Why Radiohead are the Blackest white band of our times

Radiohead released Kid A 20 years ago today. It pointed a new direction for rock music – and mirrored radical Black art by imagining new spaces to live in amid a hostile world

Ask anyone who is the Blackest white rock band to emerge over the past 30 years, and my hunch is that few would say Radiohead.

The hypnotically wonky Oxfordshire quintet are lauded for intricate, challenging music that is now far from their grunge-era breakthrough. Their rapturous second album (1995’s The Bends) yoked together symphonic alt-rock melodies with even bigger feelings, and their post-prog-rock masterpiece OK Computer (1997) delivered darkly ominous late 20th-century dread about everything from rising neoliberal alienation to the coldness of technology. It prompted stop you in your tracks superlatives from critics, who became even more rapturous for the follow-up, Kid A, released 20 years ago today.

In sync with Black music, though? Immediately obvious contenders from that pop moment include funk rock veterans the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or perhaps – if reaching – the late 1990s rap-metal hybrid bands (Korn, Limp Bizkit) who gestured toward hip-hop rhyme schemes with little pretense toward virtuosic MC flow. But these examples miss the point entirely, emphasising superficial pop style rather than thinking more deeply about art that expresses the ideals and challenges of Black life.

Radiohead Kid A album cover 2000, created by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood.
Radiohead Kid A album cover 2000, created by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood. Photograph: Parlophone

It might sound absurd if judging by their slightly awkward, extremely white appearance, but I have long heard a strange and beautiful Blackness in Radiohead. There are powerful resonances between their work and radical Black art, that are more meaningful than ever amid our current racial reckoning. Resistance, futurism and critiques of bald-faced power are hardwired into Radiohead’s sound, and this blend, along with their embrace of jazz and other revolutionary Black musical forms, is likely why a whole host of contemporary Black artists have covered their work.

The Black era of Radiohead came fully to the fore on Kid A. It was famously polarising, with some longing for more guitars, others hailing the boldness of its sonic invention. The latter camp – including me – celebrated the band’s willingness to push even further past verse-chorus-verse rock towards adventurous dance and electronic music, and jazz avant-gardism, in individual song ideas as well as overall ethical vision.

As the critic Simon Reynolds would have it, Kid A was a record that did the hard thing of capturing “the vivid colours, spatial weirdness and rhythmic compulsion” of electronic music while yet still summoning the feelings one associates with “surface-and-sensation oriented, collective high-inducing dance”. It was a record that struck out, as he argues, “in search of the remotest extremities of the rock tradition”.

In the year 2000, all I wanted, as a Black girl Radiohead fan, was to live with them out at these extremities. The woozy keyboard swirl and processed vocal gibberish of Everything in Its Right Place, the album’s opening track, announced the very opposite: all was about to be thrown thrillingly out of whack. The sublime Treefingers is a glimmering object that spins slowly around the universe; the spectacular plaintive sorrow of Motion Picture Soundtrack was an invitation to dive into a cinematic dreamscape of heartbreak. Why not live in these worlds, I thought, with the disaster of the US presidential election recount unfolding deep into the fall?

What makes Radiohead’s music such a radical endeavour to me are these deeply introspective other worlds, built as bulwarks against the tyrannies of everyday life (a world where “we’ve got heads on sticks / you’ve got ventriloquists,” as Thom Yorke sings in nightmarishly garbled vocals on the title track). Kid A’s recurring lyrical insistence on “slipping away” is nothing new to rock masculinity, an anxious nod to the stubborn will to “not fade” dating back to the genre’s earliest days. But it is also a gorgeous, revolutionary invitation to exist in an elsewhere, in a way that resonates with what scholars often refer to as the Black Radical tradition in music.

That tradition, which the philosopher and poet Fred Moten has written about extensively, reveals the ways that sound made by people who were once held captive, once deemed commodities, once defined as “not human”, is a vital form of self-making: it is the gateway to other lifeworlds to inhabit when no safe spaces are available. Black music, Moten argues, is “irruptive”, an “irreducibly disordering, deformational force” that has enabled colonised and disfranchised peoples to make a way out of no way.

This tradition can be felt across the history of Black pop, in, for instance, the Afrofuturist aesthetics of Sun Ra and Funkadelic, and arguably even the materialist fantasies of rap. In the Black Lives Matter era, artists such as Solange, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, Janelle Monáe and others have forged a kind of R&B that leans into weariness, psychedelic dreaming and longing as a confrontation and exorcism of our present day anti-Black terror. These latter musicians came of age in a 21st-century landscape transformed, in part, by Radiohead’s risk-taking activity at the fringes of pop.

Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Kid A also aligned itself with jazz, the radical music before rock’n’roll that Black folks also birthed in response to the violence of Jim Crow life and the turbulence of mass migration. Those sounds come bursting forth on The National Anthem, with an eight-piece brass section invoking the spirit of the fearlessly way-out Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as Charles Mingus’s 1964 Town Hall Concert, in which he called upon his ensemble to make noise akin to a traffic jam. Yorke sings through the cacophony: “Everyone around here / Everyone is so near / Everyone has got the fear / It’s holding on …” The body politic is fundamentally fraught, but this is the riotous music, this song tells us, that ferociously beats back against crisis.

There are abundant think pieces and academic theses on Radiohead’s fluent conversations with jazz: the band’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood has cited Miles Davis’s fusion classic Bitches Brew as an important blueprint for OK Computer, and Mingus has had a continuing impact on their work, for instance on Pyramid Song from 2001’s Amnesiac. Black jazz artists, meanwhile, repay Radiohead’s respects with their own. Pianist and producer Robert Glasper’s multiple, stirring Radiohead covers – of tracks such as Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box and Reckoner – attest to the ways that their music travels in jazz musicians’ circles as topics of roving, improvisational exploration and abandon. Glasper’s crossfade reading of Everything in Its Right Place with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage connect Kid A’s escapist watery universe – awash in keyboard soundscapes that plunging you down and pull you to the surface of things – with Hancock’s rolling aquatic journey.

But there are signs of Radiohead’s appeal to Black artists all around pop. Take the typically sly and unpredictable version of Creep that Prince dropped on a delighted Coachella audience in 2008, scrambling the pronouns of that self-loathing anthem (“What are we doing here? We don’t belong here!”). In Gnarls Barkley’s version of Reckoner (also circa ’08, at the dawn of the Obama era) Cee-Lo Green’s robust falsetto earnestly takes over Yorke’s dark songbird incantations about human division; Frank Ocean gave us an agonising and exquisite Fake Plastic Trees for one minute at a 2012 Spotify press conference. Risk-taking Black musicians keep turning to the band’s repertoire for its massive, formalist vistas, and for its expression of knotty feelings about the uncertainties of the world and one’s place in it.

One of the most ambitious attempts at wedding the form and the feeling of Radiohead’s music with African American music is OK Lady, Roman GianArthur’s underground sensation of a mashup album from 2015. The singer-songwriter and member of Janelle Monáe’s marvellously audacious Wondaland Arts Collective looped together his own deep groove arrangements of tracks from OK Computer and The Bends with the dense songbook of D’Angelo, R&B’s prince of brooding funk abstractions, gospel hymnody and bedroom ballads. Standing at the crossroads of cosmic despair and iridescent hope, GianArthur’s succinct, elegant project turned up the volume on Black Radical music’s affinities with the band.

Five years later, these affinities remain strong as ever for poet-singer Arlo Parks whose poignant, self-accompanied piano rendition of Creep stands out in a sea of similar interpretations by virtue of the 20-year-old Londoner’s delicately mature vocalising, and the way she transforms the song into a narrative of acutely queer heartbreak. And then there’s Lianne La Havas, whose self-titled third album released this year features a dramatically altered Weird Fishes, an underwater tale of love and fear from In Rainbows that circles back to themes of passion, submission, the anticipation of hitting the bottom of the sea of a relationship before finding an exit route. La Havas’s version slows things down to a march as she gets us to wade ever so carefully into the water with her; that big, shimmering vibrato of hers becomes “the deepest ocean,” the intoxicating alterity we all long for in this brutal era.

Her cover whispers the possibility one also hears in the string arrangements of Radiohead tracks such as Dollars and Cents, which conjure the spiritually escapist sounds of jazz harpist Alice Coltrane (another touchstone figure for the band). This dreamy, mystic aura is the language of personal transfiguration and change, a way to “be constructive with your blues”, as Yorke puts it on that song.

There are of course limits to the comparison. On the one hand, Kid A’s How to Disappear Completely feels to me as if it belongs on a wished-for soundtrack to Ralph Ellison’s still all-too-timely 1952 African American literary classic, Invisible Man. The song’s echoing refrain (“I’m not here / This isn’t happening”) sums up the agony of the novel’s unnamed narrator as well as his will to seize back the invisibility inflicted upon him by a white supremacist regime, and turn it into a shield and weapon. But Yorke’s challenges, we know, are not the same as Ellison’s hero. He chooses to be invisible in his reverie, as a reaction, perhaps, to his own struggles, which are worlds away from racial insult and injury. There are fathoms of Black experience that the band will simply never be able to access through their sound. Kid A’s biggest pop chorus, on Idioteque – “Here I’m allowed everything all of the time” – is a sarcastic condemnation of (white) privilege that has brought us to the edge of a climate crisis, but it’s a sentiment that may not chime with Black people, who aren’t allowed very much any of the time.

Nina Simone.
Nina Simone. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Yet the connections between Black liberation and Radiohead’s creative freedom are still rich and were made undeniable when they did what no other stadium rock group has, to my knowledge, ever done, back in 2016 on their A Moon Shaped Pool tour. With the stage darkly lit at the start of each night’s gig, the voice of a Black woman musical genius, of Black feminist revolution, of a towering figure of activism and fortitude in popular music – that of Nina Simone – would signal the beginning of the show. Her words washed over us again at Madison Square Garden when I caught them on another leg of the tour in 2018: “What’s free to me? ... I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I’ve really felt free. And that’s something else! ... I tell you what freedom means to me. No fear. I mean really no fear.”

I watched as the group took up their instruments under the cover of darkness and Nina’s words. There were no glaring lights, no raucous appeals to the crowd for welcoming applause, just the quiet resolve to pursue her charge, to live out the vision of her improvised aphorism. And, like the Black folks to my right and to my left – a smattering of peeps in the crowd, bespectacled young Afropunkers whose ardent anticipation was, like mine, palpable – I leapt out of my seat, ready to go with them to the free place of her dreams.


Daphne A Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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