Why I stopped hating Elvis Presley

Growing up, I was conditioned to loathe Elvis Presley. But it wasn't until years later that I really had to learn about Elvis beyond what I'd been told


Elvis Presley is probably the most polarizing figure in 20th century popular music. To a significant number of people he's “The King,” a hip-swiveling icon from rock ’n’ roll's early years who represented a generation of young people ready to throw off the sexual and racial shackles of the previous era. To others, he's a hollow culture-thief, an overrated musical charlatan who profited off of music some feel he had no business recording in the first place.

A quick run of the man's history and you can see validity in both arguments. But if you dig a little deeper, you begin to realize that both of these “Elvises” are largely fabrications — variations on a musical superstar — created to help both sides come to terms with the duality of his legacy.

Growing up, I was conditioned to loathe Elvis Presley. The lightest criticism I heard of Elvis was that he “stole Black people's music.” The harshest criticism I heard was that he was a blatant racist who felt that all a Black man could do for him was “shine my shoes or buy my record.” I heard this from several family members and casual acquaintances — a sentiment that was forever immortalized in Public Enemy's classic single “Fight the Power.” Elvis was no hero. And he certainly never meant shit to me.

I viewed white folks' obsession with him as evidence of their inherently racist preference for black music without a black face. Even as I became a fan of 1960s British Invasion bands, part of my praise of the Beatles, Stones, and Who was that they openly acknowledged the Black influence in their music — “unlike Elvis Presley.”

But it wasn't until years later that I really had to learn about Elvis beyond what I'd been told. I was working on a piece about his supposed racism and racist legacy and started doing research for proof.

You can't imagine my surprise at what I eventually discovered.

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