How Black Artists Reclaimed Their Rhythm At The Inaugural I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival

“In my terms I think a rockstar is the embodiment of the spirit of fearlessness. Even when you’re afraid, you jump. A rockstar is somebody that also redefines that word, and isn’t stuck to what people think a rockstar should feel like or look like,”Janelle Monáe 

Indianapolis might not be the first city that immediately comes to mind when you think about Rock ‘N’ Roll music. In fact, the “big, small-town” gem is actually known as the “race capital of the world,” and has drawn in crowds for its various racing events. However, the city is expanding its horizons. Now, Indianapolis (colloquially known as Indy) is proving it’s not just about the racetrack. Enter the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival, which made its debut right in the heart of the city on Saturday, May 18th. Headlined by EBONY’s March 2023 cover star Janelle Monáe, this historic event—presented by GANGGANG and Forty5— celebrated and paid homage to the history of Black Rock ‘N’ Roll music. And luckily for you, EBONY was there to experience and soak in every moment.

The journey kicked off with a series of events paving the way ahead of the one-day festival. EBONY was graciously invited two days beforehand to immerse in the vibrant culture of Indy. From cruising on a bike tour through the city, to attending the Pacers vs. Knicks playoff game, to walking into the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker at her historic 1927-built theater, Indy proved itself to have a rich culture of food, music, entertainment and profound Black history.

i made rock n roll
A couple poses at one of the festival’s many photo moments. Image: J. Lyn Smith.
i made rock n roll guests
Festival staff and talent enjoy the vibes at the festival. Image: Maxine Wallace.

The inaugural I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival took place on Saturday, May 18th in the center of Indianapolis. On the beautiful sunny afternoon, festival goers gathered at Indianapolis’ American Legion Mall, for a day filled with live music, food, vendors, and Black Rock history. Formally dubbed as “a Black Rock festival,” the lineup consisted of Janelle Monáe, Gary Clark, Jr., Robert Randolph, Joy Oladdokun, Meet Me @ the Altar and Inner Peace. Each artist brought their own unique flavor to the mix, proving that Rock ‘N’ Roll is a genre as diverse as the people who create it. 

joy oladokun
Joy Oladokun. Image: Maxine Wallace.
Inner Peace. Image: Jake Moran.
Malina Moye. Image: Jake Moran.
Edith Victoria of band Meet Me @ the Altar. Image: Jake Moran.

“The truth is in the chords,” reads a statement on the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll website. “Rock ‘N’ roll was born from the rhythm and blues of Black people.”

While at the festival, EBONY had the privilege of speaking with most of the performers. In each conversation, every artist cited their excitement to be part of this one-of-a-kind festival. In addition, all of them paid homage to Black Rock legends who paved trails before them. Many stated that they drew inspiration from icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and a host of others who shaped the landscape of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Each performer acknowledged the importance of a festival such as this one, where the title of “rockstar,” is reclaimed back to its Black roots. 

This is where it became clear that the concept of a rockstar became more than just a title to each of these artists. It’s a declaration of identity, a celebration of authenticity. After her headlining set, Janelle Monáe briefly spoke with EBONY about their definition of what it means to be a modern day rockstar.

“It means freedom,” Monáe told EBONY. “In my terms, I think a rockstar is the embodiment of the spirit of fearlessness even when you’re afraid, you jump. Somebody that also redefines that word and isn’t stuck to what people think a rockstar should feel like or look like, but redefining that for themselves. I think a rockstar is a person who’s rooted in love, who understands that they’re only a star because of the people who have shined light on them. They’re not selfish. As a rockstar, you use your light for the people who love and people who may not necessarily get the light, makes you a rockstar.” 

The Electric Lady themself. Image: Gabrielle Minion.

Furthermore, the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival set out to redefine the very essence of Rock music, reclaiming its Black roots and honoring the contributions of Black artists to this genre. In a day filled with good vibes and high energy, a sense of pride filled the festival grounds. This festival was more than just a showcase of musical talent. Produced by creative advocacy firm GANGGANG, the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival was a bold declaration that Black authorship and artistry belong at the forefront of Rock music’s narrative. 

“I was really excited about it when they first asked me to be part of it,” Robert Randolph told EBONY after he got off stage. “We don’t get to do many festivals with this theme or historical context. And four different styles of music—Blues, Rock, Fusion, Hip-Hop—are showcased. The world was robbed of context about who were the original rockstars. Now we get to really get to tell the story of how these legends like Chuck Berry and Little Richard influenced the world.”

i made rock n roll
Robert Randolph of the Robert Randolph Band. Image: Sam Rowan.

The history component of the festival’s mission was present throughout the grounds. For example, one activation consisted of a timeline of Black figures who have played a pivotal role in the Rock ‘N’ Roll genre. Icons such as Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Prince and more were displayed on walls to teach and remind people of their contributions.

“It feels way bigger than I can even describe to be part of this because it’s historic,” Rock band Meet Me @ The Altar told EBONY. “We’re living in it now but this is a historic moment. It’s really cool for us to be a representation of us reclaiming our Black power. We literally created this genre that we’ve been pushed out of for some reason. It’s insane to be on a lineup with Janelle Monáe. It’s a really big reminder, including to our own people, where Rock comes from.”

For too long, the story of Rock ‘N’ Roll has been told through a whitewashed lens and has erased the contributions of Black artists who shaped its sound. This has undoubtedly caused challenges of battling a sense of belonging, as Gary Clark Jr. said he had to overcome while pursuing his career.

Gary Clark Jr. Image: Gerald Encarnacion.

“I had to break through my own self-doubt to break into the industry,” Gary Clark Jr. told EBONY ahead of his performance. “I’m not doing Pop music, so how can I make this Pop? I always questioned, how can I break through? I’m not a dancer, or singer, not necessarily R&B … I’m my own thing. So it took just being confident in that, and knowing I don’t have to fit into a genre.”

As the night continued, the festival’s energy reached a high point once Janelle Monáe took the stage. They performed hits from “Champagne Sh*t” to the ethereal “Float.” Monáe’s headlining performance lasted just around 2 hours. However, it was their message of unity that resonated most deeply with the audience.

Image: Gerald Encarnacion.

With each word, they painted a portrait of a world in need of healing.

“I pray for the babies in Gaza, I pray for the babies in Sudan because their own government has no regard for their lives while we use our cell phones for the materials that they are working for,” Monáe began. “I pray for the homeless people right now who have been pushed off park benches just because they want a place to rest their heads. I pray for every kid in school who has to deal with books about their identity and the LGBTQIA+ community being taken away from them. I pray for every Black person who’s had to deal with books in their schools, being taken away, that tell our history about our people being enslaved. I pray for those who have to go to another part of the country just to get free healthcare. I pray for those of us who are told that we cannot do what we want with our bodies.”

“I stand with you all who are fighting for our rights because you see humanity, you see the power of love, the power of community,” they continued. “You see what peace can do, and I just want you to know that I love you and I feel you.”

As the final chords of the festival closed out, it was clear that the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival had shattered the confines of convention. But the real legacy of the festival lies not just in the music, but in the spirit of community and solidarity it fostered. 

As people exited the grounds, Janelle Monáe’s words lingered in the air. Their message served as a powerful reminder of the true essence of a rockstar. In the end, it’s the people who challenge the status quo and use their platforms to speak out against injustice, who truly shine as rockstars in the world.

Updated: May 24, 2024 — 12:03 pm