Today, on Juneteenth 2020, I’m thinking about things that have helped me on my journey to a better understanding of racism and my own white privilege in America. And what I keep coming back to is music.
As much as I love science fiction, movies, & art, music is my true passion in life. Unfortunately I have zero musical talent but music never fails to give me joy. In college I discovered my true musical love, Black soul music from the 1960s. The finger-poppin, the harmonies, the driving beat, the raw emotion, I love it all.
Reading every book I could get my hands on about the subject, it quickly became obvious how much that music was intertwined with the Civil Rights struggle, both obliquely in songs like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” & the Staple Singers’ “Long Walk to DC” and as subtext in songs like “Respect,” written by Otis Redding as a statement of Black power and reimagined by Aretha Franklin as a Feminist anthem.
As I kept reading about and listening to Black music, I explored other genres: the funk of James Brown, the jump blues of Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris, the boundary-pushing rock/funk/pop of Prince, and the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald (who remains, hands-down, the best vocalist of the 20th century).
At the same time, I had also grown up with what we’ll call the “Rolling Stone History of Rock Music,” a very heteronormative white-forward sense of What Music Really Matters. It’s not that Rolling Stone and the media don’t love Black music, sure they do. But it’s about how talent is appreciated and respected.
A few years ago I was DJing a soul music night at Kelly’s Bar and Lounge in Pittsburgh and I had a drunk guy at the bar who kept asking to hear Zeppelin. I’m not a big Led Zeppelin fan (not just because they stole a lot of riffs from Black artists) but I tried to keep him happy by explaining that I was doing a soul night. I even played a version of “Whole Lotta Love” by legendary saxophonist King Curtis. But he wouldn’t be placated. He told me how Jimmy Page was just so much more talented, such a better musician. He said this while Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was playing, a song that Wonder wrote as well as sang, played keyboard, drums, and bass. Yet that astonishing demonstration of talent and skill meant nothing to this guy. Page was god and nothing could deter him.
In addition to this elevation of white musicians over and over again, there are these ideas that are repeated in Rock History: Rock & Roll was a combination of blues and white country music. The Beatles saved Rock & Roll. Disco sucks. Over and over these white hetero messages and stories were the ones being told by white hetero men.
But at some point you start reading and listening and you realize that’s all bullshit. Disco doesn't suck; Disco is awesome. It’s also Black music with a strong female/LGBTQ undercurrent so it’s threatening. The Beatles didn’t “save” Rock & Roll or pop music; what they did was knock Motown off the pop charts and put straight white men back on top. And the big one: that Rock & Roll was a combination of country music & blues. That simply isn’t true if you listen to any records that come out of the Chitlin circuit in the 1940s, where the pulsating backbeat, rhythm, and subject matter are virtually identical to what we’d later call “rock & roll.” As Muddy Waters simply put it, “The blues had a baby, and they named it rock & roll.”
This isn't to say that white musicians haven’t made great music. Of course they have. But that the entire story of American popular music in the 20th & 21st centuries is first and foremost Black music. Hell, maybe even earlier than that; when Czech composer Antonin Dvorak visited America in 1892 he said, “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies…This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”
Once you accept this, it all makes sense. It becomes clear that neither Elvis or the Beatles are the most influential musicians of the 20th century; it’s obviously James Brown, whose emphasis on rhythm is the foundation for the last 40-50 years of popular music across all genres. It was a big thing for me to discover that anti-racism isn’t just about politics but about music & art as well and I’m ashamed it took me so long to truly appreciate that fact. Virtually all of Black music is interwoven with politics and the history of racism, and it's on white people like me to educate ourselves about these conflicts.
Maybe I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but my appreciation for Black music has helped me learn so much more about Civil rights, anti-racism, and my own white privilege. Of course I still have a lot to learn and ways to figure out how to acknowledge my own racism and privilege. This post is a stab at that, but if you disagree or want to talk to me about it, please do so (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Below are some books about Black music that have helped me a lot; I hope you’ll check them out.
And finally, since today is Juneteenth, I’m ending with what is considered to be the first song to ever mention Juneteenth, Louis Jordan’s “Juneteenth Jamboree” from 1940. Like much of Jordan’s brilliant output, it’s a joyous celebration of Black life and community.
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