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Vijay Iyer on Musical and Ethnic Identity

With the most important election of this generation looming–and the conversation around the ethics, corruption, morality, and overt xenophobia associated with the presidential campaigns continuing to heighten–SPIN asked politically-minded musicians to speak on issues that matter. For November’s digital cover story, these artist op-eds will look at police brutality, racial profiling and identity, immigration, welfare reform, climate change, and more, to ask: What’s going on?

The following is taken from Vijay Iyer's own words, as told to SPIN’s Brian Josephs. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

When I’ve previously said that being a jazz musicians is to express some American project, it was about the way jazz tends to be packaged. It’s imagined or sort of fantasized about as some expression of urban idealism--that people are kind of picking themselves up from below, from the margins, or somehow, through virtuosity or through their own sort of creative entrepreneurship, somehow making a mark on American culture. That’s sort of the prevailing narrative about jazz, in that it’s like this heroic American individualistic thing. The way that I’ve tried to reframe all that is to look at music as a history of collectives, a history of communities, a history of building community. I am not literally thinking of Coltrane or Monk when I play, but they speak through me constantly, because I've spent thousands of hours with both of their music. That actually, in a way, almost pushes against the American individualism ideal.

As an Indian American in jazz, I will say that generally people who don’t fit into a narrative are not seen as connected as part of the same community and process. Instead, ethnicity becomes a way to imagine and reinforce separateness. Most power in the music industry is concentrated among white people--primarily white men--and there are these ideas about ethnicity, and how your ethnic identity is somehow expressing your essence. That’s something that’s imposed from the outside and it’s basically stereotyping people based on their surface attributes rather than really genuinely trying to connect with them. So, the kinds of responses or reactions you tend to get are usually an indication that someone is not really listening carefully or closely.

A narrative is then forced onto the situation, where someone may want to resolve ethnic identity through musical interpretation, or to prove that, somehow, some assumption about my essence is being expressed through the music. And it usually isn’t that simple. For me, I just try to be true to the sum total of my experiences. It’s kind of like an easy out to describe what I do in terms of my Indian-ness, because it’s an easy way to talk about something that’s too complicated to really talk about in the course of a record review where there’s about seven to eight sentences.

[caption id="attachment_id_214768"] Vijay Iyer on Musical and Ethnic Identity Illustration by Tara Jacoby[/caption]

This one critic, who I won’t name, has sort of said the same thing about me for a dozen years. He has written the same review over and over--he says, “Well, Vijay’s past work has been too cerebral, but this time he seems to have finally gotten past that and he’s making some genuine music that you can relate to.” He really literally said that exact thing five times in a row. So it means that actually he’s not even remembering his own discoveries or his own listening experience, he’s actually falling back on an assumption that’s older than his decade of experience with my music. But I’ve also benefitted greatly from the generosity of people writing about music and praising my work--it’s not that I’m somehow suffering from these misreadings. It took a long time to be accepted and that acceptance came mainly from me being persistent and building a genuine community with other musicians. Sometimes critics actually can’t get accept that, or sometimes it just takes a long time.

Of course, people pay closer attention and notice the way art is critiqued as they enter the “mainstream”--but what does “mainstream” even mean? Mainstream means art that captivates the attention of the majority of Americans—primarily European American or self-identify as white. Or as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it: “People who think they’re white.” It’s mainly that the power in these industries—to sign people, to write about the music, to sell records—historically has been held by white men. The whole music industry was created by white men and black music was one of the things that it sold. It wasn’t built as some sort of community endeavor or something. It’s a business created with profit in mind. There have been record companies that were black owned, and there have also been historically newspapers and magazines that were black owned, that had black editors, black writers. What it really means to have an impact in a mainstream context is that, somehow, white people decided it was worth their attention and worth their money, or that they could profit from it.

To succeed in America on any terms means that you are okay with what America does to its unsuccessful. You’ve basically accepted it as somehow necessary in the scheme of things and when you really sit with that truth about this country, that it’s founded on basic premises of inequality and the preservation of it. The same structural inequality that was in place when the constitution was written … it’s still in place now. When you think about America today, when you think about the issues of this election, you have to think about the foundation of this country and how it was built. That fact transcends any high-level political struggle. It transcends the election.

Donald Trump has lost the election, there’s no doubt about that. But what is terrifying is that the most reprehensible views has been given this public airing, and have been taken up by millions of people online and in real life. Now supporters are basically brandishing weapons in defense of this candidates ideals. People have talked about stalking voters of color in certain areas as they say on Election Day, so I’m mostly worried about that he’s been consistently inciting people to violence. He’s also normalized sexual harassment--it’s practically become a public health concern because people are so stressed out about it nationwide. White supremacist hate groups have been brought into the mainstream and given a platform, in a way. All this thinly veiled anti-black rhetoric is now put on TV all the time, so millions of people hear it every day, all day.

I feel that if Hillary Clinton wins, then we on the progressive side are in better shape, in terms of being able to put pressure on her to enact some kind of progressive agenda. And that’s the role Bernie Sanders has played ultimately. There’s plenty of misgivings that people have about Clinton mainly because of what her husband did in the ’90s. And I’m not talking about the scandal but more about these mainstream policies that were put in place that led to mass incarceration and to exacerbating inequality, so that’s the stuff that I hope that she’s able to address.

Multiple ethnicities have been target of hatred in this series of public trainwrecks that they call a presidential election--latinos and muslims have been pawns in the game. But then, being brown, I can be mistaken for a number of different ethnicities and that’s often what this is about. Because this racial stereotyping is mostly about those who broadly misread others, and the failure to grasp the complexities of what America is now. In the last 50 or 60 years, America’s changed profoundly because of the ongoing influx of non-western immigrants. One thing is clear: A large part of the conversation about race and ethnicity now is the refusal to accept something that’s been underway for decades.

Vijay Iyer is a jazz pianist from New York City. In 2013, he was the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. In March 2016, he released A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, a collaborative album with Wadada Leo Smith.