciencia Collective. "We don’t see ourselves represented on T.V."

Prominent artists in Latin music genres are being asked to set an example, too. An Op-Ed by Katelina Eccleston published in Remezcla called “Why Urbano Artists' Scarce Comments On The #BLM Movement Are a Problem” called out the lack of response from some reggaetón and Latin trap artists who make music with Black and Afro-Caribbean roots. Eccleston referenced Bad Bunny in particular, an artist who is widely known for voicing his opinion on politics but was slow to speak up on #BlackLivesMatter. Bunny, who had been unplugging while Floyd’s death happened, eventually released a statement to TIME that called for educating friends and family on racism. 

"Urbano artists—especially those who aren’t Black—have a duty to speak up on behalf of racial injustice outside of when it’s trendy. It’s not only a crucial means of compensating for the exploitation of Black aesthetics, but an element of solidarity of the advancement towards racial equality in the U.S., Latin America and as far as their influence reaches," Eccleston writes. 

Pimienta says non-Latinx artists creating Black Latinx music should recognize their privilege if they perform Black music. "When you see it in culture, in music, in the music industry, and it's not questioned, we are, as an industry, perpetuating white supremacy."

Pimienta also argues that the industry needs to rethink branding Europeans as Latin. "When you have artists from Europe that break into the music scene, and they're branded as Latin, it is problematic."

RELATED: Ivan Barias On Silence As Complicity, Holding Major Labels Accountable & How To Be A Non-Black Latinx Ally

How popular culture can be a vehicle for change

Already, Latinx in the music industry have started conversations on privilege and solidarity, with Conciencia Collective and journalists—including Mota and La Gata—holding livestream talks. 

Fusté believes music and pop culture can lead the way on the necessary conversations that need to happen.

"We need to be honest about those things, and the music needs to reflect that. I think we're going there, honestly. I'm optimistic about it. Because I think, if anything, music is going to teach us that," he says. "There are people that will consume these videos, these talks. I think the artist can reach people directly in a way that's never happened before."

Goyo uses her platform to bring Ethnic Studies (she refers to it as Ethno-studies) to the world.

"Ethno-education is a powerful tool that goes from the university to other places to explain history," she said in her conversation with Conciencia Collective.

Meanwhile, the Latinx music industry is taking on race issues but also holding space for women and the LGBTQ community to talk about the intersections of race and other identities.

Goya and Pimienta have used their music to talk about their experiences being Black women. Pabllo Vittar, Lauren Jauregui, Tatiana Hazel and Urias joined the collective in a conversation about how gender and sexuality affect Black and Latinx of color.

Vittar says racism and homophobia affects Brazil; it's something the government doesn’t seek to improve and the media hardly shows.

"I always try to use my platform to show what’s happening in my country, what’s happening in cities with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says in the conversation. “I want the media in Brazil to also show that there is also a lot of suffering from racism, homophobia and some many other things in Brazil."

While there is work that needs to be done in the industry, Pimienta says space for indigenous folk music and other music made by Black and indigenous artists—what she calls outsider music—that challenge identity norms is growing.

"I feel like we are now at this point where people are hungry for that. I feel like we've gone through the shiny and the perfectly packaged and the perfect ideals of womanhood…" she says. "I feel really good. I feel like finally I don't have to explain myself. That's where I'm trying to go."

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List