I'm in this picture somewhere.
If I could pick one word to describe the folk music world, it would be "community." In fact "The Folk Community" is pretty much how everyone describes it, because we are a group that values musical connection and giving our time to causes and supporting each other in times of need. My music doesn't fit neatly into a genre called "folk," but in terms of values and approach, this community of people is my people.
So it was distressing recently to learn some ways in which our community is not living up to its ideals.
It was in a thread on Twitter where some Black artists were talking about liking it when they had a White friend or bandmate at the merch table to fend off well-meaning but hurtful comments from White audience members.
I always mean well, so it's not fun for me to hear when my actions are hurtful. But I'm also grateful for the chance to reflect and change. I thought the folks on my list might appreciate the chance to reflect as well, so I asked if I could anonymously share a few stories. Here they are.
"i will say one thing that happens very regularly is getting cornered after gigs for folks to confess their race based transgressions or opinions or self-absolutions, etc. Even if I never bring up anything like this in my show, I always get cornered and stuck in these kinds of conversations, but never my white band mates."
"I was recently booked to headline, and in the backstage area there were pictures all over the wall with white people smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves and each other, etc., and even though I know they have black folks who regularly attend this festival, the only picture on the wall of a black person was a big picture of George Floyd."
"What this stuff signals to us is that even among progressives we are only seen as victims and martyrs. That lens is white-centric and askew in a way that can be experienced as frustrating, isolating, alienating and offensive to Black folks, even though it’s probably coming from a sincere place."
"Sometimes it feels like the main thing white folks focus on when they meet us is our non-whiteness. Maybe you could encourage people to think about what that might feel like if the tables were reversed."
These observations are eye-opening to me. I can imagine a parallel -- if after shows, guys were always coming up to me and talking about their bad behavior to women. Like: do I have to represent all women? And don't you have anything else to talk to me about? What about my songwriting? What about music we both like? Do you only see the ways we're different?
That picture, taken in 2017, is a community of almost 100% white people at a national conference called "Folk Alliance." Especially in social and professional settings where white people are the majority, it's worth looking with fresh eyes. What does it really mean to be inclusive?
When we sing a wrong note, or we use an improper instrumental technique, our music teacher corrects us and we practice until we get it right. This is like that.
I'm happy to say Folk Alliance has worked hard to expand its concept of what folk music is, acknowledge its forbears, and provide a platform for a much wider world of artists who see themselves as Folk.
We're never going to get to the end of this road. All we can do is keep walking forward.