Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Blues Music; Can Black People Write About the Blues?

March 28, 2016 by  
Filed under Ent., Music, News, Opinion, Weekly Columns

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(ThyBlackMan.com) When I published the last blog, “Can White People Play the Blues?”, the reactions were immediate, varied and extreme.  What was most interesting to me is the range of reactions of those (mostly white) people who were clearly offended by the mere question.  When the blues was a young art form, there was no need to ask the question, since very few white people valued Black music or were even aware of it.  Fast forward one hundred years later to the present and we see white people all over the globe playing blues.  There are thousands who play it very well and earn good money doing it.  However there are also many Black, white and others, fans of the art form for whom the Black expression of the blues is preferred.  The essay I wrote addressed what many in the blues music industry did not want to talk about, at least publicly.  As usually happens when one addresses the elephant in the room, a host of other issues came up which provided a window into the thinking of those who left their comments.  Here I will discuss some these reactions, the issues that they raise and what this means in terms of perceptions of Black people, their history and culture.

Right off the bat, several readers felt free to comment on the post without even reading beyond the first paragraph, saying that it was ‘racist’ to even ask such a question.  After reading the hundreds of comments (positive and negative), I was reminded of the reaction to an editorial from 1990 in Guitar Player magazine written by Lawrence Hoffman, a white music professor and music critic.  A few years later music and literary critic Paul Garon wrote an essay, “White Blues”, which explores the outraged reactions to Hoffman’s editorial.  The reactions to my essay were very similar.  He observed that most readers took one of the following positions:
1) It’s racist to speak on the issue or hold a position that goes against the majority.
2) Suffering is universal and whites suffer, too, e.g. those whose parents died in concentration camps, those who grew up poor, or those who have struggled in any number of ways.  
3) Ability is beyond racial barriers, and that music ‘has no color.’  
4) Black people didn’t want the blues anymore (because they don’t play it) so now whites and others have come to save it from obsolescence or extinction.  In their eyes, they are the ones ‘keeping the blues alive.’
Many white people’s reactions to my essay were angry, fervent objections to my line of reasoning and even questioning my upbringing and my ‘right’ to play the blues.   One wrote that the author had a privileged upbringing and was raised by a white family, which I found very amusing.  Another commentator wrote that the author of the essay was an ‘asshat'(!).  He went on to write that “any style of music can be played by someone from outside of that region and to expert levels.”  His indignation was strange to me because that was one of my points, clearly stated in the essay.  Many white people already play the blues very well, and for certain historical reasons they did not need to ask anyone’s permission to enjoy the music.  It was never written that white people were not ‘allowed’ to play the blues.  
Yet, this is how many, in their defensiveness, interpreted the essay.  Even if someone were to demand that everyone fill out permission forms, such an exercise would be as silly and pointless as it would be impossible.  The point still remains that playing and 2016-project-of-the-day-americas-bluessinging are different. There is a difference between expert playing and mimicking the vocal styles of a culture, trying to sing ‘black.’  One is much easier than the other.  So what is the solution?  Play music but respect the origin and don’t deny the history.  Be yourself and express yourself.  You can’t run from who you are; your individual, family and cultural history matter.  The ancients taught man to ‘know thyself’.  An unnamed old bluesman once put it another way, “whoever you is, be dat.”  Play what you want, but be who you are.  And don’t forget to respect the source.
The essay was not about granting anyone permission to play anything and it acknowledges that there are many non-Black performers who play well in the style.  What it does say is that heritage and culture do matter in music.  These things can not be faked.  We bring who ever we are to the music that we play.  That is reality.  Music is not some magical realm where we leave our identity, our histories and unique experiences at the door and where culture doesn’t matter.  This means that although he is a superb guitarist, the music of Eric Clapton will never be the same as B.B. King.  This is not to dismiss Sir Eric, nor any of the other non-Black guitar players who have found a musical home in the blues.  It is saying that since their experience is different, the music they make will also be different.  Playing in a musical style from a particular culture, even at expert levels, will never be the same as an expert player who is from the culture.  Moreover, as the blog points out, singing well in a musical style from a different culture is another matter entirely.  Many want to mimic Black accents and intonation in an attempt to sound ‘authentic’ (whatever that word means).
The point is that culture as well as individual and collective experience do matter.  Of course, many pointed out the few Black players who play country or rock music as if to say this is the same scenario.  Shouldn’t they be asking for permission?  They seem to forget that both of these styles of music are also built upon the blues!  In any case, I doubt we will ever witness a scenario where Black country musicians rise up in arms because someone in Nashville says country is white music.  Why?  Their participation in the music is not dependent on denying the history of the music.  They neither gain power by denying the history nor do they lose power by admitting its origin.  This means that although the great Charley Pride is an amazing singer, he can not seek to control or define the genre for white people.  Black audiences do not support country music, Black promoters, agents, music writers and musicians have no control over the genre, nor do they want any.
In fact, there were many positive and thoughtful comments and inbox messages from those who took the time to read the entire essay.  I also received several defensive and angry inbox messages on Facebook where people told me their life stories as if to prove they had a right to play the music.  A frequent attitude was ‘how dare you tell me I can’t play the blues’ as they detailed the suffering that they or their people had endured in life.  It was almost like they had to prove that they met a quota.
One commentator said the entire article was ‘racist garbage’; ‘ignorant’ and ‘woefully out of touch’ were also words used to describe the essay.  A blues lover in Eastern Europe wrote that the article was ‘pathetic.’  Yet another defender of white blues rights said that the entire piece was about ‘hating whitey’ and that I was a ‘meathead.’  One said plainly that I was a ‘bigoted asshole’.  Yet another irate reader said my essay was as ‘racist as a Klansman.’  Adam Gussow, a well known white blues musician and academic penned a lengthy open letter online that strenuously refuted my essay and then proceeded to suppose that I was a bitter, lost and  ‘angry’ Black ‘separatist’ who is on a ‘jihad’ (his words).  In short, some people — white people — took it very, very personally.  I had touched a hot nerve!
What was interesting is that in a country that is supposedly delighting in being ‘post-racial’ (rampant police murder and abuse notwithstanding), almost all of the negative responses and promoters of white blues came from white readers.  All of the insults and knee-jerk claims of ‘racism’ came from white males.  Out of hundreds of comments, no black people objected, save for one, who was actually a very proud champion of white blues players.  This is the irony that no one seemed to notice: white men calling a Black man a racist for writing about white people playing Black music.  It is still viewed as extremely provocative — even threatening — for a Black musician to declare that Black music and culture is a reality and to address the history of the music from a Black perspective.  But does this same standard apply to musicians from other ethnic groups?  I don’t think so.  It is not seen as threatening when a European declares that opera is European music.  It is a statement of fact.  When a white Appalachian musician declares bluegrass to be white music he is not wrong.  (Even though Bill Monroe was heavily influenced by Black music).
In both examples the music comes out of a particular culture and history, and if they talk about the music from their perspective it is accepted as normal.  There is no threat.  Why?  These musics did not come from an enslaved people and this makes the history attached to the music is easier to deal with.  The simple conclusion is that even in 2015, many would rather enjoy the blues on their own terms without having to deal with the history.  Moreover, many white people are tired of talking about ‘race’, which is seen as either a Black problem, preoccupation or obsession.  It is uncomfortable because it threatens their privilege, which is still based upon skin color and ethnicity in a world where Black is always bad and white is necessarily always good.  Denial is more comfortable.  That is until someone brings up the issue.  However, the issue will always come up…there is nowhere to hide from it.
I have learned a lot, in a short amount of time, about white people’s often unspoken perceptions and assumptions of Black people and culture in America today.  “Blues is Black Music! Can White People Play the Blues?”, this simple statement of musical origin  (Daniel Atkinson calls it Black Sovereignty) coupled with a straightforward questionhas rubbed salt in the always festering wounds of American slavery, racism, white supremacy, and the widespread white denial of the effect of these historic realities on Black people and their culture.  Indeed, many responded as if they had been personally offended or threatened.  Apparently, it is racist (for Black people, in this case) to talk about race, history, culture or to even mention any differences between groups of people.
The intensity of the reactions was as if they thought someone was going to come and ‘steal’ back their blues to return it to Black folk.  Common sense tells us that this is impossible.  So why do certain people come to talk about music as if it is real estate or jewelry — property?  How does a claiming an origin become a threat, a political statement that moves people to the point of anger?  The short answer is that America has never dealt with slavery and its legacy, preferring to coast along in denial.  Along with the legacy of slavery is the deep need to control or monitor what Black people say or do.  The unspoken rule is that Black people can speak about Black music but only in a way that is not uncomfortable to white people.  Any discussion that becomes uncomfortable evinces either outright denial, feigned innocence, ignorance, aggressive personal attacks and insults, even threats of a loss of livelihood in the industry.
This episode has raised some interesting questions:  Who defines who is Black?  Obviously, Black people do.  At the same time, however, many white people have their own criteria of what it means to be Black.  It doesn’t seem to matter that Black people have already defined it for themselves.  We already know what blackness means to white people who are raised in a society that devalues blackness are worships everything white.  Frequent objections to the essay simplistically pointed out that ‘music has no color.’   But isn’t blackness more than just a matter of skin color?
It is also a heritage, a history, a way of eating, speaking, fighting, loving, cooking, worshipping and making music.  Where do Black people have to be born to be considered ‘real’ Black blues players?  What types of Black people are ‘allowed’ to play the blues, according to white blues fans? Are white people now the sole authority on the blues, now that we Black folk have ‘given it up’?  Can Black lovers of country music claim to be the sole authorities on country music now that Nashville has sold its soul and ignores traditional country music?  No…  Yet the same people who claim the power to define what is and is not blues will say that it belongs to everybody and that ‘nobody owns’ the music.  Why is this so? Who left and made them in charge?
Many of the negative reactions (there were many positive messages) avoided considering the question at all, instead questioning the author’s ‘authenticity’.  Detractors who took this approach pointed out that being raised in the suburbs in Colorado (as was the author) somehow disqualifies a Black person from being able to claim the blues as his heritage, and that no young Black person today knew about picking cotton.  One proudly stated that Robert Cray was as ‘black’ as he is (strange, since he was born in Georgia).  My good friend Taj Mahal was raised in Massachusetts. Is that not ‘blues’ enough?  It actually never occurred to me that being born and raised in suburban Denver to parents from Texas and Kentucky meant that I couldn’t play blues.
Growing up among elders, going to Texas for funerals and family reunions, church, house parties, cook-outs, and hearing B.B. King play when I was 11 years old…eating the food Black folk from the south love to eat (in abundance!)…this is where my blues comes from.  I grew up hearing stories from my mother and stepfather about the terrorism and oppression of the south and the racism they experienced since migrating to Colorado.  There was an uncle who was lynched, a grandfather who escaped from a Mississippi labor camp, and aunts who worked as cleaning ladies for nearly their entire lives.  I was raised by a single mother who taught school for a living (hardly the road to riches or middle class comfort) and who instilled in her two children the importance of education and service to others.  Her father was a country school principal who was secretly the ‘Lone Star State’ correspondent for the Chicago Defender (in a time when having a copy of the newspaper could get a Black person killed).
When I was younger, I spent a good deal of time with my two great aunts as well with as the woman whom I called grandma, a sweet elder lady from St. Catherine, Jamaica named Mrs. Clara Harris.  The love, stories and faith of these mighty Black men and women nourished me like home cooked food.  If I am honoring my family, my ancestors, and the stories that I have been told through the music, then why should I care what a stranger thinks about my ‘authenticity’?  I am what I am.  You can move to the suburbs, but you will still be Black.  Isn’t it great?  Blackness is forever adaptable, no matter where it is found.  As the proverb tells us, “The roots of a tree cast no shadow.”
Another amusing opinion that came to light is that Black people who are not from Jamaica should not play reggae.  This came as a retort to the question in the title.  I find this point interesting and ignorant at the same time.  Why?  Reggae has always been a music of Black liberation.  And even though Jamaicans have and continue to define the art form, it does not only speak to Jamaican or West Indian reality, but to the reality of Afrikan people around the world.  Reggae remains a Black music that speaks to the historical reality and liberation of Afrikan people.  Literally millions of Black people in Afrika, the Americas, Europe and around the world play reggae not because they think they are Jamaican, but because the music speaks about the Black experience, ‘the story that has never been told.’  Reggae music is a musical and political force across today’s Afrika and artists such as Tiken Jah Fakoly and Teddy Afro are the proof.  It honors the ancestors and those who died in the struggle.  It calls out wicked governments and corporations that continue to oppress the downtrodden.  Black men from Papua New Guinea to Philadelphia use reggae to sing about their lives as Afrikan people struggling against unjust systems.  But here again we see people who are not Black aggressively applying their standards to Black people, defining who is and who is not Black enough by some litmus test that only they control.
Those who will not conform to these standards are treated like a threat and are isolated.  To a white (or other) person who is ignorant to the connection between Afrikans in the diaspora, someone who has never lived and traveled in Afrika, the idea that Black people share common culture and struggles around the world is no doubt difficult to understand.  The truth is that the Afrikan diaspora is real to millions of Black people around the globe who want to maintain their identity by defining themselves, for themselves.  And the best part about it is that no one is waiting on Europeans or anyone else to do it for us.
Isn’t it the highest form of arrogance for a white person (or anyone else) to tell any Black person about how they should be Black?  Imagine myself, a Black man, telling a Chinese man that he is not Chinese enough by my standards because he wasn’t born in Beijing!  I would be laughed at, and rightly so.  Actually, I got a good laugh at several of the responses to the essay.  Obviously, there are quite a few people who love Black music but have no particular love for the people that make the music.  Moreover, while loving the blues, this music that ‘belongs’ to ‘everybody’, some listeners somehow manage to deny the history of the people that made it.  But who does this ‘belongs to everybody’ attitude serve?  It doesn’t serve the Black musicians, who must vie for an ever shrinking piece of the economic pie.   This is especially true of those few Black blues elders who are still playing the music.  The reality is that white people do own the blues in a very real, economic sense.

Record companies, promoters, booking agents, audiences, blues societies and organizations are and have been overwhelmingly white since the very beginning of the ‘race record’ (music marketed to Black people) industry.  Today, when white promoters advertise a blues act, they don’t have to do any direct advertisement to the Black blues lovers in their locality.  This is because in most blues markets, it is the tastes of the white fans that determine financial success.  The only blues market where Black people make up a majority of the fan base is in the deep south, where ‘soul blues’  artists like Johnny Taylor, Bobby Rush, and Denise LaSalle still enjoy a strong following among Black people.  Obviously, the music these artists make still speaks to the reality of the Black audience, or they would not support it.  Yet, people still repeat the claim that ‘Black people don’t play the blues anymore’ to justify their assertion that white people ‘saved’ the blues.

But this smaller (Black) blues market exists within a much larger blues industry in which Black artists and audiences are no longer the majority.  And this larger blues music industry caters to the tastes of those (mostly white people) whose dollars keep it running.  So in light of this reality, where does the anxiety over ‘ownership’ come from?  Since white people already make up a large majority of the blues’ buying public, and are in decision-making positions throughout the industry, why the controversy over the opinion of one Black musician?  Black people have no real ownership in the blues music industry, having a position more akin to a sharecroppers who produce the crop but who have no economic power or control over the industry.  For decades, large, white-owned record companies have made millions selling Black people their own music.  We don’t need to chronicle the historic exploitation of Black musicians here; that has already been done elsewhere.  The point is that economic control is not enough.  There are those who also want to dictate to Black people who is or is not ‘blues’ enough, or who has the ‘right’ to play the music, according to their standard.


They are the self-appointed gate-keepers, now that Black people ‘don’t play the blues anymore.’  In this environment, the ‘objective’ word of a white ‘blues expert’ or ‘blues scholar’ is given more weight than the Black musician who actually lived the life and plays the music.  Blues scholarship in this way becomes another effective instrument of control by having the ‘final’ word on what is essentially a Black story.  This was made very clear when at one point in the lengthy thread on social media, a commentator bemoaned the absence of any ‘certified’ blues ‘scholar’  who could settle the debate once and for all.  As the ancient Afrikan saying goes, “until the lion tells his tale, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  In the years to come, the lions will tell our story.  It is our responsibility to the next generation.

Only a culture obsessed with control will demand submission to its interpretation of the music above all other viewpoints.  A culture that has its roots in treating Black people as property, servants, wards or inmates to be managed will be predisposed to take the same attitude towards the music, reserving the sole right of definition and calling all the shots, now that the music ‘belongs to everybody.’  Obviously, when Black people claim the blues as their particular cultural heritage, this is a threat to the claims of those in the ‘everybody’ camp because it is a direct challenge to their whitewashed reality.  In terms of power, it represents a loss of control on the psychological level.  The history of the blues as it is interpreted by white people does need a Black presence to validate it.  But this must be in the service of the new narrative, in which white people wield the power in the blues industry as the decision-makers, promoters, agents, record companies, audiences, musicians and singers.

This means that in today’s blues music industry, Black people are seen, their music is loved, but their voices are not heard unless they agree with the narrative that says it belongs to ‘everybody.’  Anyone who challenges the ‘everybody’ camp (such as the author) is threatened with being blacklisted.  But if it belongs to everybody, then why can’t any Black person declare that ‘blues is Black music’ without a severe backlash?  Is this is the same ‘everybody’ who said the Indians land was open to all because the Red man didn’t put up fences everywhere?  One commentator to blog post wrote, “I don’t believe that anyone can own land.  It scares me to think that there are still people out there who think that there could ever be an original owner of any land.”  This man must be scared out of his mind all of the time.

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