THE LONG HAUL: Passing the Mic, Part 2
Giri (left) and Uma Peters (photo by Sarah Hanson)
This month, I’ve been working on learning and unlearning, and trying to do better in the fight for racial justice. Somewhere in that process, it came to my attention that my voice is not the one that needs to be heard on this platform right now. So I asked some musicians who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) if they would be willing to share their views on how the Americana/folk/bluegrass music scene can be a more welcoming and supportive space for BIPOC people. This is the second installment of this series. Part 1 featured exclusively Black voices and can be found here.
One thing that I’ve learned from reading these contributions is that BIPOC people in any given profession are too often called upon to do the work of anti-racism and inclusion despite that not being remotely their job, and that this is an immense social and emotional burden and can be awkward and tokenizing. I want to acknowledge that my asking for contributions to this column is just another continuation of that pattern, and in light of that I want to express my immense gratitude to all who contributed. My normal compensation for writing this column will be donated this month to the First Peoples Fund, which is a Native-led organization that supports Indigenous artists and culture bearers.
Mali Obomsawin (Lula Wiles)
Thoughts on making the music scene and industry more welcoming and supportive for BIPOC: This is a tall order because it requires everyone to become an activist in one way or another. A lot of people don’t want to do that. As a Native person in an otherwise all-white band with predominantly white audiences, I will say frankly that it is not easy to plant the idea of becoming an activist, seduce people into doing their own anti-racist work, and dismantle the layers of white apathy (concept coined by Layla F. Saad) and ignorance for people in this scene. I have often thought that a better and easier option is to just leave this scene. And I have had to let go of a lot of relationships with people and communities I was once invested in after accepting that they would never confront their own racism and ignorance.
I cannot emphasize enough that understanding this country’s roots in the theft and genocide of Native people and lands, and the theft of Black people and labor, is crucial to understanding ANYTHING that is going on today. Those racist colonial systems of dispossession, enslavement, and genocide never ended, they only assumed new institutional bodies, language, and aesthetics.
Because those systems have not changed, and because our educational systems fail us by misrepresenting and erasing America’s history, no white person is inherently neutral or inherently doing “no harm” as they occupy this land. It sounds harsh, but this is how it is. Ibram X. Kendi says that there is no such thing as “not racist”: you either support racist systems or you fight them. And if you benefit from them without actively trying to dismantle the racism they require and uphold, you are a part of it. For example, why do a land acknowledgement at your venue if you are not actively working to give land back to Native people? Recognizing that you are on “occupied Lenape land” without recognizing yourself as the occupier only serves to further erase Native sovereignty and support settler colonialism. Acknowledging that Black and Native people created American folk/blues music without working to make this community a safe space for Black and Native people only reinforces our exclusion and erasure.
This scene is no better or different than any other predominantly white community in the colonial state. Certainly it has concentrated cases of appropriation (the goddamn fringe jackets, moccasins, Indian head garments, Navajo inspired turquoise and silver, beaded imitation earrings, etc.) and trade-specific racism (anti-Black and anti-Native songs/tunes, promoters and stage managers saying racist shit on stage or tokenizing BIPOC, etc.); and we all have more than enough horror stories from interactions with audience members. But the real, lasting work is white people educating yourselves and holding each other accountable. Don’t make us educate you on everything, and if you get called out, be gracious and accept that you don’t know more about what is and isn’t racist than the BIPOC that called you out. Your “intention” not to do harm is irrelevant, your impact matters.
Accountability means not attending or playing festivals that promote racists or have racist promoters. Learning how to boycott. Sacrificing that career check-mark of playing X festival or series if they hire known racists or abusers. Not assuming that your Christian church is a neutral place for concerts (HELLO, Christianity is colonialism’s mistress). Center all of your decisions as an artist and person in the understanding that this country and its capitalist system is inherently racist, and always ask yourself if you are supporting or fighting it.
If you have ever hired musicians or producers, booked studio time, or put together a bill, you are a gatekeeper. Understand that to be a gatekeeper is a privilege and a responsibility. Look at your social circles, look at the musicians you call for sessions, at the artists you call to share a bill, at the songwriters you choose to write with, the artists that you listen to and support. Do they look like you? Do they have similar backgrounds and upbringing? Do you share a similar level of privilege? If so, ask yourself why. Like, really ask yourself. Sit with it. Go deep, and don’t stop digging. Access your empathy. Take responsibility for your choices. And if/when you decide to do something to change how your world is built, don’t look for a pat on the back. Don’t rush to shout it from the rooftops. Just do it. If you’re doing the work, we’ll feel it.
Anh Phung (Twisted Pine / Jaron Freeman-Fox and the Opposite of Everything)
It goes against my instinct to speak about my experiences as I feel that it takes away space from those who face serious racial discrimination, particularly during this time that is ripe for progress. That being said, I’d still like to honor the fact that I’ve been asked to share my voice and I believe that I have a unique perspective as a woman POC instrumentalist. I hope that sharing my experience will help inform the complicated terrain of racism within the music community and beyond.
Being part of the folk/roots scene (particularly the Americana and bluegrass scenes) has been such a wonderful experience, yet I still encounter so many frustrations. The countless times I have entered a room for a show, a jam, or a soundcheck to have people take one look at me and quickly dismiss me. Most of the time I can’t tell if it’s because I’m Asian, because I’m a woman, or because I play the flute, and to be honest, I don’t think those who are judging me are fully aware of what they’re basing these assumptions on either. Through this, I’ve learned that at first glance, I’m not exactly the image of someone whom a lot of musicians, technicians, or audiences want to have around. And so starts the dance where I have to prove myself as a person who’s knowledgeable about the genre, can play my instrument, and is fluent in “white culture.” All this before I’ve even put the flute to my mouth.
The anxiety comes back every time I step into a jam session because of the numerous times I’ve gotten looks of doubt, received words of skepticism, or in worst cases, been denied the opportunity to play at all. Of course it’s all rainbows and daisies as soon as I play a single note, and we all pretend the initial encounter never happened in the first place. After a show, people love to admit their doubts upon seeing me and immediately follow up with a compliment of how pleasantly shocked they were once I started to play. I recognize that they’re just trying to emphasize their point about how impressed they are, but doubting the “little Asian flute girl” is a destructive implicit bias. Even with these demeaning interactions, I continue to crave the approval of the very people who have wrongfully judged me.
Sometimes people simply make it clear that it is in fact racism driving their interactions with me, and strangely, those situations have been the easiest to process and I’ve been the quickest to shrug it off. Why is that?
When faced with a threat, we can enter a “fight or flight” response. We are currently seeing a very beautiful manifestation of the fight response through these tumultuous times. My personal background comes from a flight response. My parents are Vietnamese refugees who both ended up in Canada, a country known for its “niceness.” I can tell you that they experienced traumatizing treatment that Canadians wish they could deny. My parents did their best to blend into the background, to stay out of the way. That was their way to “keep the peace” and avoid any more hurt.
I had a bit of a different approach from my parents. The “flight” response but packaged a little differently. Growing up, my way of blending in was to BE white. I tried to sound white, act white, look white. I wanted to prove to white people that I was one of them and they need not feel “uncomfortable” around me, heaven forbid. In doing that, I had also pushed away my own culture and tolerated the racism and microaggressions toward me and the people around me in order to be accepted. In having this “flight” response, I was perpetuating the idea that racism doesn’t exist in our society, and yet it was through my endeavors of assimilation that I have the career that I have. It was white supremacy at its finest.
As uncomfortable as it is to say, I perceive there to be a hierarchy of racism that is rooted in white supremacy and I sit somewhere in the middle. I feel guilt when presenting my issues and traumas because they seem trivial compared to those who have it worse than me. The fact that I am able to take the more passive line of defense (“flight” mode) is a privilege in itself. And yet I don’t want to diminish the issue that I regularly feel the need to defend myself in the first place. It’s been an emotional process unpacking my implicit biases and the ways in which I’ve perpetuated racism, and yet it’s only through this recognition that I’ve been forced to acknowledge the extent of racism toward me. This process of reflection has been cathartic and transformative for me and I must urge you, the reader, to do the same.
I love roots and folk music. There is definitely an aspect of Americana/roots music that is very inclusive and well spoken about current problems in this world, but I think where some people go wrong is when they only think about the music and not the community/bigger world. I think that if the goal is to expand this music to more people of color, then people need to be having open conversations about systemic racism.
From glancing at the publicity and media within this genre, it is sometimes difficult to know that there are more than just a handful of artists of color who play this music. There needs to be an increased focus and work to make it a more welcoming environment for people of color and promote a broader range of artists who could also broaden their audiences for this music.
As a 15-year-old kid of color there have been places within the community where I have not felt welcome. White people will never know what it is like to be a person of color in America, but there are many ways that they can help us to eliminate racism and create more welcoming spaces. I think that we have to remember that music is the one thing that has the ability to bring people of all different ages, sexualities, races, and beliefs together. Especially during these hard times I think it is important to stick together and create change within our communities.
David Vila (The Rumba Madre)
Born into a Galician family and growing up in the Basque Country — both in northern Spain — I have been surrounded by folk and roots music all my life. I guess the only difference between my experience and what most people understand by “folk and roots music” is that in my case the “folk” — from German volk (people) — and the “roots” were not in the US but somewhere else. In addition to this, lately I have also been playing loads of Americana music. I have been playing salsa, merengue, bachata, corridos, tangos, etc. All beautiful music from the American continent. Or should I refer to this music as “Latin-Americana” and only use “Americana” for US music? No, wait, that wouldn’t really work: salsa started in New York, which is part of the US, even if it is mainly based on Latin instruments and rhythms.
Let me use the paragraph above to introduce something that I believe is crucial when trying to be inclusive in our respective music scenes or industry-related relationships: decolonizing the parameters through which we understand music. If you want your local Latin bands to play at your Taco Fest, Cinco de Mayo, or other Latin-themed event, remember that they can also play on your songwriters’ night downtown. Yes, even if they sing in a different language than that spoken by most at these events. I believe that we must understand that inclusiveness and diversity isn’t only about creating spaces in which all those artists and musicians who play less popular music styles can take part but also, and especially, about deconstructing the already existing platforms to include a more diverse variety. Otherwise, we would only be opening up ghettoized spaces through which we would continue to remain separated while upholding the monopolized power present in the already established spaces. One must be willing to give up space, to share the scene. One must be willing to abandon the colonial mentality that keeps musicians playing less popular styles or that come from other parts of the world from becoming an organic part of every city’s music scene.
And, in this task, language matters a great deal. Roots, folk, traditional, Americana, or other concepts such as US music, American music, must be reconceptualized. Tex-Mex corridos, salsa, timba, cumbia, and other Latin-related music styles were either developed in the US or are as popular among musicians in the US as they are among other musicians around the world. Therefore, we must understand that all these music styles can also be considered US music styles, not something that came from outside brought by foreign musicians. Salsa is as much roots or folk music in the US as bluegrass can be; a half German and half Dominican woman born in Puerto Rico, growing up in Chicago, and playing samba music and singing in Portuguese is representative of the US music as much Johnny Cash is. The same way Spanish was spoken in the US way before English was, making Spanish a US language too. We must decolonize our minds and understand that there is no monolithic way of understanding what US music is. The same way we must understand that the US identity is not only connected to white Christian English-speaking heterosexual families.
I am a first-generation American, born into a family of Indian immigrants. I was born and raised in Appalachia. Its music, stories, and culture are mine, as much as my family’s Indian heritage and culture. For me, the choice to learn, love, and pursue bluegrass was a formative step in me claiming ownership over that culture. Bluegrass, synthesized from so many disparate influences, is truly a music of identity — of the American identity that I so badly craved.
As a person of color existing in largely white spaces, there are no shortage of roadblocks to claiming that identity. My experiences pale in comparison to the systemic erasure of the contributions of Black artists, whose work is the bedrock upon which this music is built, and I want to be cautious of centering myself and my experience as a non-Black POC in a conversation that, given the zeitgeist, should be focusing on amplifying Black voices. I can only offer my testimony and hope that some may find it worthy of consideration within the larger framework.
You asked specifically about how white folks can push for inclusion while avoiding tokenism. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I feel that the language of “inclusion” is flawed. Inclusion suggests exclusion; that we, as artists of color, are being granted access to something that isn’t inherently ours. I find that logic faulty. I think that the focus should be on EQUITY, not equality, because in our diversity, we find strength, but equity. Identify the systemic inequalities that exist, and work to eradicate them. Listen to and BELIEVE artists of color when we speak about the prejudices we face. Don’t minimize or question the veracity of our claims of racism, fear of physical or emotional harassment, unequal access to resources or gigs due to our backgrounds, and more. Identify and acknowledge your own biases and privileges before you ask a POC to expend emotional labor to educate you.
I am always struggling to balance the dichotomy of wanting to be recognized solely for my merit and simultaneously wanting to honor my story. I don’t get to choose the skin I wake up in, and there are many times I have wished to be recognized simply as a bluegrass bassist, and not “The Indian Bluegrass Bassist,” but I don’t have that luxury. One of the greatest joys of our music is its immediacy — I can walk into a room with a group of people I’ve never met, and we can immediately engage in conversation in a shared dialect. As with any language, it’s important to understand the etymology of the words, to learn the syntax; in this case, to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of communities of many identities.
I think that one of the most important factors in making folk and roots music more diverse and inclusive is looking back at the history of the music. That would not only open the eyes of many who never knew the history, but would also help people understand and appreciate the contributions people of color have made to this music. We also need to change the mentality that musicians have to play a certain style of music because of the color of their skin. Music is meant to bring people together — not discriminate because anyone looks or acts differently.
Dan Bui (Twisted Pine)
It’s interesting to try and answer this question in light of more serious struggles in say, the Black, or Indigenous, or LGBTQ communities. As an Asian American in an overwhelmingly white field, I have definitely at times felt like an outsider, even an imposter in the worlds of Americana, bluegrass, and old-time. In these spaces importance is so often placed on musical and cultural authenticity, and I have zero claim to that kind of authenticity when it comes to traditional American music. I’m someone who just happened to discover it as a suburban teenager. Of course, the same could be said for many people: Not everybody is born into a family of traditional musicians. We all come to the music from different places, but for me it’s obvious at first glance — I look different.
I grew up in Houston, Texas, a child of Vietnamese immigrants. Early on, I was taught to assimilate, to fit in. When I started public school, I was placed in ESL classes. My parents were told that for my English to catch up, they should stop speaking Vietnamese with me at home. It worked too well — my young, malleable brain latched onto the dominant culture, and now my English is fluent and effortless, but I struggle speaking Vietnamese, my first language. With the exception of food and the occasional holiday with my parents, there’s not much of an obvious connection to Vietnamese “culture” in my life. It’s a common experience with second-generation immigrants like me, especially when the family is upwardly mobile. When we’re young, we’re taught to assimilate. When we’re older, we realize that we’ve lost something.
When it comes to being in the music scene, this disconnect manifests as a feeling of invisibility. Very rarely is my race acknowledged. Probably people think it would be rude to do that. Of course, when someone does decide to ask me about it, it’s usually done in the most awkward way imaginable (no, we’re not related!). With the exception of being asked to contribute to this column, my experience is also never recognized as a POC. I get it. If I played traditional Vietnamese music or something, I might be valuable for diversity and people would address me as an Asian-American. But I don’t, and so that aspect of me is never brought up.
So what can people do to be more welcoming? I guess it starts with understanding that even with all the recent institutional moves toward “diversity,” there are still so many unheard and underrepresented voices out there. While the sentiment is nice, oftentimes the action can be clumsy. Be thoughtful in how you choose to engage folks. I feel like there’s a lot that’s being expected of POC to share their experience and to somehow offer solutions, but it doesn’t work that way. Inclusion doesn’t mean acknowledging us only when the topic is diversity or representation. Actually it’s super weird, even alienating, to be asked about your experience in that context only.
It’s been inspiring for me to see so many of my peers that come from marginalized groups speaking out from their platforms. I’ve just begun to really educate myself about many important issues, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s great that there’s a collective willingness to listen and learn, but let’s recognize that marginalized people have more to offer than just commentary on current social injustices. I’d also like to acknowledge that as a straight, cis, Asian male, I’m privileged to have to deal only with relatively minor microaggressions, and that there are many out there facing overt hostility, threats, and potential physical danger.
I was drawn to this music because I loved the sound of the instruments and the incredible ways that my favorite artists played them. I like learning about the history of the music, but to be honest I was never really that obsessed with authenticity or tradition. I was more interested in the individual musicians, their stories, their innovations, and their unique voices. I think the same can be said for the subject at hand. To be inclusive is to understand that every individual voice and experience is unique. Groups aren’t monoliths, and the reality of someone’s story is always so much more amazing and interesting than you think it is. It takes the work of asking respectfully and then really listening to even begin to empathize with someone and understand where they’re coming from.
Sarah Frank (The Bombadils)
It would be amazing to see a more diverse group of people playing folk music on our Canadian and American stages. “Folk music” is a tricky term. Really I think it includes music from every culture around the world, but I’m going to use it right now to talk about the music I play and write, which is heavily influenced by country, bluegrass, Celtic, and acoustic singer-songwriter traditions. Historically these are definitely not just white genres, but to be honest, that is mostly what I see on the stages around me, and in the audiences I play for. I’m sure this has to do with hiring/booking biases, but it may also have to do with the kinds of opportunities that are available for kids to play this kind of music. So I think exposing more kids of all backgrounds to the sounds of folk and roots music could go a long way.
When I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily get excited to listen to and play certain types of music because of how similar to me the people looked — I got excited to hear interesting sounds that were new to me. I started on classical violin. I know of more classical violinists that share my Asian roots than fiddle players, and while I did look up to them as a kid, the thing is, I loved the sound of the fiddle! I got hooked on the rhythm and the dancy-ness. I think a lot of kids — no matter their heritage — if they just heard the fiddle, they might like to play it, and then there would be a greater mix of kids getting into fiddle-based traditions. What if my classmates and I had all gone to a folk festival and gotten really excited about the wide range of music there? Or even if we were in music class in school and got to listen to recordings of folk music both traditional and contemporary?
Live music and workshops can make a great impression — maybe more folk festivals and concert series that take place during the school year can get involved in schools. Invite artists to play school shows on Friday or Monday morning. Get us doing songwriting workshops, and maybe then a more diverse group of kids will aspire to be folksy, acoustic singer-songwriters. Or we could visit a band class and share our creative process with them, how we make arrangements and play with harmony, share a list of our favorite bands for them to check out. Perhaps folk musicians can do workshops with post-secondary students enrolled in music education degrees, so more teachers can be inspired to bring folk music into their classrooms.
I think it’s exciting to think about the ways that folk music can be shared with a more diverse young audience, as a way to shape the diversity of future generations of folk musicians. Not only is it meaningful to see people like ourselves making different kinds of music, it’s meaningful just to know that a wider range of music exists in the first place — to have the opportunity to grow up loving it in all its wonderful variation, and to develop a hunger to participate in it, whether as a listener, musician, industry member, or all of the above, no matter who you are.