“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, unpitied…” — Edmund Burke
The first pop song I ever heard was “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. I was all in for music for life right then and there. I was six years old. I played for hours every day on my neighbor’s drums along with James Brown and Bob Marley for years until, by the age of 16, Clyde Stubblefield’s and Carly Barrett’s rhythms were ingrained in me. I believe I have an authentic lyrical style, but it would not exist without the daisy age of hip hop, and I would not sing as I do without Marvin Gaye.
I’m not pandering, I’m just aware of my sources.
Music is foundational to my life. Though I am infused with Joy Division and Bon Iver and such, the headwaters of the music that flows through me, all of it, finds its source in Black brilliance.
Apart from music, the nexus of where civics meets with a moral psychology is all Dr. Martin Luther King. My model for channeling seething rage through cool intellect is James Baldwin. My sense of dramatic structure comes from Ntozake Shange. These are Black voices downloaded into who I am ingeniously.
My sense of rebellion, mischief, and self-assertion, is still refreshed by hip hop. My mode continues to be enlivened by gems from Childish Gambino and DaBaby.
So what’s my culture? I’m not asking here about community and experience. I’m not in a group of Americans repeatedly under assault from agents of their own government. That is a Black experience and is incomprehensible to me.
Culture is the achievements of a particular people and nation. We are both shaped and shapers of it. We are also responsible for it. So who are my people? What is my culture? And what am I responsible for?
This isn’t limited to just questions of race. The shedding of shame, that iridescent level of ownership of space, I got from queer culture in San Francisco. I recognize the influence and yet, I’m not gay either.
I’m not alone in this mashup. Jay Z made “99 Problems” — the second-best rap song of all time behind “Fight the Power”— in a room full of Jews. The content of “99 Problems” is entirely Black experience, but the slicing blades of his lyrics against the blunt force guitar sample, that impacts all. The embellishment of Jay’s vision deepening its mark on the culture.
But the blunt force of Rick Rubin’s guitar sample and engineer Jason Lader’s beat against the slicing blades of Jay’s lyrics embellished the vision and deepened the mark.
The Black Lives Matter protests have compelled non-members of mistreated communities to use their privilege to support without making it about them. This allyship is part of the exponential growth of the BLM movement.
I think though of my family and friends who are Black or Gay or Asian or Muslim or whatever is different from me, and they are not my allies. My friends are just my people and our bonds supersede our individual experiences and community memberships. France is my ally.
For me, that powerful warmth of bond was the transformative experience of being with 30,000 other protesters—all of us risking our health— to demand, in the name of George Floyd, a definitive end to police brutality against Black people.
Allyship, as necessary and respectful of a concept as it is, gives a layer of separation that implies a choice. The people I protested with didn’t seem like they had a choice. I saw a whole bunch of pissed off mostly white and Asian people taking on the issue of police brutality as their own— the layers of separation disintegrating in real-time. I saw Americans taking responsibility for defending fellow Americans. I saw more than allies. I had a glimpse of my culture.
As these protests subside, the lethality of the issues will remain for the Black community. We’ve felt these beats before: the moment fades like Ferguson, people move on, and the oppression continues.
Maybe though, in this moment of critical mass, something is truly different this time.
Maybe that murderous cop, his hands casually in his pockets, a hideous blasé look on his face, while his knee crushed a compliant, defenseless man’s neck, finally exposed how diminished we are as a country by not rising together in defense of the BLM movement.
But my question for this column was what is my culture and the answer is I don’t really know. I know it’s American to the bone. I know that I believe in America the idea— equality and justice, freedom and fairness, all that stuff.
I know that so much of my culture comes from a community of which I am not a member, and an experience – a claustrophobia of being repeatedly suspect, prejudged and attacked based on race—that I cannot fathom. There is an uproarious paradox between the privilege I receive from being a white male and the Black foundations of my art, from which I get paid.
If I don’t continue to speak up, I won’t die at the hands of police, or get unfairly imprisoned, or have my ability to vote cheated away from me. But I also recognize that the underpinnings of my identity are exposed and inflamed and by missing this call for solidarity, I become some kind of cultural fraud and appropriator, and all my concepts of Americanism that add up to being fundamentally decent and merciful will rot within me.
Must we be so separated by experience, so bunched into our communities that we cannot be linked by the bonds of our culture?
Whatever my culture is, and whatever my place in it, I am not a bystander. So I am not going to act like one. I can be responsible for the culture even when I am not a member of the community.
This movement is Black-created and must be Black-led. It will then take everyone else recognizing though their lives may not be at risk, their identity is. It will only be held if we hold our ground like young Darnella Frazier who filmed George Floyd’s murder even while being threatened with Mace from the cop who was killing him.
Lasting change, though, will happen when we see ourselves inclusively. Culture is the narrative of ourselves, and narrative always hinges on pronouns—us vs.them, you vs. me. If we can internalize the truth that systemic racism is something happening to OUR people, it will be impossible to tolerate, and then perhaps instead of being severed, this messy culture of ours will be strengthened.