Over the past year this space has been a place for me to explore and expound upon musical threads and ideas as well as journal a bit. In light of the immediate heaviness of the murder of George Floyd, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the entire racist history of the US, I want to zoom out from threads to the very fabric of American music, one woven largely from Black expression and emotion.
I like to think that in my earliest musical education was conscious of the fact that Black musicians were an absolute essential part of the story. Bass-wise it was impossible to ignore. Growing up, almost all of my favorite bass players were Black Americans, Victor Wooten being number 1. I must have owned 5 different copies of his CD, A Show of Hands. While I was probably first drawn to Victor’s virtuosity, I also resonated and adopted his message of peace and love and equality for all. Words of Wisdom from that record is a good example. I wanted a world that was fair and equal for all regardless of skin color or any physical traits just like Victor. I wanted a world where we practiced love and understanding and patience just like my bass hero did on his records. I thought that since I loved music made by Black folks this was enough, I wasn’t racist. I was wrong.
I don’t think I realized that I benefitted from White privilege until much later. All of my understanding of Wooten’s music and message was applied with a background of the post-racial, color-blind America of the 90s and early 00s in which I grew up. It was one where slavery was behind us and equality was realized. It was one where we already learned our lessons from the Civil Rights era and we all were truly free. It was in my head. It sounds incredibly naive now but this idea and ideology was how I operated well in to my 20s mostly because my Whiteness allowed it. It wasn’t until I got some reading recommendations from friends that I realized we are still living with the effects of slavery and Jim Crow today. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant memoir Between the World and Me that I came to see how much the world (America mostly) was still tilted in my favor towards my Whiteness. And away from others who didn’t look like me. He showed me the systematic racism that we all live in and the ways that most white folks engage in a passive racism. A more elusive racism. Through this and some other Black writing, I came to realize that equality is not enough when the whole system is bent. Fixing the system is called justice. I believe this is what Victor Wooten was really calling for.
Once I wrapped my head around the idea of systematic ( or institutional ) racisms it was plain to see its many incarnations throughout society. American musical culture is no exception. The recent podcast 1619 from the New York Times sums this up so well in the third episode, The Birth of American Music. It outlines how the first truly American music form was the Minstrel Show, a show where white people applied Blackface and lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. It also goes into how Motown was its antithesis. LISTEN TO IT ASAP. It should be required listening to any music student in America today.
“the thing that made me laugh was just how all that history is just very silently coursing through this music. It might not even be aware that it’s even there. It’s so thoroughly atomized into American culture. It’s going to show up in a way that even people making the art can’t quite put their finger on. What you’re hearing in black music that’s so appealing to so many people of all races across time is possibility, struggle. It is strife. It is humor. It is sex. It is confidence. And that’s ironic. Because this is the sound of a people who, for decades and centuries, have been denied freedom. And yet what you respond to in black music is the ultimate expression of a belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. Black music is American music. Because as Americans, we say we believe in freedom. And that’s what we tell the world. And the power of black music is that it’s the ultimate expression of that belief in American freedom.”https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html?
Where this piece from The New York Times connects the coopting and stealing of Black expression in America to today, it does not really go into the financial realities that many Black artists faced (or in a lot of instances, were completely left out). It should be no surprise that label owners (largely white men) have reaped many the profits through complicated royalty schemes, bad deals, and outright theft.
So how do we reckon with these histories? How do we change upon takin in these realities? How can us White people enact justice in the musical world? As a White man I’m not who you should be asking. But since you read this far, I can tell you what I’ve been up to. First and foremost, don’t look away. Recognize that it is a privilege to learn about these things in the comfort of our homes. These are realities that many BIPOC folk have lived their whole lives. It is a shame and a testament to the White supremacy still alive today that so much Black history is not taught in our country’s classrooms. We need to take seriously the many non-White voices in our worlds. Right now there is an outpouring of so many folks stories and experiences being non-White in America all over social media. Actively listen to their stories. No “buts”. It’s not about you or how you see it. It’s about listening. Here’s one I found very powerful from Charlie Gabriel of Preservation Hall Jazz Band. These realities are within one generation from us. They’re still living.
Also educating ourselves by reading (countless lists out there by now, I’ll add some of my big influences below) and by engaging in tough conversations when they come up and educating people in our community who resist acknowledging these truths.
Most importantly, we need to pair this education with meaningful anti-racist action. There are plenty of online resources from BIPOC folks that can point you in the right direction. Here‘s one I found helpful from the music world. Lastly, and most importantly, prepare for a lifelong fight for justice. Though these issues are pervasive in our society believe that WE ALL CAN CHANGE. Don’t buy into an idea that we are stuck here or that it’s all for naught. All anti-racist activity is meaningful in the fight for justice for all and that is what we are after.
Here is a reading list of books that opened my eyes to systematic racism:
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Love and Health to you all. #BlackLivesMatter -Charlie