Five Black musicians on a reckoning with racism, and what comes next
While George Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee may have sparked the current worldwide wave of mass protests and conversations against police brutality and racial injustice, the realities of systemic racism and prejudice at every level have never been news to Black Americans. In interviews with the Globe, five Boston-based Black musicians of diverse genres and styles spoke to the moment, and in short, they’re tired of singing the same old song and seeing the same headlines — but they also see opportunities for meaningful change both in the music world and the world at large.
Cliff Notez, filmmaker, musician, and educator
In reality, I’ve been living in moments like this for a long time. So, unfortunately, I’m almost used to stuff like this. Doesn’t mean that I’m stable because of it, but it’s definitely something that I think myself and probably a lot of other Black artists — Black people — in the city have been aware of, and have been used to for a while. So, it can be frustrating because we’re seeing our white counterparts kind of just start to pick up on things, and we’re like “We’ve been saying this.” But at the same time, we need as many people on our side as possible to see what we’re going through. It’s a consistent battle.
It’s interesting that I’m even doing this interview, because I have been purposely trying to seclude myself, in the last couple of days. I have this thing that I always do called "No-Notez November,” where I’d just disappear and hop off social media and go to the woods for a while. That’s what I was starting to do now, because I was getting really overwhelmed with the videos, seeing people die, constant overstimulation of all the stuff that’s happening in the world. Which is important. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be happening. But being a person that’s lived this my entire life, I’m not necessarily the audience that needs to see — “Ah, racism’s happening in America, oh my God!” I know this. So I need to take a specific break to do that.
I know that it’s important for me to fight for this, but at the same time I have no answers. What I do know is that I need to fight for this for myself to be able to exist. So it almost is second nature to me, and for a majority of Black folks, to figure out how to exist in this world that doesn’t want us to exist.
Jason Palmer, jazz trumpeter and Berklee College of Music professor, calling from Spokane, Wash., where he’s staying with his family
This pandemic really caused a lot of people to really slow down in their life. The hustle and bustle of working 9 to 5, trying to take care of your families, was just put on the back burner. There were a lot of distractions that weren’t there. And so, with the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and people don’t have sports to distract them — I just think I’m seeing a lot more involvement, a lot more opinions, a lot more statements in support of equity. I have a feeling that equality and equity markers will be moved a greater distance with this movement. That’s my hope.
I donate to the ACLU, NAACP . . . I’ve also been doing my best to support artists who have lost work. I know there’s a rally out here in Spokane that’s happening this weekend. I’m planning on going to that. I’m doing what I can and trying to stay creative.
I’m just figuring out what I can do now to amplify the voices of the unheard. I’ve been reaching out to some people to do some collaborations. Because historically music has always showed the way. When you look at James Brown’s music, and Benny Goodman, Benny Carter — the music industry was integrated before baseball. There’s a lot of history that we can expand upon.
Red Shaydez, rapper and youth mentor with roots in Roxbury
I’m a Black woman first, so as a person, it’s just, like, what is the issue? When I think about history, the past 400 years, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration — police brutality has been around forever. And it’s confusing. Looking at how much my people have accomplished as a group, but then things like this happen and it feels like we’re taking 100 steps back. We do try to abide by the law and we still get reprimanded. We break the rules and we’re reprimanded. You can’t really fathom being Black if you haven’t experienced what we experience. I hear a lot of things about “get over it,” or “this happened this many years ago,” but it’s like telling somebody to heal from a wound that’s still open. You can’t move on from something that’s still here.
So I’m at a point now where I’m feeling every emotion fully. What do I have to do as a citizen, as a person first, to stop this? Whether it’s donating to funds that help push the movement forward, signing petitions, attending whatever I have to attend, voting — because that’s a big part that people miss, especially the local elections that really make a change in your community.
So me, yes, I am a musician, but I’m also known in the community as a voice. I have to do my duty to make sure I’m communicating the right resources to the people, and I feel like that’s my role in all of this. Sometimes I catch myself like "am I doing enough, what else can I do?" But I’m very secure knowing that we all play a different role in pushing this movement forward, and it doesn’t necessarily have to look one type of way.
Just now, as Red Shaydez . . . six months ago I had my whole album rollout planned. And I had to redo the whole plan due to COVID-19. And now with all of these things happening currently, I care about this more than the album, so I’m trying to figure out when I can do self-promotion posts, and when should the posts be about what’s happening now. But also being that my music stems around empowerment and human rights and just, you know, being a regular person, it still needs to be released. So I’m going to stick to my plan while still talking about the issues at hand. “Feel the Aura” is slated to release July 27, and the virtual album release is the day before.
I am very vocal in my music about certain things. I tell people to take care of themselves, I tell people it’s OK to not be OK. On this album there’s one song called “Buy All the Land Up,” which ironically talks about all the stuff that is happening now. Now when the album comes out, they might think it was maybe because of this, but this song was made six, seven months ago. That’s one of the reasons why I feel like I’m still going to go forward with the release, because I have content that maybe could help heal the world.
Grace Givertz, Allston-based folk singer and songwriter
I’m thankful that now I know where my breaking point is. At the point where I can’t do anything, I’m not doing any good to myself as a Black person by watching this and making myself feel even more isolated.
I haven’t really been making music at all. I’ve done a few livestreams but I really haven’t had the energy, and now that all of this is happening I feel even more isolated. Being a Black person who makes folk music . . . there are not enough Black voices in folk music, and it almost feels like I have to make sure that what I’m saying and putting out into the world is really powerful or strong or has this really deep meaning, because I have been given a platform that’s mostly speaking to white people, and that at this point feels so daunting.
Since all of this started with the murder of George Floyd, I have not been able to go on the Internet and share my thoughts. It’s definitely caused me to almost dread writing music right now, because I feel like more so now than ever, what I say has to be digestible for everyone. To be quite frank, I’m always scared of coming off as an angry person. I don’t want people to feel a sense of white guilt, so much so that they’re scared to listen to Black voices because it makes them feel bad. Less than guilt, it should be a recognizing of the privilege they have.
I’ve always been aware of my skin color in the folk community, and the ignorance that a lot of consumers of folk and bluegrass and Americana have. They’re not aware that the instruments and the music that they’re playing originated from Black stories. I feel like now is so important to make sure that they know that. Working at Club Passim, I seldom saw anybody who looked like me. I love Passim with my entire heart — they are inclusive and want the best for the world — but out of habit, and out of the people you always book, you don’t realize that — Oh wait! This is all white people, there are no patrons here who are Black.
I brought that to the attention of the staff leadership and they’ve been nothing but receptive and loving and kind, and I think that is a representation of what we need in the folk community. There’s a huge problem in folk music that no one even notices because it’s all white people. I feel honored that I work for a nonprofit that listens to me and takes that seriously and understands the weight of their responsibility as such a historic music venue, to change the precedent for how Black music and Black artists are treated.
Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, composer, and singer; leader of the experimental jazz band Social Science; founder/artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice
We’ve done a lot of talking about Black men and women that have been killed by police violence — not even just violence, but violence based on anti-Black racism. And then you have the trans community as well; those deaths don’t seem to get talked about as much.
Why I feel so encouraged is because this is the first time ever that the movement of this nature has been so diverse. It appears that people are finally seeing that we can be unified without being the same, without coming from the same racial or ethnic background. I’ve talked to people that were in the civil rights movement as activists, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. I was like “Have you seen this? Do you have a different feeling about this one?” And that answer was yes, purely based on that unification that we’re seeing. Things won’t really fully change until white people decide that it needs to change.
I’ve been reflecting on people that have been talking about this for years, like Audre Lorde. She said that “the need for unity is often misnamed as the need for homogeneity.” She was really ahead of her time. She also talks about interdependency, different strengths that are acknowledged and equal.
When I wrote “Bells,” when I wrote the lyric, Aaron Parks wrote the music — something happened when I heard him playing it on the piano. I thought of church bells. For me immediately, the imagery was church bells at a funeral. I had recently watched the Philando Castile shooting, and it immediately made me feel for the people that would be going to his funeral. What are they feeling? What would they say to this police officer? It was coming from the perspective of that person. It just kind of happened.
Just a few days ago, [the members of Social Science] started sending files to each other, and there’s one song that I immediately came up with an idea with words again, because that’s what’s totally in my brain and in my heart right now. It will come up.