Heavy Metal in Harlem

Harlem was shaking last Saturday night… but this time, due to the thunderous reverberations of heavy metal. As part of a recent series of gigs (like “The Colbert Report”) in support of the new 3D concert film, Metallica: Through the Never, Metallica played at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater on September 21.

As has been pointed out, Metallica is not exactly the first band you would think of in connection with the revered venue. But doesn’t all rock and roll – whether it thrashes or not – have roots in the black community? Regardless of whether Metallica or many of their fans are conscious of it, rock couldn’t have come into existence without the crucial recordings of musicians like Robert Johnson, Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Freddie King and Muddy Waters. Is there really such a huge chasm between “black” rock and “white” rock? How often do the two successfully overlap?

The Apollo is not, however, without a history of integration; Buddy Holly and the Crickets, considered one of the most influential acts in early rock music, played at the Apollo in 1957 and the theater has welcomed many more non-black performers since then, including Dave Brubeck, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lennox and Morrissey. These singers are not necessarily known as singers of soul music, but they all have a kind of soulfulness in their oeuvres.

The separation between the black roots of rock and the fandom of heavy metal, a subset which appears to define a predominantly white experience, seems incongruous. Heavy metal is a style fashioned by and for misfits and rebels, who need not be of one race as opposed to another. Still, the question remains: does it “matter” that Metallica played at the Apollo? Was it actually a major event for the neighborhood or was it just another concert?

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