Race and the Blues in St. Louis conversation recap of The Future: The Evolution of Blues Music
- Written by Bob Baugh
When Willie Dixon said, "the blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding," he could have been talking about the panel for the third Race and Blues conversation. The next generation of blues artists put their feelings about the future out there for everyone to hear. The Sunday panel was the final conversation in a three-part series co-sponsored by the St. Louis Blues Society and KDHX. The first dialogue, "The Past: Stigma of the Blues" drew upon the insights of a group of long-time music artists and educators. The second, "The Present: Reality of Blues Music Today, provided an institutional perspective on the current challenges blues music faces.
To open the final session moderator Dr. Rosalind Norman identified lessons and themes from the first two dialogues and then posed a series of questions to the panel. The questions covered blues as an art form for change, evolving and preserving its origins, building a stronger cultural identity, and the influence of technology. The panel was a display of St. Louis's next generation of blues artists: Marquise Knox, band leader and entrepreneur; Alonzo Townsend, music producer, blues historian, and entertainment director at the National Blues Museum; Little Dylan Triplett, a 17-year-old vocalist and blues musician; and Teec'a Easby, a songstress and vocalist with Torrey Casey & the South Side Hustle.
Marquise Knox got right to the point about how tricky this conversation can be because it's not just about paying homage, it's also about current societal issues: "You have to talk about [the] real condition of black people. Our story has to be talked about in light of oppression, dealing with human rights violations." He also criticized the industry for whitewashing the by blues telling how Blues World and Rolling Stone both named a particular artist as a rising star except the latter identified the person as a country music artist. "You can't have it both ways," according to Knox, "we need to talk about what the blues are."
Alonzo Townsend spoke to the role of personal responsibility in artists being mindful of what the roots are when he asked, "Are you willing to nurture the roots, to be a part of our culture, or are you going to just stand on top of them?" He emphasized that this was not about playing but truth in labeling: "It's one thing to be a musician and do what you love, but it's a whole other thing to be a bluesman and play the blues because that is not only an art form. It's our way of life. It's our history and heritage."
Just like Knox and Townsend, Dylan Triplett is learning about his blues heritage from family and friends. His dad, Art Pollard, a local saxophone player, encourages his formal education while helping Dylan develop his craft. Triplett said he has learned that "you need to be willing to understand fully what's going on in the blues to take that next level." Getting to the roots helps him tap into the passion.
Teec'a Easby sees life as a parent and a performer. For the Normandy High School graduate, music is life: "It is the way we express our feelings, our thoughts. The more positive thoughts we have the better our lives will be." When it comes to her kids, her message was clear: "We need to do more in our schools. We have to build our foundation for our children." She wants to help build that foundation by taking her music to schools. "It's a way for me to give back to our young people no matter what color or race they are."
The question Knox raised about "what are the blues" linked the past to the present. It was a theme he would touch on all afternoon. He began by tracing his family's roots through generations of cotton picking to slavery in New Orleans and North Carolina. "That's the blues," he said. To Knox an honest conversation about the future requires a discussion of what people were robbed of and of reparation.
The point about reparation was not about writing individual checks. To Knox, it's about investing in "our kids so they can get an education." He likened it to the GI Bill which allowed returning veterans to get a house and education. He also pointed out that black veterans were excluded from the benefits of the GI Bill: "They could not get a loan, and those that did lost everything in the stock market crash. It took all the equity and wealth out of the black community. And, it has not been replaced--where we see money has been replaced in other parts of America. That's the blues."
The investment question in the discussion operated at two levels. One was our musical heritage as Townsend put it: "It is one of the greatest treasures this country has, but no one is really willing to stand up and invest in it. Our city doesn't invest in it. If St. Louisans were willing to stand up and recognize that, then it would help us rise as one of the epicenters of the country." The other level was the condition of the black community and the lack of infrastructure investment in North St. Louis. He sees that as a key to changing the environment and building a stronger community. That's the blues, too, as Knox would say.
Talking about economic blues raised the issue of music and musicians as agents of social change. Knox shared his views about heritage, history and politics of social media. During the panel discussion, his critique ran from the treatment of President Obama, pundits, inequality, displacement and the failure of the nation to address the needs of the Priority Minority.
The Rev. William Barber, whose belief in a common moral duty led to his building the racially diverse Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina, has been an inspiration to Knox. He sees being engaged and voting as critical to social change: "Put people in office that talk about Medicare for all. This don't help just black people. I live in Bowling Green, Missouri (slapping his hand for emphasis). Most of the folks there are white and poor. They need help. That's the blues."
Triplett, still in high school, sees deficiencies in a system where, "they teach us about Black History in one or two chapters in an entire history book over a month. And they sugar coat it by saying we did the music, but they don't go into any depth." He believes that kids need to have something to look forward to so that they will have something to invest in. He thought it was the same with cities, "if you actually put some investment in it and show that you actually care, then maybe the people will actually care that you are trying to put something in there."
Achieving social change requires being informed and engaged. Townsend said there were many black and younger leaders emerging, but "we need to be informed about the strides they are taking and to get behind them." He called for positive engagements with the police and daily neighborhood conversations that build personal relationships and show each other's humanity.
Townsend also decried the cutting of school music budgets while "the people who supposed to be leading us promote gangster images like Scarface on television." He sees changing those images, what people see when they walk out their door, and the role younger role models like Marquise Knox are critical to changing the perceptions of young black men.
Triplett is a young black musician whose perceptions are being shaped by the people around him. It began with parents who moved "for better schools and neighborhoods," and a dad who shares the music and the roots. He thanked Knox and Skeet Rodgers as musicians who "opened my eyes and showed the bridge." Knox is a role model. "I can see how he has matured and improved in the last two years, and I know I can do that," he said. Triplett still listens to rap but is put off by its images of sex, drugs, guns and lack of respect.
Self-respect is one of the driving forces in Teec'a Easby's career: "As a woman I've dealt with so much adversity dealing with men in the music industry. I've walked out of many studios, left plenty of groups, stopped dealing with plenty of people, lost plenty of friends because of the disrespect in the music industry towards our black women. We have to represent ourselves way better." She is also put off by the negative imagery on television like The Housewives of Atlanta. "It's not real, it's embarrassing," she says.
Easby wished there were way more women like her in music to show young women that there is a better future. She does it by talking to the girls who see her sing: "They are all googly-eyed. I tell them how beautiful they are. Talking to them about their day and life can help change things." And she has changed herself. "I had to find a different frequency," she said, "I had to change my way of thinking, [and] the way the universe comes to me."
Today, education, music and her children are the focus of Easby's life. She believes education is a lifelong opportunity for everyone to make their lives better. That starts at home for her: "I didn't have the best education, but I'm busting my behind to make sure my kids do. I hope we are all taking that measure for our children."
The audience engagement opened with a perspective from a German participant who offered her home country as an example: "Unless a nation is ready to acknowledge the shame, you cannot change anything. Acknowledge it, rather than trying to suppress it, which is suppressing a people--a whole group of people. When everybody contributes to that acknowledging, then the healing can start."
The takeaways for the white community were straightforward. Knox said, "when we stand up for something, stand with us." Triplett agreed by pointing out how under our skin we are all the same and that "united we stand, divided we fall." Using pointed humor, Knox also called out the economic inequality and the generational wealth that underlies it as a takeaway: "Black folks ain't did nothin but pass down a funeral bill, a sweet tea recipe, and a fried chicken recipe. You all pass down hundreds of thousands of dollars and homes to your kids."
The artists all agreed that being open, approachable and humble was a key in making a connection with a younger generation. Triplett sees himself as a nice guy and role model for others, as Knox is for him: "He makes me proud to be black and talented." Easby goes to schools to encourage people to do what they love. So does Townsend with the "Blues in the Schools" program. He encouraged people to bring their kids to the National Blues Museum, to learn the history, and to see a live show. Several folks talked about taking the music to the community by revitalizing the blues festivals that used to be held in Fairgrounds Park.
A question about a roadmap for respectful white musicians brought the fundamental issues behind the Race and Blues conversations full circle. Knox's answer was simple: "The black story is just our story. It's not your story to add, divide, or subtract. You can tell it, if you tell it right. You can come play the blues all night long." Townsend encouraged white artists to invest in and learn the culture, and to "stand next to us shoulder-to-shoulder, not only for the blues, but for the culture."
The conclusion of Race and Blues conversations can be boiled down to this: respect, acknowledgement, and investment in the blues, artists, community, and culture are all part of a package that honors and preserves the heritage of black music. But, as the final dialogue emphasized, the past isn't just the past. The struggle goes on. As one audience member put it, "this country is the blues until the folks with color in their skin get the same opportunity that the rest of us have." You could see the panelists nodding their heads and almost hear them thinking: "Yes, that's the blues."
Click on the photo below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos of the event.