The following was originally published in the 39th edition of the French magazine Les Allumes du Jazz in summer 2020.The police murdered George Floyd, people turned out and my city was put on curfew.
I am grateful for Black Lives Matter protesters and their most sincere allies.
I am grateful for George Floyd.
It is difficult to make sense of such chaos when you are living in it. Especially as some of us find wisdom in looking backward as we move forward. And, so, I limit my comments here to the material legacy of “jazz” associated with the Black Arts Movement; to racial disparities in my home communities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis; and to what appears to be the fall of neo-liberal capitalism post-COVID-19.
Loft jazzers helped gentrify Lower Manhattan. Ornette Coleman was the first to move to the neighborhood when, in the late 1960s, the Black part of Manhattan was still in the fall of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance ended at the start of the Great Depression when it went from New Negro Mecca to Negro Ghetto. By 1965 someone would murder Malcom X at the Audubon Ballroom, Leroi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka) would rendezvous with Sun Ra and Henry Dumas uptown, and Harlem would become the eastcoast incubator for a national Black Arts Movement. Larry Neal (co-editor with Baraka of Black Fire) would call the Black Arts Movement “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” As such she would help produce the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, Black Arts Group (BAG) in Saint Louis, Underground Musicians Association (UGMAA) in Los Angeles.
The bohos and the Blacks would, of course, have a profound impact on the shape of cultural politics into the present. In sum:
- some Black artists got teaching jobs in the US and abroad
- European audiences composed a touring circuit which helped sustain a livelihood for American musicians
- galleries and museums bought new work from Black artists
- programs were started for youth
- academic art programs enrolled more Black students
- project-based grants were assigned to individual artists and organizations
- commodities were exchange for cash
More than this happened, of course; but very few Black-owned, artist-operated spaces have survived to tell the story–and space is still the place.
I was born into a Black community in North Minneapolis in 1978, three years after the first recorded hip hop-identified party was hosted by DJ Kool Herc in the South Bronx. Five years after that party, in 1981, founding rapper Kurtis Blow would perform in North Minneapolis at Northgate Roll Arena.
I have written elsewhere about race and class problems infecting the jazz community where I live. Despite having its own authenticity problems, our local hip hop scene is where the most meaningful progress is made. Where, in pursuit of progress, you might hear members of the hip hop generations gathering others to chant ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Where you might have heard Big Floyd rap about Black ghetto life.
Early this spring, I was brought into a multi-disciplinary collective as part of an effort to hold space with the local community at a now vacant lot on Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, half a mile from where police would murder George Floyd.
We began in struggle with the gentrification that was happening before we arrived. And we found a renewed sense of purpose while standing in view of burned-out and looted buildings.
As was the case during the 1990s in Los Angeles, you will find ‘Black-Owned’ and ‘Community-Owned Business’ signs posted on buildings throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul; signs that are meant to spare the businesses from looting. Signs meant to spare the buildings from fire…while the rest burn.
Yes, a Minneapolis police precinct was burned. Big Box stores were burned and looted. Those who often stand as enemies of the people but defenders of property were put on notice. Clean-up efforts have begun. The number of Black Lives Matter yard signs you see throughout the cities has multiplied.
Like overwhelmingly electing the first Black President of the United States, these are symbolic actions, sometimes having severe consequences. As we take pride in the sign of our progressive fury, there is dramatic irony at play: our racist brothers and sisters who–thanks to COVID-19 don’t have sports as an outlet–have descended on our cities, eager for Civil War. They apparently have taken to being wizards of a racial Oz, as (according to reports by elders) they did in 1967 when businesses (many of them Jewish-owned) were burned along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. Where damages were claimed by and blamed on Black anger and allied anarchy, but were also likely caused by racist Minnnesotans.
Yes, some progress has been made since the last time our cities burned “Black” fire; the evidence might be in the effort to undermine it by destroying buildings owned by Black, brown and indigenous people.
Before police murdered George Floyd, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun:
- killing record numbers of people in the United States
- destroying many livelihoods
- keeping some children away from school and their couple of guaranteed meals of the day
- making a housing policy crisis worse
And it promises more, especially for Black people. But it has also driven people into their gardens and studios; to collective action and a renewed sense of responsibility to one another.
This summer I was supposed to have performed at my hometown jazz festival with multi-instrumentalists Devon Gray, Douglas R. Ewart and his Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) colleague, Mankwe Ndosi. Instead, we presented a physically-distanced concert in my garden and streamed it live on social media. And then it just grew…
Following the concert members of the ensemble went with two of the three attendees to the neighboring Frogtown Farm, a community effort to claim space for urban agriculture and the arts in my neighborhood. As co-founders of the farm, the attendees asked Douglas Ewart to someday return to bless the land with sound–he did so on the spot.
The gigging economy is suddenly over. And we are not waiting for it to restart.
Urban agriculture, improvisation and art return us to ritual, as it has in West Jackson, MS, and Detroit, MI, places that capital has already abandoned; places where (to quote a friend) “Black people were left to die.”
Since a Minneapolis Police officer murdered Geogre Floyd, the group that I began to organize with on Chicago Avenue have combined their resources in pursuit of spaces where Black artists can work and present their work, but also that they collectively own and operate.
As conscious artists working with so-called ordinary people, it is easy to over-value our contribution to material struggle. In order for artists to not become gentrifiers we look to methods like improvisation and dialogue centered on listening. Methods that are essential strategies of individuals who know their work to be relational and about process. Methods which make do with any circumstances. Which we recognize as strategies of blue, sublimator-complainers expressing the better ironies of racial segregation. A life-affirming chorus of poets articulating a noise (and silence) which warriors cannot.
We do not want to mystify our patrons in order to gain an advantaged position in a new world order designed for the few. Instead, we seek an autonomy which allows us to negotiate with arts institutions as equals, if on stolen land amid ruins of a decadent civilization.
This is not only about the police, many of whom are working-class dupes who traded class consciousness for state supremacy and warrior costume-play. It is about collective efforts to render land, image, sound and experience as an offering to the commons. To build spaces for people to control on land that is held in trust and for posterity. Spaces on land that we cultivate out of ecological obligation and in order to reduce basic human needs. Where we perform interdependence. Where we remember the lessons of the past together.