Unity and Resistance: The Message of Bad Brains

Aaron Gilbreath
20 min readJun 20, 2020

Revolutionary times call for revolutionary music

Those of us who love the Bad Brains always will, but recent vocal protests to end the violent, systematic oppression of Black Americans have revitalized the band’s message of unity and resistance.

Founded in 1977 by four Black men in Washington D.C., Bad Brains blends punk, reggae, metal, and funk, particularly across the course of their first three landmark albums Bad Brains, Rock for Light, and I Against I. Darryl Jenifer plays bass. Gary “Dr. Know” Miller plays guitar. Earl Hudson plays drums, and Earl’s brother Paul “HR” Hudson sings. HR stands for Human Rights, which tells you where they’re at. During forty tumultuous years of playing and breaking up, their revolutionary unit pushed rock music’s sonic and racial boundaries and inspired countless musicians.

“If you ever saw the Bad Brains live, it’s not something you would ever forget,” D.C. filmmaker Scott Crawford told WTOP News in 2016, thirty-nine years after their formation. He first saw them perform when he was 12. He later included Bad Brains in his 2014 documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. “It changed my life, and anyone that’s ever heard the Bad Brains, or seen them live, would probably say the exact same thing.” That includes me, a Jewish kid from Arizona. And it includes influential artists like Fishbone, Beastie Boys, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Wu-Tang Clan, Smashing Pumpkins, and Living Colour — to name a few. The Cars’ singer Rick Ocasek loved Bad Brains’ debut cassette so much that he played it on tour to get psyched for shows, then he asked to produce the band’s second album, Rock for Light, in 1983. A single Bad Brains show turned Black Flag’s Henry Rollins into a singer. Bad Brains’ approach to life pushed Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye to be more dedicated to his ideals as a working musician. Kurt Cobain included Rock for Light on a list of his top 50 albums in his journal, and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl both learned fills by listening to Bad Brains’ drummer Earl Hudson. As Vice put it: “Calling Bad Brains influential to late-20th century rock music is like calling Abraham influential to Western religion.” They’re also just one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and predictably underrated. “If they’d been on a major label and H.R. had kept it…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.