Memphis is known as the origin place of so much American music. It’s easy to wax poetic about the topic in an overly general way– locals and visitors alike know Beale Street as the home of the blues, and many know Memphis as a place where labels like Stax Records, & Hi Records (Royal Recording studio) had a definitive influence on the Memphis soul sound.
Much of our world’s population has at least heard of Elvis Presley and Memphis’ rock n roll legacy that goes along with it. For some, the Elvis story may even be the only thing they know about our city. The Memphis rock n roll story that doesn’t get told as often, though, is the Black rock n roll story. For example, Jackie Brenston and The Delta Cats, starring Ike Turner, recording distorted guitar with a rock n roll swing and drums at Memphis Recording Service back in 1951. Then there’s Blackrock featuring Willie Pettis & Archie Turner, the psycho funk recorded by The Bar-Kays—- I could go on. But before the late ’50’s breakout, Black artists were already creating rock n roll in studios, clubs, and in church for decades. How Black people invented rock n roll is a subject that may be better suited for academia or a docu-series than leisurely reading, but that question is really is how I came to wanting to talk to Josh Shaw of Blvck Hippie about being a Black musician in a predominantly white indie rock space.
In honor of Black Music Month, Josh Shaw, the mastermind and bandleader of Memphis’ indie rock band Blvck Hippie (a nickname given to him by his mom when he was young), was kind enough to indulge me on that topic and much more. Check out his curated playlist of Black Indie Tunes here, and check out the Blvck Hippie website here for tour dates
The first line of your biography says “Blvck Hippie is an indie rock band from Memphis, TN, tryna show Black kids they can be weird too.” What has your experience being Black in a predominantly white indie rock scene been?
That perspective is actually something I really focus on. Being the only black kid at an indie rock show happens pretty often– and I think it’s kind of funny because we were such massive contributors and inventors of so many genres of music including rock n roll, and it’s the genre we get excluded from the most. I’m kind of over it. I go out of my way to make sure any kind of success or limelight I get, I push to pay it forward and shine the light on other Black fronted bands.
I want to get to the point where I am not the only Black guy at an indie rock show, and none of the other people who are experiencing that have to experience that again. I have a Spotify playlist called Black Indie Tunes, where I just shout out sick Black punk and indie artists.
We’ve had a lot of Black kids come to our shows that have never been to DIY spaces, or shows and they’ve all enjoyed themselves and felt seen and heard just by us being up there playing. It’s something I focus on really hard.
Tell me about Blvck Hippie’s birth.
I really started writing songs when I was 20— I went through a lot of messed up stuff and sad stuff around that time. It was the summer before my junior year of college. I didn’t really know how to cope or deal with what I was going through and that was around the time I picked up a guitar. I had played classical piano before that, but I’d never written. I would just write five songs a day, until I got semi decent at writing and then I started recording it under the name Blvck Hippie. Then I recorded some stuff with other people under the name St. John here in Memphis after college and we kept getting confused with a heavy metal band with the same name, so we became Blvck Hippie.
You are on tour right now, on the West Coast– how has that been?
Honestly, it’s been pretty amazing. People have been showing up and showing out. There have been so many cool fan interactions–so many people have told me that this is the first time they’ve seen a show like this with someone who looks like me on the stage– so that has been really cool. It’s been extremely positive and we’ve had many wholesome moments.
Tell me about the band as a whole. Do you have a collective writing process?
Well, the drummer is my friend Casey– he’s been in the band since 2018. I usually write alone and then demo some versions alone and bring it to Casey, and then we will make another version and then give it to the bass player, Tyrell to put some bass on it, and then we just jam it out for a long time and make sense of it, and see if it feels right to play live.
I pull a lot from the 80’s, and nostalgia from when I was a kid. Every song I write has to make me feel like that, and if it doesn’t I table it and look at it in a couple of years.
What current Black artists in the rock and sub genres are inspiring you right now?
There is an all black punk band out of New York called Proper and they are always inspiring me. M.A.G.S. out of LA is a Black indie artist I love, and then Bartees Strange came out with a record this month that I really love. Those three keep me really inspired. Oh, and Black Ends! We got to play with them on this tour- I feel like they are going to be the next big band out of Seattle. They are sick!
It’s been a big year for growth for Blvck Hippie, What’s next?
I’m looking forward to touring more– and we are writing our second record, so look out for that. I’m just looking forward to expanding our audience and getting our music out to more people.