“I’m done playing music to a bunch of white guys standing around in a room.”
Being lily-white-male himself, this was quite a proclamation from Nimmo. But it was less a rejection of the audience but a scathing damnation of ourselves and the music we were making at the time.
And it was true: by the late ’90s indie-rock had taken its course – divided and conquered by the ‘music industry,’ it had become so distilled that you could expect what the band and fans would be like before even stepping into the club. And yes, If you witnessed the scene through Nimmo’s anthropologist eyes it was indeed a bunch of white guys barely swaying to the jangly guitars and personal crooning that hearkened back to meta-narratives from some abstract ‘shared’ suburbia.
But we were also guilty as charged: Nimmo and I had been part of the indie scene as the rhythm section of Purple Ivy Shadows and later in the shortlived 3-piece B3ND3R. Although I would (subjectively) argue that these bands were uniquely outside the norm, we indeed played to a less-than-diverse audience… with the exception of the time B3ND3R opened for the Shadows at a basement drag club in Boston, but that is a story for another time…
After his polarized statement, in typical Nimmo fashion he then disappeared from the music scene abandoning Boston for San Francisco. It wasn’t until 8 years later in 2005 that he briefly reappeared in typical ‘prodigal son’ style with new travels, revelations, and challenges. He had been delving into the sound and politics of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley and with a few sparse loops he hammered the structure for Soil on my Wurlitzer and laptop. For the next few hours we exorcized the white ghosts with 2 live takes where he laid down his narrative snare-hi-hat-poly-rhythms while I spun some ‘blacksploitation’ wah-guitar and fretless dub bass. For the song’s chorus, we left room for some Fela-inspired tenor saxophone.
If this music is more ‘black’ than ‘white,’ it’s because of the unfortunate and intense divide that still haunts our culture. This racism exists on two planes: Even as white musicians such as Benny Goodman worked in his own way to dismantle the racial gap, historically he is remembered as the ‘King of Swing’ despite the African-American roots he appropriated from. And his now legendary performance at Carnegie Hall to a mostly white audience was heralded by critics such as Bruce Eder as the ‘coming out of jazz to the world of respectable music,’ meaning the world of white-dominated musical idioms.
Some 30 years later, Led Zeppelin would take appropriation to an insidious new level through their intentional ‘borrowing’ of blues songs without due credit. Like Eber before them, the press such as Rolling Stone and Creem would then institutionalize the racial divide through crediting this ‘new’ music as a ‘higher’ form because of its alleged ‘complexity’ over the idioms it referenced. It was at this point that ‘blues’ music was artificially separated from ‘rock’ mainly for purposes that served the market, and I would argue this fork in the road continues to cripple our conception of popular music today.
The other more subtle but equally divisive form of racism comes in the form of ‘white guilt,’ perpetuated by mid-era indie-rock. Because of the fear of cultural appropriation, indie-rock created another kind of creative enclave where using a ‘funky’ beat was considered inauthentic at best and stealing at worst. Straight-laced goodiness worked to institutionalize another racial gap and the divide-and-conquer mentality of the market capitalized on these stereotypes.
The damage has already been done, but how do we recover? What Nimmo brought to the table in 2005 was not only the sound but the politics… and I believe it is through some cyclonic mixture between groove and message that can begin to speak to audiences across boundaries. I am not talking about ‘popularizing’ through reaching millions of people, but reaching a spectrum of audiences concerned about the humanity that is the glue between diversity.
As the first song I ever recorded digitally, I had hidden Soil away in the vaults until a few months ago. But upon reopening the files, I realize it speaks more of the future rather than the past. The train-of-thought sketch vocals that Nimmo rapped over Soil‘s groove unfortunately could not be rescued from a sonic-technical perspective but his lyrics were still visible under the haze: It allowed me to tap some of his poetic-politics in my own voice.
Thank you for listening and Happy Holy-days. Let’s extend our idea of the ‘family tree’ to include our dissident selves and fellow messiahs of every race-creed-religion…
…dig down get down, put your hands in the
ground where rivers flowed beneath cold streets…
unlock the sounds of life below
rivers flowed as your dreams did roam
under daylight and the streams…
of conscious nights now built above
the blood upstream in sight
habits deep under the moon
in tune to the dark and light before…
we were the first born there were waters
you’ve got to move you’ve got to:
strike the walls that surround your prohibitions
you’ve got to stand you got to:
dance the steps the sky and mother taught you
you’ve got to fly you’ve got to:
strike the urgency of burning
you’ve got to move you’ve got to:
will the branches bend the family tree