While the world is so full of heartache, pain, and anguish, I have been wanting to put my thoughts down about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement but have struggled to find the right words. I have no answers, only my thoughts, wishes, and desires. What is my role within this? What can I actually do as a musician, a journalist, a parent, a member of society – a human being?
I see friends of mine sharing their horrific stories of racism. People I know, love, and respect, sharing their experiences of harassment, abuse, and inequalities. These are not stories in faraway lands many years ago. These are realities, right here, right now, on my doorstep. I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on this and mostly being completely overwhelmed with emotions. I want to eradicate all this hurt and pain. I cannot bear it. It has been excruciatingly painful to see. I know I must do something. Staying silent is, quite simply, not an option.
I did not learn about racism at school. Billie Holiday first taught me about racism. When I was about twelve, I was told that if I wanted to understand Jazz, I had to listen to Billie Holiday and in particular the song “Strange Fruit.” I remember in my ignorance at the time that I just didn’t get it – her or the song. This song didn’t seem like Jazz, and she sounded so very sad. Why was everyone going on about how significant this song was? In my exploration to understand this song, I became aware for the first time of the horrors of racism. Up to that point, in the twelve years of my life, skin colour wasn’t something I had ever even thought about. I just remember thinking we all have different skin colours, just like different hair colours. Great Black artists had been inspiring me – Duke, Oscar Peterson, Ella, Louis were and still are, my role models.
I can remember the most useless bits of information from my schooling up to that point and I was even taught embroidery, but at no point was I told about slavery, inequality or injustice. How is it possible that learning how to do fancy sewing was considered more important than racism as part of my education? I had a frustrating conversation with someone the other day, who blamed the educational system for the reason she has no understanding of black history. I must add that this person is in their fifties now. Now, come on. This blame culture we have sometimes goes too far. Yes, of course, there are many, many issues with the educational system across the world which must be addressed, but this is not an excuse for ignorance. We have to take responsibility for our own education and learning. Education is not just in school. During this conversation, I said, so, ok, you didn’t know racism was such an issue in the UK, but you do now, so what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do with the information you now have? The person became flustered and didn’t know what to say.
We live in a classroom. Our homes and family are a classroom. Going to a gig is a classroom. Going out for a meal is a classroom. But this classroom is two-way, and we are both the student and the teacher at all times. And it never ends. Sometimes, our classroom is the most wonderful and inspiring place to be that makes you want to be the best person you can be. Acts of kindness we witness inspire us to do the same. An amazing sax solo may inspire us to go and practice for hours and work on our technique and sound.
Photos of holidays may inspire us to explore new cultures and experiences. There are so many ways that the experience of life makes us better people and we embrace them all. But sometimes our classroom is a horrific mess of intolerable situations that seem out of our control. Some of us want to run and hide from this – and no one can be blamed for feeling that way. But the head in the sand position doesn’t change anything and we must embrace the bad along with good, but with a different type of embrace. Thinking that racism is not relevant to you, or that you do not have a role to play, is to underestimate the importance of your role as a member of society, as a human being. The mere fact that there is even a phrase ‘black lives matter’ is horrific. The fact that there is a need to point out that black lives matter surely says it all. And yes, I am talking to white people as history tells us, very clearly, that it is white people who created an environment where the colour of your skin was deemed relevant to equality choices. One thing for white people and something else for people of colour.
Billie Holiday sang about ‘black bodies swinging in the southern breeze’ in 1939. Nina Simone sang about the same in 1965. Cassandra Wilson in 1995. Dee Dee Bridgewater in 2010. Kayne West sampled the song and used it for his track ‘Blood on the Leaves’ in 2013. Last year the BBC voted “Strange Fruit” one of the most shocking songs of all times. What is shocking, is that this song is still relevant today.
I recently posted a video of a performance of myself singing with my bassist. A white woman and a black man. I received several racist comments. People asked me why I was singing with a black man. One person even said we both belonged ‘in the basement with the rest of the **it. I reported the comments and blocked the people who commented. I was mortified. I didn’t want my bassist to see this. I always like to think of music as a safe space for everyone. Was this enough? No. I feel now, that I should have ‘named and shamed’ these people for their comments, publicly. I removed those comments from my safe space, but on reflection, it’s not about me and my safe space. For some people, there is no safe space.
I am writing this article because I feel I need to do more. Whatever I have been doing is not enough. I want everyone to feel they live in a world that is a safe space to be whoever you are. A dream world? Surely it shouldn’t be. A world where the colour of your skin does not stop you from doing anything. How are we in a place where that is not the case? How are we still talking about this? Can I eradicate racism? No. Do I wish I could? Yes. Can I help to educate people? Yes. Can I call out racist behaviour when I see it? Yes. Will it sometimes be uncomfortable? Yes, but this is not about my ‘discomfort’. Uncomfortable conversations need to be had and if we feel we do not have a role to play, then we are part of the problem.
We all have a role to play in this crazy world we live in. We mustn’t underestimate the power we have as individuals and as a collective. A comment, a post share, an article, a discussion, attending a protest, standing up for yourself and others, calling out unacceptable behaviour when you see it – whatever we do, we must all stand together and we absolutely must, do something.
‘I’m changing the things I cannot accept’
Senior writer: Fiona Ross
Photo Credits: Steven Tilter, h heyerlein and Clay Banks.
Last modified: July 20, 2020