The blues was created in the late 1800s/early 1900s by African Americans in the deep south. They would write and sing about the struggles of being black in a country where black people are viewed as less than.
I knew that racism was still a big problem in this country. But this past month, I realized that it’s a far bigger problem than I had originally thought. I’ve also seen that it exists in the blues scene, which surprised me as blues music is black protest music.
I reached out to a few friends of mine that I know have experienced this problem, and I asked them if they wanted any of their stories with Virtuosity Worldwide. These eye-opening stories need to be told.
I recently did an interview with Kat Riggins for Virtuosity on her new single “Cry Out.” I knew this a problem that she’s seen, and she told me that it’s one she sees regularly. One thing in particular stands out among all the other struggles.
“Other than being talked down to and constantly underestimated… one thing that sticks out the most is the discrepancies in pay. There have been a few times when I’ve been asked to play for much less than my nonblack counterparts at festivals. Believe it or not, one festival promoter actually had the audacity to insist that I sell a certain dollar amount in tickets to the festival to cover my fee. Needless to say, I declined to participate in that festival at all, but the point is he thought it was ok to ask that of me and not of everyone. Sometimes getting to or from the gig is where the scary stuff happens…”
“Driving home from a stretch in the Northeast, we got pulled over by a white cop. He saw the writing on our van that said Blues Revival and stopped us and told us to be extra careful around “these parts” because some of his colleagues were just waiting to pull over “this kind of vehicle” and they don’t all share his views. Thank God for that good cop. He may have saved us from a not so good one. These risks that we take just to get to the gig are one of the many reasons why it’s not ok to insult us by underpaying us”.
I also think it’s important to spread positivity, so I also asked Kat about the people in the industry are making a great impact. She specifically pointed out a legendary festival promoter in New England.
“Let’s shine a big ole light on Paul Benjamin. He is at the top of my list. Not only does he recognize and hire black talent, but he also acknowledges that it’s a problem that a lot of other promoters don’t. He’s even helped me to book gigs around his festivals to make the trip make more sense (financially). Paul has even been supportive to me beyond where the music is concerned and I appreciate that. He’s a friend now, and that’s because he’s genuinely a good guy and I know that he has my best interests at heart,” says Kat.
Boston blues veteran Professor Harp has been in the music business since the ’70s, and he’s noticed a lot over the years. But with all the struggle he’s faced, he will not give up.
“I’ll never give up on the Blues. No matter that my life as a Bluesman living in a sea of white folks here in the New England area has been nothing but a vicious struggle, battling the racism that is inherent in our part of the world. Fighting the battle of childhood abuse, isolation, bullying. No, I’ll never give up trying. That’s why they call me The Undaunted Professor Harp. I tell it like it is. Like it was. I’ve got plenty to say. And yes, I keep on, keepin’ on”.
Professor says the change won’t be easy, but he thinks that it could come.
“I’d settle, right now, to just see a more even playing field in the blues scene if live music revives”.
Soul singer Lauren Mitchell has toured the country with her 5-piece band. Mulitple of her band members are black men. Lauren has a unique perspective because she’s seen how people treated her differently than her black bandmates.
“I have run into situations where I have piled out of the van with an all-black band, 3 black guys & one white woman (this was before she hired her keyboard player), and had club owners & managers give me a funny look”.
Lauren has seen some racism in the blues community, but the worst of it she’s seen outside of gigs. Lauren experienced white privilege in its first degree when she went with one of her bandmates into a health food store. (She said it was in Michigan if she remembers correctly).
“One of my bandmates, who is a black man, wanted to buy some vitamins. So we stopped at a health food store & I went in with him. On travel days I am usually in jeans, a baggy t-shirt, dark sunglasses & a ball cap. While I’m on the road I also carry a backpack. My bandmate & I walked into the health food store & I was dressed as I mentioned above – hat, sunglasses, baggy clothes & carrying a backpack. He was wearing his usual jeans & a T-shirt…and no sunglasses.
However, Lauren’s black band members aren’t the only ones who have experienced racism. Her bass player, Manny, is Cuban. Both him & Lauren speak fluent Spanish, and they got some disapproving looks in a store in Maine.
“The years I toured with those guys was when I saw a lot of racism. I also experienced racism while I was on tour last year with Manny because he’s Latino (Cuban, to be exact). When he & I were in a cool consignment store in Maine we were speaking Spanish to each other … and the staff did not speak to us or offer to help when we tried to find out a price for an item we were looking at. The only difference between us & the rest of the customers is that we were speaking another language. I was very upset & left. Manny told me that he has had things like that happen to him all his life. And he is a white Cuban! It makes me so sad”.
“We can’t go back to 1955, we can’t go back to 1965, we can’t even go back to 1975. We can’t waste any more time. This stuff is taking us backward. I tour Europe on a regular basis, and people in Europe say, ‘what’s wrong with the United States'”?
Those of the words of Boston’s legendary soul shouter Barrence Whitfield, who was just a young kid during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Many people say that racism has gotten worse over the years, but Barrence said the bigotry has always been there. However, it was just recently that people started being more open about their racist beliefs.
“It was always pretty suppressed. It would come out in dribs and drabs, but it wouldn’t be as out in the open because after the ’60s we had gone through a period in the ’70s & ’80s where the only way you could figure that out were through certain job interviews, education, going in the wrong neighborhood, etc. It was kind of kept in its own place. (About 10 years ago), things started to raise an ugly head”.
“There used to be the code words, there were certain code words that went right by you if you didn’t catch them, but now they’re being blatantly used. People will go out and tell you to your face”.
Although Barrence hasn’t seen a change, he is very hopeful that we finally will.
“These things are still happening in our black neighborhoods. These changes that were coming never came. 2020 has to be the year of change. It’s got to be.“
Some people may say that this is a controversial subject for me to write about, but I disagree. I have no intention of creating controversy. However, I cannot sit with my mouth shut knowing that every day, people are judged for a chemical in their skin. Racism isn’t a political problem, it’s a basic human rights problem. We need to come together and make a long-overdue change, and I will not stop speaking up until a difference is made.