(Photo by Nicole Berlin Photography)
Blackillac released a blistering tribute to being Black in 2020. Jackie Venson, the always-smiling queen of guitar, put that trademark joy on the shelf and took a principled stand.
And now, locally, we’ve seen the role music might play in an attempt to change the world.
What’s happened since the killing of George Floyd has been, frankly, dizzying. In my last post — a little under a month ago in reality, but a lifetime ago in 2020 terms — I mentioned I might have thoughts tied to this accelerated social movement that stayed within the purview of this blog. At its heart, this is a music blog in general, with a focus mainly toward the Austin music scene, and I intend to keep it that way.
Since then, Venson and Blackillac (top photo) separately provided easy jumping-off points, representing two sides of music’s role in the “change” realm.
Before I get to each of them, the only general comment I’ll make about what’s going on across the country is that if you don’t think systemic racism exists, I honestly don’t know what the hell to tell you. It takes an incredible blind spot to not acknowledge the lasting, abhorrent effects of slavery, segregation and discrimination well after their outlawing. It’s a deep moral problem that’s persisted, festered, and become something the nation must address.
It was only a matter of time before Austin’s major Black artists started taking some action related to what we’ve seen in the past month or so. Let’s take perhaps the most impactful musical move to date: As documented here in blow-by-blow detail, Venson challenged local bookers to reflect the ethos of Black Lives Matter in their future bookings; pushed for an all-Black bill for the upcoming Austin City Limits Radio “Blues on the Screen” TV event on July 8; and, after a contentious back-and-forth, got it, while becoming curator of said bill. ACL Radio personality Andy Langer, whom Venson and her manager were dealing with during the tense back-and-forth, moved off his “sorry, no can do” stance with a protracted Facebook post that read like equal parts solution-searcher and panicked “I’m listening, truly I am” avoidance of a shitstorm.
Ultimately, this blogging white dude — a fierce fan of musical diversity in every sense of the word — is just looking forward to the show. I’m glad Blues on the Screen is happening. An all-Black lineup, curated by Venson, sends a message that should resonate in this turbulent moment. I’ll tune in to Fox 7 on July 8 with anticipation for the four-act bill that was announced shortly before I finished writing this: Miss Lavelle White, Kydd Jones, Alesia Lani, and Sam Houston & Blk Odyssy.
Within this broader conversation about systemic racism exist individual components that are ripe for greater study. For me, from a thought-and-discussion perspective, the money shot of Langer’s long Facebook post was this:
“Ultimately, there needs to be systemic and institutional change. For too long, bookers – myself included – have been relying on data: album sales, Spotify play counts, YouTube views to book sponsored large events. Ultimately, this creates an untenable path for black musicians already working against years of systemic racism and under-representation. It’s a vicious cycle. And I’d like to be a part of ending it.”
Nationally, of course, many of today’s biggest superstars are artists of color. By my count, Billboard’s year-end Top Artists chart for 2019 lists six artists of color in the top 10 and eight in the top 14. In 2018, artists of color accounted for five of the top 10 and eight of the top 15. But as Deborah Sangupta Stith’s well-reported rundown (linked above) mentions, Black Austin musicians have said they don’t feel some genres that artists of color often ride to remarkable fame nationwide — like hip-hop and R&B — get appropriate attention from “white music tastemakers.”
The local extent of that tastemaker mindset should receive due scrutiny. Beyond the fact that Blues on the Green’s own lineups are noted to have conspicuously lacked Black headliners — none since 2016 — I’d like to see it studied to its full depth, and an analysis of how it can be rectified. Could Austin music festivals — just talking off the cuff here — use something loosely akin to the NFL’s Rooney Rule? Could a caucus or committee dedicated to artist diversity, through the city or a local nonprofit, help work with bookers to provide an answer?
Lasting action items are probably some distance off, but the conversation has begun. And this illustrates just one reason why it’s crucial for minority voices to be heard: To identify insidious elements of our world the rest of us don’t see without looking.
Track review: Blackillac,”Black on Black”
Unfortunately, there’s decades of discouraging evidence that popular music, despite some incredible efforts to do so, doesn’t directly prompt social change. Classics like “Volunteers” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” didn’t exactly steer Vietnam to a swift end. The now-mostly forgotten Eminem single “Mosh” didn’t spell defeat for George W. Bush in 2004 (but in his mind, if only he’d put it out a little earlier…) More recently, Ice Cube’s “Arrest the President” didn’t get the president arrested.
But what music can do is reflect, illuminate (that word’s about to reappear) and sometimes even galvanize. I only hope Blackillac’s “Black on Black,” released June 8, can find its way well beyond Austin, because it’s in that vein. It has that power. Its lyric video (also embedded below) is worth the watch both for its disturbing and dark imagery and to fully take in the song’s exquisite verse poetry, delivered in rapid fire by Zeale. Small sample:
It’s so black in here it’s night
But that’s exactly why I write
To illuminate the dark
Switch it up and make it bright …
Beckham can’t check ’em
When they put them holes in your septum
Y’all boys don’t hate, that’s projection
Black coals turn diamond with pressure
The duo covers a lot of ground in less than 3 1/2 minutes. The beat and muted chorus are standard-issue trap in sound, but the chorus’ palpable despair is a counterbalance, the other side of the coin to the verses’ hard-grinding confidence. You get the feeling that this is what it’s like for Zeale and Phranchyze right now: On one hand, ready to use their words as weapons, on the other discouraged beyond belief, trying not to lose the will to fight. “Black on Black” is passionate music of the moment, but it’s not just timely; it’s built for everlasting relevance.