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How Jimi Hendrix's race became his 'invisible legacy'

Two weeks after closing Woodstock with his reinvention of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix decided to offer a free concert for a group he called “my people.”

He held a concert for an African-American audience in Harlem, a place he once called home. Hendrix’s homecoming, though, was almost ruined as soon as he stepped onstage. Someone threw a bottle at him that shattered against a speaker; eggs splattered on the stage. Hendrix gamely played on while much of the crowd melted away.

“They didn’t like him,” says Charles R. Cross, who recounts the episode in his biography of Hendrix, “Room Full of Mirrors.” “He was jeered. People heckled him.”

A new film focusing on a more triumphant period in Hendrix’s life is rekindling interest in the guitar icon. “Jimi: All Is by My Side” shows how Hendrix left New York for London to become a star. Yet no film has explored another twist in Hendrix’s journey: How black and white audiences misunderstood the importance of Hendrix’s race, both to the man and to his music.

Hendrix traveled to Harlem because he was trying to connect with blacks who had dismissed him as a musical Uncle Tom: a black man playing white man’s music. Music critics and biographers say Hendrix also was frustrated by legions of white fans who only saw him as a racial stereotype – a hypersexual black man who was high all the time – instead of a serious musician.

There are signs today that more fans are starting to appreciate how Hendrix’s race shaped his life and sound. Yet he’s still seen by many as a musical genius who just happened to be black instead of a man whose genius was inseparable from his race, says Jeremy Wells, author of “Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrix’s Invisible Legacy in Heavy Metal.”

Wells first noticed this pattern when he examined how white heavy metal musicians and fans described Hendrix. They rarely mentioned his race, or even said that his music transcended race. Wells said he found that odd given Hendrix’s sound was steeped in the blues tradition of black guitarists such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters.

“Nobody would say that race doesn’t matter for Muddy Waters,” says Wells, an English professor at Indiana University Southeast. “But there’s a whole industry devoted to saying it doesn’t matter for Hendrix.”

Race mattered more to Hendrix than most people realize, critics and biographers say: He was hurt by black radio’s refusal to play his music; he experienced stinging racism during his time as an R&B sideman and star; and some of his most famous songs were profoundly shaped by his experiences as a black man in America. [Read More]