Paul Allen: co-founder of Microsoft and accidental almost-black man
The most profound black influence on Allen was rock guitar virtuoso, Jimi Hendrix
In his 2011 memoir Idea Man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recalled a phrase his mother coined to describe risk-takers. “That person is an edge walker,” Allen’s mom would say.
Given this familial admiration for adventure seekers, it’s not surprising that Allen seemed attracted to some of the flashier products of black pop culture, namely thrill-chasing social misfits such as Jimi Hendrix, blaxploitation characters such as “Superfly” and NBA heroes such as Sidney Moncrief. Indeed, a closer examination of Allen’s life reveals that he cultivated some behaviors more befitting a workaday black man than a white tech guru.
He was an Accidental Almost-Black Man, one of the latest in a historical line of black tropes trapped in the bodies of white men just like Bix Beiderbecke, Elvis Presley, Larry Bird, Eminem and so many others before and after him. This is not to suggest that Allen was some wannabe “whigga” straining to appropriate black male machismo — the nerdy, unassuming computer genius must have known he couldn’t affect black swagger with any credibility. Yet, from his heroes right down to his spending habits, Allen seemed to identify with African-Americans, their art and even their preferences in sports.
Question is, why did African-American culture seem to affect him so deeply?
Evidence of Allen’s fascination with black culture is everywhere in his book. As a kid coming of age during the ’70s, he sneaked into inner-city Seattle movie theaters to watch blaxploitation films. It was a passion so strong, he would not be deterred. He described a time when he and eventual Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates were confronted in a gritty northeast Portland, Oregon, movie theater. “Someone came up to us one night during the closing credits and asked, ‘what are you white boys doing here?’ ” Allen wrote. “That threw us, but we were back a week later. We just found those films enthralling.”
Blaxploitation films were just part of a larger captivation with African-American culture. Allen loved blues and rhythm and blues, going so far as to become a competent blues-rock guitarist (in a memorial tweet, famed producer Quincy Jones remembered Allen as a “dear friend” and “killer guitar player”). Allen spent his billions as a black celebrity might, hosting luminaries such as Quincy and Stevie Wonder on his colossal superyachts. He acquired sports franchises such as the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Obsessed with basketball, Allen boasted he could rattle off NBA player stats within a few percentage points. “I thought the NBA was the greatest spectacle in sports, equal parts athleticism, ballet, team work and individual grit,” he wrote. “The action was almost non-stop, full of vivid moments … and what could match the beauty of a jump shot swishing through the net, or a tough offensive rebound in traffic? … ”
Though he belonged to an elite class of notoriously secretive tech royalty, Allen was known to be exceptionally reclusive (60 Minutes once compared him to Howard Hughes). You might even say that he adopted the social policy encapsulated in the recently minted black catchphrase “stay in your lane.” (Translation: “Mind your own business.”) If all this isn’t evidence enough of Allen’s kindred blackness, the computer messiah, like so many black men, never married.
But by far, the most profound black influence on Allen was rock guitar virtuoso, and edge walker nonpareil, Jimi Hendrix. Allen isn’t unique in idolizing Hendrix — tons of whites worship at the altar of Jimi — but Allen’s admiration for Hendrix transcended mere fandom. “I was obsessed with all things Hendrix,” he wrote of his youth. “On weekends, I sported button-fly purple bell-bottoms, a medallion around my neck, and a Mississippi River gambler’s hat — sort of a poor man’s Hendrix hat. In my bedroom I put up a black-and-white poster of Jimi playing with his eyes closed … ”
Given his enormous admiration for Hendrix, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Allen viewed the guitarist — and perhaps other acknowledged black musical influences, including B.B. King and Buddy Guy — as more than just inspiring artists. Allen may have considered them to be kindred spirits, artists whose fiery curiosity and truth-seeking intensity matched his own.
Consider the similarities between Hendrix’s and Allen’s respective careers. There’s Hendrix, the Seattle-born musical pioneer who skydived with the 101st Airborne Division before exploding onto the world music scene. Self-taught on guitar, he was a modern Mozart, a singer, songwriter and guitarist so powerful, he almost single-handedly inspired the late 1900s hard rock genre that spawned improvisational acts such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, not to mention the freaky-deaky funk movement that gave us the Isley Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic and dozens more.
Allen’s career reads like a mirror reflection of Hendrix’s. Also hailing from Seattle, he was a self-taught electronics whiz driven by curiosity, instinct and pure inspiration. Although Allen never saw himself as a risk-taker, his paradigm-shifting innovation, the personal computer, speaks for itself. Microsoft co-founder Gates grabs all the media attention, but even he graciously confessed recently that without Allen, “personal computing would not have existed.”
All of which is to say that Allen was to computer technology what Hendrix was to the electric guitar: a world-changing revolutionary. Their influence is inescapable. The irony is that Allen’s now-omnipresent invention led to rock ‘n’ roll’s cultural diminishment. Before computers muscled into the mainstream in the 1990s, pop music was front and center in world youth culture. Today, kids listen to Hendrix tunes on their laptops and smartphones, technologies Allen either directly or indirectly inspired. He launched an invasive tech movement whose influence grows more and more by the day.
Reviewing Allen’s life, one is struck by how strongly Hendrix gripped his imagination. On his official career timeline, Allen proudly lists attending a 1969 Hendrix concert, as if witnessing the guitarist in performance was in itself an achievement. As an adult, he would use his billions to help Hendrix’s family win the legal rights to the late guitarist’s likeness and recordings, a deal valued at $90 million.
Most conspicuously, Allen erected a structural monument to Hendrix dubbed the Experience Music Project, the name serving as an homage to Jimi’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience (the Frank Gehry-designed superstructure has since been drably rechristened the “Museum of Pop Culture”). Dedicated to “the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture,” the museum showcases the Fender Stratocaster upon which Hendrix performed his generation-defining interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Allen shelled out $1.3 million for the Excalibur ax — chump change for a man whose net worth was estimated in the $20 billions.
By necessity, blacks are shape-shifters. To survive in a white-ruled world, we adopt a certain social fluidity that compels us to reconcile our own culture with that of the “mainstream.” We do this in hopes of fitting in comfortably at both the office and in the ‘hood. It’s a constant, mindful negotiation of two worlds that can be absolutely exhausting.
Allen seemed to toe a similar tightrope, but instead of leapfrogging racial divides, he struggled to resolve his latent Hendrixian freakiness with the buttoned-down demands of business. Though he never commented about his social awkwardness, we can only speculate that like many blacks, this white man, for all his privilege, felt misunderstood. He was dubbed “The Bitter Billionaire” because he dared write candidly about alleged slights he suffered from top Microsoft executives. That’s in the same realm as the willfully ignorant whites who accuse Black Lives Matter activists of being bigots for protesting racial profiling and police brutality. Allen caught a glimpse of what it’s really like to be black in America, where you’re not allowed to be angry even when your rage is justified.
Before I was assigned this story, I shared my opinions about Allen with a black friend. She found my theory interesting, even agreeing that the computer mogul exhibited traits that accord more with a black urban upbringing than a white suburban one. But while she accepted my basic premise, this usually compassionate woman admitted she struggled to empathize with the computing legend. “I can’t quite bring myself to feel for Paul Allen,” she confessed in a guilty tone. “Is that because I’m black?”
Could be. Although Allen suffered from what one magazine described as “nerd social maladroitness,” he was still an elite among elites, part of a white ruling class and a tech aristocracy. He had the option of adopting blackness on venue stages, then doffing it just as easily. Herein lies the difficulty blacks like my friend have with white cultural appropriation.
We live in a world where blackness, especially African-American music, is viewed as the gold standard of human expression. From singing competitions such as American Idol and The Voice to R&B and rap artists such as Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore and Dua Lipa, it’s not uncommon anymore to hear white folks offering impressionistic simulations of black emotionalism. Ever since radio, the phonograph and television converged to create modern pop culture, whites have been seduced by black folks’ bluesy siren song.
It’s telling that whites like Allen seem to identify so passionately with black culture in their youth, because at no time in life do you feel more alienated and misunderstood than when you’re young. To put it more indelicately, one rarely feels more like a powerless N-word than when they’re a teenager.
In this sense, Allen can be viewed as part of a continuum, a symbol of privileged whites who yearn to experience the nothing-to-lose freedom they imagine most blacks enjoy. How else to explain the soaring popularity of African-American music among whites? For the price of a Spotify subscription, these advantaged kids can luxuriate in vicarious blackness. Such a deal.
Yet, increasingly in today’s America, whites are learning what it’s really like to be disenfranchised. They’re watching in horror as deindustrialization, low wages, unaffordable housing, opioid addiction, trillion-dollar student debt and more lay waste to the so-called American Dream many believed was their birthright.
In post-Paul Allen America, we’re all edge walkers.