That headline probably reads a bit harsher than intended and that’s a choice I made but let’s just start with the fact that what’s to come here isn’t meant as a dismissal or diminishing of anything. It’s meant as a thought-provoking contemplation of the word “ALSO.” Society nowadays is so full of dichotomies, binary choices, two way-scenarios, and a lack of grey areas. It’s as if, the only way to operate is to pick sides. No reasonable person would acknowledge that something is a problem while also acknowledging a second, third, or fourth set of issues. The hell that would incur!
The irony is that there is so much talk about inclusion in public discourse but when it comes to discussing the complexities around that concept, we seem to operate as an EITHER / OR society. Confusing, isn’t it?
There’s a risk I’m going to get a ton of flack and brilliantly articulated emotion from people for putting these thoughts out here and I recognize that. Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I felt a spark after reading this post by Professor Ethan Hein and back when this website was still in its infancy, I wrote with more candor about whatever spurred the thought of discussion and back then I was less worried about backlash because no one knew who I was. However, I don’t feel like I’m shouting into a void of one anymore so to some extent, public stakes are higher than they were for me in 2010. But, in the spirit of the anniversary of this place having just passed yesterday, I thought it perhaps useful to revisit the drive, motivations, and touch of fearlessness I had in the beginning. Bearing that in mind, this piece is an open letter to Ethan Hein, professor, doctoral candidate, musician, fellow writer, and digital friend, in connection with his recent post titled, “White people with acoustic instruments covering rap songs.”
Dear Professor Hein,
Immediately airing out what will likely be perceived as bias by some, as a fan of his, I was intrigued when I saw mention of Chris Thile in your latest blog post. To keep reading and then find that the discussion on Thile was actually one of blunt disappointment and borderline disgust, was alarming to say the least. In reading your criticism of Thile’s two-year past performance of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” it became increasingly more difficult not to feel that the line of logic put between many feelings you shared, was one of distorted proportions. There’s no denying if Thile himself retrospectively felt performing Lamar’s song was a decision he partially regrets but is it fair to berate the choice so harshly when there exist similar circumstances that incur less recoil? It’s as though we’re meant to read about a song like “Alright” or one of similarly serious motivation for a black artist, and put it in a box that says, “Do not touch unless you are ______” and the reason for all the protectiveness stems from not wanting to end up with a take like Thile’s which you seem to feel was grossly inappropriate because:
He hasn’t experienced the events in the song first hand
Even if he’s not trying to be literal, because Lamar was when he wrote it, Thile’s lack of mutual, autobiographically connective experience makes him a bad choice to approach the song at all.
Well first off, if the idea we’re supposed to run with is a qualifying phrase of “don’t unless,” what goes into that descriptive blank? Is it a race? Is it a certain type of musician? Is it a certain type of instrument? Is it all three at once? If that’s so, then I move to a second line of contemplation here:
How can anyone justify approaching any music that stems from a place of auto-biographical experiences if those experiences move to recount anything more serious than a teenage breakup or desire to party in the summer?
In the many re-runs of the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain explores the less glamorous parts of Los Angeles and speaks with locals within the Chicano community. Did you know the community out there has a deep love for Morrissey and The Smiths, which includes among admiring the songs, local groups covering them? When Bourdain pressed for why because the combination was so unexpected, one of the responses from local Boyle Heights resident, Elisa Sol Garcia, chalked the collective enthusiasm up to the following:
“I think Morrissey speaks – you know, it’s so odd, here’s this white guy – about displacement and this longing for like, a mythic home. Because, when I go to Mexico, I’m like a sore thumb there. You know, my Spanish is horrible, the way I dress, the way I talk, but there’s just something about it. You know, Morrissey really articulates that experience. He’s an immigrant. He is Irish. You know he felt displaced.”
So here, we would see this admiration and replication of music as acceptable because there’s a lived parallel, right? If the experiences of Kendrick Lamar’s life are so grave, so intense, and so uniquely connected with his identity as a black man, then how are we not to apply the same blockade of exclusion around any songs written that strike a similarly vulnerable, personal, and experientially singular chord?
In contrast with the seemingly relatable displacement / misfitting connection drawn between the Los Angeles Chicano community and Morrissey / The Smiths, in the case of Amy Winehouse, where is all the performative security and sanctity for her breakout single, “Rehab”? Goodness knows there are countless covers of the famous track, across bands, solo artists, plugged-in, acoustic, male, female, LGBTQ+, races of all kinds, and too many instruments combinations to count. However, what are the odds that every single person who ever ventured to sing that song personally battled with addiction, tore their family into pieces trying to get well, and nearly died before reaching enough of a recovering place to even decide to sing the song?
Let me jump out ahead of you and say, I realize drugs are not a person’s skin color. But much of the discussion surrounding the sanctity of black experiences (or any racially related experience for that matter) revolves around the negative aspects of everyday life that people of this race are often forced to contend with simply because of that facet of their human existence. Now think about this: Drugs are everywhere. They cross state lines, continents, socio-economic brackets, genders and non-binary orientations and, of course, races. No, drug use is not the same as the skin one is born into when they take their first breath in the world but for the millions upon millions who have used, died, or are constantly battling recovery, and then for all those affected in their immediate circles, while a history or a current relationship with drugs doesn’t define all of a person, it becomes an inextricable part of their being and their story – down to the literal chemicals in the brain.
So what is it about the idea of music rooted in black culture – particularly the parts of the black culture which are devastating and scarring – that makes it, like your example of Lamar’s “Alright,” demanding of extra consciousness and delicacy over decisions like who performs it and how they deliver their interpretation? Why is a qualifier of racial experience narrated in music so untouchable but for other human experiences and existences that are equally as ubiquitous, sometimes just as devastating, and connected with similar unfair shunning or persecution, there isn’t nearly the level of protective backlash around musical works that divulge as much? I don’t venture to say that your points raised are incorrect or unfounded but rather, if it makes this much sense, then one has to consider applying it to more categories and artist-music dynamics. If not, that’s where a problem of exception based disproportionate standards seems ripe for the forming.
Furthermore, when this initial topic of Thile and Lamar cleanly diverged to critiquing of Thile’s interview with the Wall Street Journal on “Genre Hopping,” it seemed everything he did and said was being put against a frame of racial motivation no matter what, and honestly, that’s not a fair assessment. If we’re talking about things in any way implied as opposed to overtly stated, Thile’s whole theme around that section of the interview is addressing the schism that still exists between the classical sector and mainstream pop-rock because in the former there’s stigma against external noise and outward expression that defies strict etiquette (e.g. everyone’s personal favorite, ‘Don’t clap between movements’), while in the latter, people are permitted to display their appreciation or lack thereof outwardly and in the moment.
And before we connect the expectations around actions in concerts back to race, I might posit that your focus on the racial vantage point forgets the fact that this example of divide is just as rooted in the high-brow / low-brow art divide and that this particular divide can cross racial lines. Should anyone who isn’t devoutly religious or, more specifically, Lutheran, be playing Bach’s Baroque music? His work was steeped in purposes intent for religious use and patronage by the religious and royally wealthy. Yes, these were largely European folk but it was the divide between sacred, secular, and money: a status symbol that excluded whites from other whites. It wasn’t just a white / person of color power dynamic. This was where elitism in music stemmed from. Music was meant for the service of honoring God, and anything else was deemed devil’s work. But we’ve evolved from that, clearly. If anything, Thile’s address of the stifling of audience noise at a classical concert was him pointing out displeasure at the whole expectation because why not show appreciation for a well executed performance? But despite him essentially agreeing with your subsequent expression of displeasure of classical music’s rigidity with ritual, it’s not just a music crossed with race thing.
If we’re drawing on personal experiences as you did with your son’s piano recital and the “white bodily comportment” enforced by the recital hosts/teachers, what about the idea that a place like Smoke Jazz Club, a storied and iconic venue catering to jazz musicians going back decades and hosting some of the most significant musicians to enter the genre, has, and stringently enforces, a total “no talking” policy when the music is playing. And mind you, this isn’t strictly a concert venue. It’s a restaurant and bar with multiple shows a night, every night. So it’s not as though music only happens inside one specific daily window, leaving patrons the option of enjoying Smoke’s reputable food and a drink at other times when a group of friends might want to decompress after work. The point here, is that while audience etiquette and performer expression can be traced back to expectations formed within racial boxes, it can and does also exist in a vein that is more driven today by genres’ (not all of which are classical, European / caucasian-centric styles) societal values intertwining with economic status, which isn’t just a battlefield in the black community. People seeing Chris Thile perform in the lower east side at Rockwood Music Hall aren’t paying the same price as those seeing him perform uptown, as part of his Carnegie Hall Composer’s Chair programming. Nor are they eating the same food, wearing the same clothes to the show, or given the same quality of seating for the price they pay. (I’d argue the Rockwood folk actually fair better for less!)
Then of course, there’s the matter of your apparent higher approval around Mary Halsey’s cover to Missy Elliot’s “Work It.” Your initial stab at discerning your feelings, (“For one thing, she’s rapping over an actual rap instrumental, not a mandolin, that helps. Also, the subject matter of the song is more plausible coming from her. Her obvious good humor helps too.”) makes your opinion and reasoning for the performance being less unlikable, seem high-brow, purist driven, and presumptuous all in one. Context of your whole post is important of course but it doesn’t change what ultimately is your base opinion of this cover. As someone who spent countless hours reading, writing, and getting super passionate about the idea of breaking down the high to low-brow stereotype divide in genres across the musical spectrum, the idea that a cover is somehow more acceptable, true to form, or real, because it’s right kind of arrangement or instrument, or because one person looks like a “more plausible” conveyer of a message over another, sounds very stylistically restrictive and socially elitist. To me, that connects back to seeing how someone dresses or talks and assuming you know their economic status or education level. It’s not the best place to start from when deciding who is “best” suited to approach certain music. More over, in making your own case for or against different takes on black music, you praised Emily Wells’ take on Biggie’s rap mostly because it departed from the original so severely.
“Why is Emily Wells so much less cringe worthy [singing Biggie’s “Juicy”]? I guess I appreciate that she isn’t trying to emulate or imitate the vibe of the original at all, that she made a genuinely new and personal work of art out of it.”
Thus, I return to the idea of “also” and the postulation that, if those of us in the music sector who are trying to increase tolerance, creativity, and genuine curiosity about everything therein want to make judgements on something being over a line, we have to do it with some degree of cognizance that extends beyond race. Otherwise, with no comprehensible form of understanding or standard, judgement like this just creates paranoia or isolation among styles, artists, and communities out of fear that despite identical songs being similarly in approached for a cover, one person’s impressive “Juicy” is another person’s reprehensible “Alright.”
With all the best curiosity driven intentions and respect,