BLACK MUSIC MATTERS
We had our Blackout Tuesday, we put up our black squares in our social media profiles, we showed our solidarity… And now what? Do we white people pat ourselves on the back and resume our daily lives, lives that generally are buffered by a privilege that comes with our skin color? Or do we, hopefully, feel awkward about jumping on another social media trend that was borne out of good intentions?
Specifically, Blackout Tuesday originated within the music world, which has historically been a culture that, at least compared to those around it, has placed less stock in the color of one’s skin or one’s sexual orientation and has, or certainly can, serve as a unifying force as well as an creative outlet for protest and rebellion. That’s very different from suggesting that it’s ever been anything close to perfect, and much of those imperfections originate with us, the consumers. So, if we’re going to take a step forwards at this pivotal point in history, and confront the systemic racism that pollutes our societies, think about what you can do, if you’re a white person, to help with the conversation.
For a start, you can listen to black voices, and that means putting down the white ones for a while. That includes mine! But let me elaborate a little first, and I’m going to focus on music, because it’s what I know.
Are you a Beatles fan? Great! Follow their lineage, listen to their cover versions – the rock’n’roll ones, not the schlocky show tunes – and go back and immerse yourselves in the originals.
A Who fan? Listen to James Brown, covered twice on the My Generation album. Read about him. Watch a movie about him. Learn about his life, and what he went through. Listen to the blues artists that so influenced Pete Townshend. Ask yourself why most of them lived and died in poverty. Listen to the jazz music too. Not your white trad jazz, and not your Benny Goodmans and the white artists that get so much praise for integrating black musicians into their groups – but the black artists who started it all.
A Rolling Stones fan? Wow, you have some wonderful options out there. Put down your Stones records for a week or two and listen to the original versions.
Led Zeppelin? Now we’re talking. Stop and ask yourself why it’s an all-white British band that’s considered the biggest blues act of all time, and think about the money Led Zeppelin made, from record sales, tours and songwriting. Allow that they did so by standing on the shoulders of giants whose influence went largely unacknowledged.
An R.E.M. fan? Okay, that’s a little difficult. I wrote a book about them and doubt that a black artist got more than a token mention. You’re going to have to work, the way the band worked over the years, and eventually became allies and advocates, using their position of power and privilege as best they felt they could. But even if you can’t readily hear the influences, don’t kid yourself R.E.M. could have existed if not for the black music that preceded them.
The Smiths? There’s more blackness in the music than you might initially perceive. Read about it. Search it out. And then boycott Morrissey’s music because he’s turned into your horrible racist grandfather. Seriously, stop apologizing for the guy and stop listening to his recent music. He’s an embarrassment.
If you came of age during punk rock, like me, there’s no denying that British punk was essentially a white working class rebel music. But it wouldn’t have been half the movement it became without the presence and influence of Jamaican reggae and then British reggae. Dig deeper than ‘Police and Thieves’ or ‘Pressure Drop’ or ‘Ku Klux Klan’ and truly immerse yourself in the music of Jamaica, and ask yourself how such a small island of formerly enslaved Africans could produce so much incredible music, and place your pride in punk in the back seat for a while.
You don’t have to be a Rastafarian to appreciate great reggae music. And you don’t have to be a devout Christian to listen to black gospel music. Just go ahead and do so. It’s incredible. It’s powerful. It’s influential. And it’s all of those things because it’s tied up in racial history.
If you came of age during American punk, check if you ever subscribed to the ‘disco sucks’ movement, and if you did, look in the mirror and shame yourself. Just about all the CBGBs punk bands loved disco, attended gay, multi-racial discos in NYC, and made some attempt to reflect that in their music. Yes, some acts were more successful in doing so than others, but just because most of the musical protagonists at CBGBs were white doesn’t make it a white music.
Indeed, while you’re at it, recognize that there’s never been a shortage of great black hard rock groups, there’s just been a shortage of outlets for them. Ask yourself why that is. Allow yourself to recall that MTV was no-black-music zone for its first several years, and that too many of us went along with that for far too long.
If you’re a fan of The Jam, there’s plenty of cover versions that can lead you on a rewarding journey. Don’t stop at Motown and Stax; too many of us white people celebrate the former label because it was so easily accessible, and the latter label because we believe it was ‘integrated.’ History is more complex than that.
Oh, and can we please stop treating Jerry Wexler as the patron saint of American soul music? It’s not true and it smacks of racial superiority (albeit not anti-Semitism) to suggest as much.
House, hip-hop, techno, electro. You don’t have to love all black forms of dance music to acknowledge that they originated with black culture. Although let me just note that if you can’t appreciate any of these forms of music, then I really hope I never get to see you dance.
I’m a writer so I’m bound to encourage you all to read more. Read the autobiographies of B. B. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, all of them. Read Jonathan Gould’s excellent recent biography of Otis Redding. Ask yourself why there aren’t more biographies of black musicians. Actually I can tell you why. They don’t sell well and therefore most publishers won’t commission them. I speak from experience. Now ask yourself why these biographies don’t sell well… As in, how many books about black artists have you purchased compared to books about white artists? Is it any way shape or form comparable to the percentage of black music you listen to? No, I didn’t think so. Books about Bruce, Bob, Jim and Jimi, they’re guaranteed licenses to print cash. Books about the R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop greats, they’re rarely green-lighted because we don’t buy them in sufficient numbers, which can only mean that somehow we treat them and their stories as something less. And yes, I know Jimi was black, but he’s in that list because he conformed to white stereotypes of a black man playing what white listeners considered their own white rock music. There’s a lot of unfortunate historical truths about white lionization of Hendrix and we’d do well to acknowledge them.
That might be a good point for me to ask that instead of watching the Woodstock movie for the hundredth time, you watch movies about black music festivals. Soul To Soul. WattStax. Watch movies that celebrate black music in different ways, too, like Thunder Soul. Watch Twenty Feet From Stardom and consider how many white male singers have used black female singers over the years to bolster their vocals and provide them some credibility while simultaneously releasing songs like “Some Girls” and “Bitch.”
BTW, what was true of Woodstock has been true of most festivals I’ve attended over the years. There’s nothing wrong with having a genre-styled musical gathering, but we don’t educate ourselves or grow as humans if we stay in our bubble.
So, when live music starts back up – and it will – make an effort to see and listen to music you don’t know about and you haven’t experienced before. If that experience makes you uncomfortable, good.
I could go on. The same conversation can be had for film, for literature. It can be had about our schools. Why AREN’T there more teachers of color in our schools? Why DO our kids in American get taught about the same familiar icons every Black History Month as if there are only a half-dozen people worth mentioning? Why AREN’T they taught from an early age to have a proper understanding of their country’s roots in genocide and slavery?
We all have to look at ourselves and ask how we have hindered progress over the years. It’s not enough to pat ourselves on the back for what we have done; we need to address what we have still failed to do. I’m absolutely including myself in this number. I’ve lived with white privilege all my life and just because I started writing more seriously about black music in middle age won’t ever alter that. But as I go through through what’s likely the last third of my time on earth, I feel as angry about the state of the world – particularly the state of this country I made my adult home – as I ever have done. I’m willing to speak up. I’m willing to act up. And I’m also willing to shut up when it requires other voices to be heard. Let’s go listen.