Although we think of Jimi Hendrix’s career as being full of many highlights, there were also notable downsides. One of the most extraordinary lows came only two weeks after the soaring high that witnessed him reinvent ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock in 1969. After reaching what is ostensibly the pinnacle of his short but momentous career, Hendrix decided to put on a free show for the demographic he described as “my people”.
The concert was held for an all African-American audience in Harlem, New York, the place he had called home before being whisked off to London by Chas Chandler. However, his homecoming couldn’t have been more different from what he expected. Almost as soon as Hendrix set foot on the stage, the show was nearly over. Since he was discovered in a New York venue in 1966, taken to London and had risen to become one of the era’s icons, his status within the African-American community had diminished.
Right after taking to the stage, a crowd member threw a bottle at Hendrix, and it shattered against one of the speakers. Added to this, barrages of eggs covered the stage, a testament to just how the local community felt they had been let down by the guitar hero. Proof of Hendrix’s determination, he and the band played one whilst the angry crowd gradually dispersed.
“They didn’t like him,” Charles R. Cross says in his Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors. “He was jeered. People heckled him.” At the time, Hendrix was mistakenly regarded as an Uncle Tom, a Black apologist kicking up to white America by playing white music.
This was deeply ironic, of course, as that assertion could not have been further from the truth. Race had deeply frustrated Hendrix since he first broke onto the music scene in 1967. He hated that he was reduced to a stereotype by many white fans, who saw him as plainly a sexualised black man instead of what he really was: a musician, and a genius one at that.
Interestingly, Jeremy Wells, a professor at Indiana University Southeast and the author of Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrix’s Invisible Legacy in Heavy Metal, has noticed a disparity in how Hendrix and his heroes – such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King – were viewed by white fans of heavy metal in the years after his tragic passing in 1970. This indicates the broader trend when it came to viewing Hendrix’s place in racial and music history.
“Nobody would say that race doesn’t matter for Muddy Waters,” Wells explains. “But there’s a whole industry devoted to saying it doesn’t matter for Hendrix.”
Wells’ take is correct. Hendrix did care about race, and the fact that people on both sides of the race argument tried to negate the importance of his ethnicity is an absolute travesty. It’s arguable that because many white commentators wanted him to be aracial that this bled into the narrative of those who were so incensed by Hendrix performing in Harlem, when in actuality, all he wanted to do was give back to those he knew and loved as “my people”.
In many ways, Hendrix was collateral damage when it came to race relations. Not only did he feel the backlash from elements in African-American society, such as the Harlem show and Black radio station’s refusing to play his music, but he also experienced significant racism throughout his life. Whether it be the time that he was cutting his teeth as a musician in America and England or as a star, Hendrix was still a Black man before anything, and that could not have been any more affecting during the era when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak.
Without race, Jimi Hendrix would not have gone on to have been the icon that he was, and his thoughts on the matter remain as pertinent as they were back then.
Luckily today, Hendrix’s place in African-American history has been revisited, and now in discourse, he’s viewed with the respect he always deserved. I’m sure if there are any surviving attendees of that Harlem show, they might regret their actions, as the ‘Purple Haze’ mastermind didn’t have long left on the earth.