I went to see 12 Years A Slave directly after teaching at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, which heightened its impact exponentially. To spend time at a government institution filled with hundreds of young black men and women and then turn around to see hundreds of black actors on screen being depicted as government sanctioned chattel reinforced connections in my mind between past and present and put things that I knew theoretically and conceptually into a very real and visible context – in short, the past is still very much present.
And so I resolved to return to that center the next day and speak as candidly and truthfully about the status quo as I possibly could. I wanted to impress upon those young brothers and sisters, that the reality we face daily is not by divine design (as many would have you believe), or out of a pathology inherit in Black culture (as many would have you believe), but strictly man made with great intent and that we all must take control of the role we play in this game.
So I told them plainly that I saw the movie and how it affected me. I told them to look at the faces around them in that place and you see mostly Black and brown people. And why is this so? True enough, we are a product of our own decisions, but there is a greater system at work that has been working for hundreds of years that will make a victim out of you if you let it. And the real reason that I went there was not to ramble off a bunch of names and facts about music and musicians, and not just to play some tunes to keep them pacified for a little while.
I went to that institution to try and correct some of the wrongs, and fill in some of the gaps of information that the “educational” system has purposefully omitted in my own education.
There were many very powerful scenes in that movie, but one that resonated within me most deeply was Solomon Northrup destroying his violin. His forsaking of one of the things that he was most talented at, and that increased his value, in the wake of the abuses he was witnessing and enduring was very symbolic to me. It caused me to really re-evaluate the reason behind why, as a musician, I do what I do.
Music, if we allow it, can be the gateway to the realm of our cultural past and thus the key to a greater understanding of ourselves and a bridge to the generations the preceded us and will succeed us.
Children that do not now and did not then have the luxury of being bombarded with positive and realistic images of themselves hourly in television shows, commercials, billboards, magazines, product labels, newspapers, advertisements, and so-called educational materials need this understanding more than ever. Without it a true sense of self is that much harder to develop.
It is for the millions of children that are growing up who, though they may never become musicians, still need to feel, see, and understand, their connection and their place in the legacy and lineage that defines a culture and allows that culture to grow advance and evolve. Not remain stagnant. It is a human right, not a luxury that the wealthy should receive because they can afford to pay for it.
So why do we as musicians get so passionate about the origin/ownership of this music? Because the stakes are high. It is not just about playing the right note at the right time or making sure the “swing feel” really swings. It is about survival of a culture. It is about maintaining a connection to the culture that was taken from us and forging our own identity using what was forced upon us. For me, music is what validates and strengthens that ideal.
The destructive thing about capitalism is that it breeds a mentality that causes everything to be looked at as a potential commodity; even the divine, especially the divine. This commodification of culture has visited its destructive effects on Black people and our culture for hundreds of years.
And so I get very torn. We all have to make a living in this world, but what I know is that if you put the work in toward realizing your purpose, then a prosperous life will be provided. While I would be dishonest if I were to say that appearing on the cover of respected magazines and being ranked among the greats of this music does not appeal to me, I also know that I must continue to create from a place of honesty and always keep in mind the divine purpose that music holds as an tool of cultural edification, trans-generational communication, and a bridge between the physical and spiritual.
I hope to always find balance in these pursuits, and if I must choose between the two, that I choose wisely.
So, 12 Years A Slave. Do I think you should see it? Yes. But go see it for what it is, a movie; a depiction of a very small segment of reality. Go see it with open eyes so that you may look past the subtle subconscious biases that accompany a Hollywood film of this nature (like Brad Pitt’s white Jesus character) and see the deeper truths that are offered.
Don’t let it be the end, but allow it to be the beginning of your search for the truth of our history and a deeper exploration of the things that make you who you are. And let it renew the way you look at the present world, not as something separate, but as an extension and continuation of all that has come before.