Blues audiences the world over recognise the genre’s origins in the oppression of African Americans under slavery and segregation. But when it comes to racial tensions in the present day, blues blogs, websites, and facebook groups are surprisingly silent.
The time difference between the US and the UK being what it is, I went to bed last night with that all too familiar heaviness; the feeling you get when you know you will wake up to bad news. My radio, set for 6am, punctured the morning gloom with the words I that had been hoping not to hear for several weeks now – that a Grand Jury has failed to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, Jr. (1996-2014). Brown, who was eighteen years old, was shot six times, including twice in the head, on 9th August.
As I logged on to social media this morning, my various news feeds loaded up the various topics, groups and voices that reflect my three main internet reading habits: a healthy dose of populist left-wing writing; a number of prominent African American and black British cultural and political commentators; and numerous blogs and groups devoted to the blues.
What struck me, however, was that the first and second groups – the left-wing writers, and my snapshot of ‘black Twitter’ – were talking about roughly the same thing: Ferguson. My blues groups, on the other hand, chugged away as usual, blithely unaware of recent developments. One account tweeted a well-known blues lyric, another reviewed a recent CD, another posted a series of grainy photos to mark the anniversary of a bluesman’s birth.
So why don’t the talking points, posts, likes, shares, and retweets of the blues groups I follow not match up more with those who discuss African American culture and politics in the present day? Why is the blues community so silent on Ferguson – or, for that matter, on the recent deaths of Jonathan Ferrell (1989-2013), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), or Aiyana Jones (2002-2010) at the hands of the police?
I should make clear at this point that I do not wish to question the legality or the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury. As President Obama has pointed out, we have to hope that the grand jury assessed the evidence presented to them in a fair and just manner, and that the evidence itself was a fair and reliable account of the event. Nor am I interested in getting into a discussion about the precise events that took place; there are so many conflicting accounts, and many people more qualified than I am to assess their legal implications.
What I am concerned about is how victims such as Michael Brown have been presented in the media, and the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that causes armed law enforcement to make the terrible and irreversible decision to end someone’s life. I am concerned that the blues community makes few connections between modern day depictions of African American society and culture, and those of the past that we celebrate in the blues.
Very soon after Michael Brown’s shooting, many media outlets started to question the young man’s integrity. Some commentators suggested that Brown may have had marijuana in his bloodstream, and evidence emerged showing Brown taking some cigarettes from a local store in the hour prior to his death.
Again, I do not seek to cast doubt on these claims – although it is worth stating that neither theft nor narcotics use are punishable by death under US law. Instead, I want to compare them to some of the common depictions of blues musicians that are regularly celebrated by the music’s fans.
Stories of blues musicians’ substance abuse are ubiquitous. They appear in many songs, from Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When I Been Drinking’ to Muddy Waters’s ‘Champagne and Reefer’, and in musicians’ biographies. Robert Johnson is famously thought to have died from drinking poisoned whiskey given, continuing to drink more and more despite the protestations of his friends.
Likewise, bluesmen’s petty crimes are often treated as a simple fact of life, sometimes even necessary to their success. Harmonica player Junior Wells often recalled how he acquired his first instrument, in a story eerily reminiscent of Brown’s. After saving his pennies as a teenager, Wells found himself short on the price of a Hohner Marine Band. Exasperated, he threw what pennies he had on the counter, and took the harmonica. Brought up before the judge a few days later, Wells admitted to stealing, because he ‘just had to have that harp‘.
‘Can you play that thing, boy?‘ questioned the judge.
Wells blew a few choruses. When he was finished, the judge tossed the shop owner 50 cents, and shouted ‘case dismissed!‘
Blues history also valourises the apparently aggressive and dangerous nature of the African American entertainment scene. Many blues musicians were renowned ‘hotheads’; there is a memorable scene in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, where harmonica player Little Walter calmly shoots an imposter taking advantage of the success of his song ‘My Babe’.
‘Which one of you motherf*ckers is Little Walter?‘ demands Walter.
‘I am, fool!‘ retorts one.
Walter turns, pulling a revolver from his waistband, and fires. The imposter drops to the ground. Returning to the car, Walter coolly draws on his cigarette.
Blues fans tolerate – even celebrate – their heroes’ excessive, immoral and criminal tendencies. Broonzy’s drinking songs match the singer’s own enjoyment of liquor. We reminisce over Muddy Waters’s womanising. We chuckle at the overzealous store clerk who took a young Junior Wells to court over a 50 cent debt. We present Walter’s aggressive streak as integral to his image and to his uncompromising, innovative harmonica style.
And yet Michael Brown, who appears to have dabbled in rap music, was a ‘thug’. Newspapers adorned their front pages with photos of the teenager in a hoodie, ignoring many of the more childlike photographs available. This tactic is commonplace and has prompted the social media campaign #iftheygunnedmedown, where young black men and women highlight the multiple personas presented in their social media photo albums.
‘They wouldn’t show the smiling girl who graduated abroad at one of the best schools in the country. The media would portray me as a hard and mean-looking girl who was asking for it.’ states one contributor.
‘They wouldn’t honor the life I had lived, but rather justify the reason I was dead.’
As blues fans, the stories we tell about our favourite musicians often justify their misdemeanors and misfortunes. Robert Johnson ‘couldn’t help himself’; Junior Wells ‘just had to have that harp’. Little Walter’s own, violent death is seen to be symptomatic of a mean-talking fast-shooting aggressive life, lived at double speed.
But it would be incorrect to say that these depictions of our favourite blues musicians are simply voyeuristic fantasies. Blues audiences know their history. We know that the reason why Junior Wells worked a dead end job for a whole week and yet only made $1.50 was because African American workers were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, or had their earnings docked to pay for the equipment they used. We understand when we read the story of how Bessie Smith died after being denied treatment at the local ‘whites only’ hospital following a car accident (although this story is now thought to be apocryphal). We know that the emotional intensity of the blues was a response to the oppression of its performers by their white oppressors.
And yet we tell jokes about ‘proper blues deaths’: ‘If it occurs in a fleabag hotel or in a shotgun shack, it’s a blues death. Other blues deaths: being stabbed in the back by a jealous lover…You cannot die a blues death during a tennis match or while getting a liposuction treatment…Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia or Chauncey will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis‘.
Of course, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that happily ignores the many instances where blues and jazz musicians have suffered at the hands of police brutality. It ignores the fact that Junior Wells might have come off a lot worse had he stolen his first harmonica from a shop in twenty-first century Ferguson.
I am not saying that the blues community is responsible for, or complicit in, the many vindictive slurs against Michael Brown’s character. Neither am I saying that Brown was a saint, but then neither were any of our favourite blues musicians. I simply have one question: why is the blues community – for all that it does to recognise the historical achievements of its idols – not more vocal in condemning the many aspects of American racism that are still alive and well today? The silence is deafening.
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6 thoughts on “The blues community’s silence on Ferguson.”
Your assertion that Brown had forfeited his right to due process through committing a crime is untrue, and nonsensical. Think about it. Why do we bother arresting or putting anybody on trial if those suspected of a crime have already forfeited their right to due process?
I find your account of the events after 1964 quite interesting, but also very troubling. You’re right to point out the contradictions in the history of the Democratic party, but some of the things you say don’t chime with your interest in blues. If government dependence is responsible for ‘ruining the family structure in the black community’, then why are there so many pre-1960 blues songs about men leaving women, women leaving men, people shooting each other, etc?
More importantly, your argument that before 1964 “institutionalised racism and Jim Crow laws existed, [but] the chaos and crime did not” is catastrophically misguided. Are you seriously implying that beatings, lynchings, murders, and harassment of African Americans isn’t crime? Emmett Till was only fourteen years old when he was mutilated and dumped in a river – but that’s “not crime”? Of course, the reason why the perpetrators of these sorts of crimes did not face justice should sound eerily familiar – people assumed the victims were “thugs” who “got what they deserved”.
There were countless episodes of public disorder before the civil rights act. Ever heard of James Meredith? Kennedy had to call in the National Guard just so that Meredith could walk into university without being shot. You seem to be under the illusion that segregation was a good thing, keeping people in their “rightful place” for the ultimate good of society.
In my original post I was less concerned with what musicians think as what fans like yourself think, because it’s primarily fans, not musicians, who run the blues community groups that inhabit social media, magazines etc. I wanted to find out whether people made connections between the historic racism that formed the blues and modern racism. And if they did not make this connection, then what were their reasons? You’ve made yourself very clear on this point.
I did not say or imply that robbery and assault of a convenience store was the proximate cause of Michael Brown forfeiting his rights; it was his assault, and quite probably attempted murder, that put him in the position to receive the fruits of his actions. Again, he acted without responsibility, respect, or restraint; and when you do so, you’ve forfeited your rights.
While there are songs about the foibles of life in the old Blues, black communities were decidedly less violent. Your wholesale and willing ignorance of the deterioration of the black community prior to LBJ’s Great Society invalidates your point of view. More than 3/4 of black children are born into single parent families; no where near pre 1960 levels.
Equating the violence of the KKK and violence from within the black community is a bogus argument. Today’s crime in black communities, is black on black violence; again, you are willingly ignorant on the matter. As a matter of fact, KKK and other hate groups activity regarding lynchings and beatings, have virtually disappeared.
I never said that segregation was in any way good, merely that these unconstitutional policies are a different approach by the same political party of slavery. How could free money possibly be a hate crime? The facts are what they are. And again, the George Wallace type of public actions, don’t exist any longer.
It is not people such as myself that introduced race hustling into the discussion, it is the far left usual suspect media, and their “If it bleeds it leads, if it burns, it earns” mentality. There was zero racial component in the Michael Brown case; it was entirely brought on by the usual suspects. The reason the fans aren’t bent out of shape, is that the fans aren’t that stupid.
Enough of that nonsense. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, regardless of where you are.
God bless us all, we need it.
Beatings, lynchings etc segregation WAS crime in the black community, Coz. Equally, why is “black on black” crime somehow a special case that you view as “their problem”? We never hear about “white on white” crime. How did the “usual suspects” become the ones we expect?
What about when an African American man robs a store run by an Indian man – is that “black on black” crime? If you say there is no racial component to Brown’s killing, why would conservative media outlets bother with depicting him as a “thug” in a hoodie, or want to talk about his forays into rap music? As you say, you would expect left-wing media to discuss race, but then why would the right wing media do it too? Why would you post on facebook about looting in pseudo-thug slang, if there’s no racial component to Brown’s killing?
Equally, I don’t know where you’re getting those family statistics from. Check out the following link: http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/75_Births_to_Unmarried_Women.pdf
The chart on the second page shows that births to unmarried women have risen progressively throughout the 20th Century throughout all communities in the US – yet they have always been higher amongst African Americans than amongst other populations. That suggests a persistent disadvantage within that community. Where do you think that came from, Coz?
Here’s what I really want to know: why do you feel yourself to be altogether separate and unconcerned with your fellow black Americans if you’re a blues fan? I challenge you to name me one thing you feel that the African American community has contributed to society, beyond sports or music. If you can’t, then you need to go back to school.
Are you British? Here in the US, only the leftist, divisive, hateful, race hustling poverty pimps use the term “African American.” They are not African anything. They have as much in common with Africa as with the Man in the Moon. They are American citizens, end of story. And while yes, drug and alcohol abuse is common amongst black musicians, it is just as much common amongst any group of musicians, regardless of any arbitrary division of groups of those in the entertainment industry at large! So this too, is a bogus argument. The Blues Blogosphere is silent, because the Blues is about regular everyday life, and Blues musicians, particularly American Blacks, realize that Michael Brown got shot because he was indeed a thug. End of story. They know and write about those who look for trouble, and find it, as Mr. Brown did. Michael Brown was not a “victim”, he was a perpetrator. THE COP WAS THE VICTIM, AND SO WAS THE STORE OPERATOR! I don’t know what media outlet that you watched that gave you the impression that Michael Brown was characterized as anything but a saint, including Fox News! He should not have been characterized as “unarmed black teenager”, but rather as a “fleeing assailant and robber”, which is the trouble that he sought and found. While I am unfamiliar with English law on the subject, Michael Brown didn’t steal a Snickers bar, he stole a controlled substance: tobacco. There was no “police brutality” or racial mumbo jumbo involved. The Blues community knows what happened and who it happened to; so dump your phony white leftist guilt, and drop your preconceived notions about what happened and realize what realize what really did happen. Here in America, Grand Juries recommend prosecution upon the lamest of evidence; this shows that the FACTS of the case, as determined in large part by the physical evidence, which has no inherent bias or preconceived nonsense, have less than a flimsy case, to the extent the there is no case for indictment.
I do believe it is both fair and factual to say that a) Brown was unarmed, and b) that both the crime he had recently committed, and his attitude towards Wilson, in no way justifies his death. Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, by a jury of your peers, is a fundamental legal principle. It is important that you understand that the grand jury was not assessing Brown’s guilt or innocence; it was only judging whether there was evidence to charge Wilson. Wilson has since been exonerated by a jury. Brown is dead. Wilson has had access to the justice system. Brown has not.
That said, there are more qualified people than myself (and you) to assess the facts of Michael Brown’s killing, so I’m not prepared to discuss that aspect of my post further. Neither of us can know “what really happened”.
What I am more concerned about, in so far as this is relevant to blues music, is that you seem to be almost entirely ignorant of what racism actually is. Segregation was officially enforced by law until 1964. That’s barely 50 years ago. People two generations ago lived in a world where it was socially and legally perfectly acceptable to treat somebody differently simply because of the colour of their skin.
Why would you think legalised, state sanctioned racism would simply evaporate overnight?
Social and economic disadvantage, and cultural perceptions of difference, run deep. Have you ever been followed round a store, stopped in the street, or mistaken for a domestic worker? Has anybody ever spoken more slowly to you because they assume you don’t speak English? Unless you can answer yes to those questions, then you’re simply not qualified to say that racism – that is, treating someone differently because of their skin colour – “doesn’t exist” today. If you *can* answer yes to those questions, then you need to think long and hard about why you feel justified in showing such disrespect to the African American community, when you wouldn’t tolerate that same disrespect if it was aimed at you.
The crime(s) that Michael Brown had committed and his attitude for Officer Wilson, are indeed the justification for Michael Brown’s shooting; it is precisely why he was shot. It may not be fair, but it was right. Michael Brown forfeited his right to presumption of innocence and access to the legal process because the exercise of a right requires responsibility, respect, and restraint, none of which were exercised by Michael Brown; and that is the fundamental thought process in deciding that Officer Wilson was not only justified in his response, but also, with the standard of proof so absurdly low in a Grand Jury setting, that the dispassionate clarity of the physical evidence firmly stated otherwise. I actually have had a police officer pull his weapon on me in Chicago. I didn’t act like an ass, and I didn’t get shot. (I had blundered into the midst of a stake out of some sort to take a leak! Whoopsie!)
Here in the US, a Grand Jury is selected long in advance of any specific crime being committed, and are assigned on a “which group is up next for this one” basis. They are regular Joe Blows such as you and I. I appreciate your humility, but I’m as qualified as any of the 12 jurors are to assess the evidence. The Grand Jury process is the access to the legal system for Michael Brown. And while we can’t know exactly what happened, we do know that cookie crumbs on a child’s face indicate that he ate the cookies, how many bites it took to swallow it, is irrelevant.
Legalized state enforced racism exists in America to this day, it’s called Affirmative Action. Every immigrant group coming to America has dealt with some period of racism, and if the path of the black community following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to create the cleanest, safest neighborhoods, the problems wouldn’t exist. But instead, the same political party of slavery in the old south, decided to put the black community on a plantation of government dependence, which ruined the family structure in the black community, and resulted in the chaos that exists today. The entirety of the history of oppression and slavery, thousand of years old, shows that the creation of a welfare state to rob men of their dignity, is the sole difference between the American experience and those of hundreds of others throughout history. While institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws existed, the chaos and crime did not exist.
As it relates to Blues Music, these musicians know what is true, as I had first postulated, and it isn’t up to a bunch a leftist, self loathing, political cowards to determine how they feel or what they know; it is their decision as individual citizens, and they have spoken.
Enjoy the Blues my friend! I have a bunch of lefty friends in the music and entertainment business out in LA. But their still and always will be, my friends.