But "black promoters won't touch us because we're not black enough - whatever that means," Bell says. "The black promoters feed into the same b.s. as the white-owned blues labels. If you're not B.B. King, they're not trying to touch you. White audiences want to see some young, white guy who can play a mean guitar, or some old black guy doing 12-bar shuffles all night. I guess the problem is we're not white enough or black enough or young enough or old enough."
Bell sighs and shakes his head.
"What I'm doing, man, is black music, period. It's the blues, that's black music," he says, his crisp voice booming. "But black folks aren't in my audience. That hurts."
Neal of Duke University says, "The fact that Kelly isn't going out of his way to make his music sound characteristically like modern black music is just as politically motivated and just as important as James choosing to address black cultural issues in his music."
Onstage at Lincoln Theater, Fertile Ground locks into a shuffling, Latin-tinged groove. Lead singer Navasha Daya leaps around, shakes her hips and twirls as if possessed by the music. She's barefoot, her face is marked with bold warrior-style makeup, and five gold feathers fan out from the crown of her head.
The next night in Towson, the Kelly Bell Band opens with a high-octane interpolation of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom." The imposing Bell, dressed in a roomy black shirt and jeans, stalks the stage, nodding to the beat. Once at the microphone, he furiously shakes his jump rope-length dreads. They fly over his face, around his head and shoulders as the guitar screams. The house cheers.
In its own way, each group is dealing with preconceived notions about what a black band is supposed to play. Although the bands have shared a bill only once over the years at a local festival, Collins and Bell respect each other's work. They also understand that the audiences for their music will always be different.
"I think black people will like our music," Bell says. "It's a matter of exposing people to what you do. If more black folks had an opportunity to hear us, they would dig us."
Collins believes mainstream black music has been reduced to caricature and wants to help redefine it.
"It's very important that artists stop running from the term 'black,' " he says. "It's something we should embrace. We as black artists, especially black independent artists, have to set our benchmarks. If this is still our music, it's up to us to make sure it really reflects all of who we are."
Education: Graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1999
The band's beginnings: Formed Fertile Ground in the spring of 1997 around the vocals of Navasha Daya and the drum skills of Marcus Asante. Since 2000, the band has released seven albums via Collins' Blackout Studios.
About his music: "My people were taken from our homeland and sprinkled into different fields around the world. Well, I think it's time to go home. That's the purpose of our music, to bring people together and take them home."
Education: Graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1990 and received his master's degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore in 1994
The band's beginnings: Formed the Kelly Bell Band around 1995. Soon afterward, Bell founded Phat Blues Records through which he and the band have released six albums.
About his music: "My style of music is eclectic, not just straight 12-bar blues all night long. They say kids don't dig the blues, but we say, 'You just haven't presented it to them in the right fashion.' "