When the announcement came down Thursday morning that Janet Jackson had finally gained entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as one of seven featured acts—and only one of two women—in the Class of 2019, for many it was a reason to celebrate. The youngest of the Jackson family dynasty had initially started off as an impressive actress. When she finally answered the call to move into the music business in 1982 with her eponymous debut album on the A&M label, it kickstarted a career for the R&B artist whose reach, influence and impact would be rivaled only by her musical foremother, Diana Ross.
As a songwriter, vocalist, producer and entertainer, Jackson had more than carried on the proven pedigree of her famous family and made her own legacy, separate from her brothers. Her induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not up for debate. Period.
And yet, from the moment her induction was announced, there has been a very sizable contingent of people—primarily straight white men—that have littered the corners of internet comment sections, Twitter threads and the like with statements questioning her validity as a “rock artist.” The vitriol behind the assorted commentary evinces that the age-old tenets of sexism and racism are more than alive and well in the discourse of popular music.
Of course, their defense to their indefensible behavior is to call out that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a space where only “rock” musicians (read: white men) can congregate with only the rarest of exceptions and at their discretion. Mind you, the fact that is rarely addressed is that while rock & roll music may be seen by and large now as a vehicle for white men, its roots derive from black men and women who’ve only recently begun to get their due.
Granted, the actual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame panelists and staff have made concerted efforts each year to improve the diversity of each class annually. That should be acknowledged and appreciated. But, even as recently as three years ago, there have been massive missteps on their end. For example, the Class of 2016 which numbered five artists, included zero women and only one inductee of color (N.W.A). The Class of 2017 numbered six artists, with only one woman (Joan Baez) and only one artist of color (Tupac Shakur). Five artists made up the Class of 2018, with only one woman who also happened to be of color (Nina Simone). This year’s class only has two women, one black (Jackson), one white (Stevie Nicks), and the rest are white men as is the predictable case with each year’s class.
It’s also notable that Stevie Nicks is the first woman to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice, as both a member of Fleetwood Mac and on her own. Yet, neither Tina Turner nor Diana Ross—both members of the Rock Hall as a part of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and The Supremes, respectively—have gained access to this prestigious Hall as individual artists in their own right. This is particularly glaring for Turner, who is often cited as the “Queen of Rock.” Indeed, it is precisely those who narrowly—and hypocritically—define the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the sole domain of rock music who would typically contest and/or obstruct women like Turner during the voting process leading up to the election of inductees.
Now, consider all the other recording artists not only of color or of the opposite sex, but of the various and vastly unique genres in the popular music sphere that are consistently overlooked by the Hall, even though they’re eligible. It is becoming increasingly clear that for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to endure as a vital, contemporary and legitimate institution going forward, the progressive and prudent move would be to change its official name from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to the Music Hall of Fame. Not only does this strip away the so-called shield for the already thinly veiled sexism and racism thrown toward any acts that don’t meet the “rock purity test,” it genuinely opens the door to proper reflection, consideration and evaluation of the panoply of music from other genres that operate as the soundtrack to our lives.
While subjectivity regarding what constitutes “impact” and “influence” will surely remain, it is hoped that with a change to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s name that those elements will not only become more holistically open-ended, but that it will grant further access to women and people of color. Though they’re often the last to be considered for the Hall, they’re almost always some of the biggest movers and shakers in popular music alongside their more traditional white, male rock peers.
Sometimes, the smallest step can be the biggest step forward.