Last weekend, we watched Adele speak out at the Grammy’s after beating out Beyonce for Album of the year. She expressed what many of us were thinking with a “what the F*** does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”
In her acceptance speech, she centered the conversation around how monumental “Lemonade” was for her black friends and just how groundbreaking it was for women of color all over the world.
Back in 1983, David Bowie spoke out against MTV for not highlighting black artists enough, and noted that the only time he saw black artists on MTV was in the early hours of the morning.
White folks are often presented with this opportunity to “speak up.” Whether it be at a family dinner with that one super racist uncle or while observing some covert racism, we are often given a choice to say something.
Unfortunately, we often choose to say nothing. I have chosen to say nothing… too many times. Luckily, I have beautiful friends who helped me come to know my privilege, empowered me to become a more knowledgeable friend and ally, and continue to walk with me in my failings.
Recently, I was presented with such an opportunity and made the choice to speak up. It was during a conversation I had with the some folks of the Women’s March Minnesota.
I’m part of music collective called Everything’s Been Taken made up of three entities – the Hip-Hop/Beat Boxer Carnage The Executioner, the band Soul Beautiful, and myself, Laura Lou. Back in January, we were asked to perform at the post Women’s march rally. Soul Beautiful was also asked to perform their own set of original music as well. We were all ecstatic.
The Women’s March was very organized. I have been to a lot of protests in my city but this protest was organized much more like a music festival than a protest. They obviously had many resources to assist in this organizing process, which was quite the contrast to previous protests I had been a part of.
One of their requests of artists performing was to provide the names of songs we would be performing. We obliged and sent them our set lists.
Two days before the march, I received this message from our contact person. It read as follows:
“Howdy there! Was going through your everything been taken and soul beautiful song list for Saturday. While I do love the songs…I am a little concerned about the amount of swear words in some since this is a family friendly event. Have both groups edited the songs for Saturday to make them more family friendly? Thank you for understanding!”
Immediately, I’m all over the google looking up the lyrics to the cover songs we were performing and confirmed that none of them had swear words. I call my music partner, leader of Soul Beautiful, and good friend Jess Pierce and read her the messages to confirm that our contact indeed had wrong information. I respond:
“I guess I’m not sure what you’re talking about as far as swearing goes as none of the songs we’ve chosen have swear words in them. Can you clarify?”
At this point, our contact, a younger aged white woman, sends us a screenshot of a conversation she had with a committee member who I’m assuming had the job of checking songs to make sure they were “family friendly.” The committee member’s message read:
“Wicked Games, sung as cover by Everything’s been Taken, has a lot of f-bombs in the original. “Get Up Stand Up” sung as a cover by Soul Beautiful, includes a plea to Jesus, not sure what the March’s stance on that is. Given that two of their other songs are questioned above, you’ll probably want to ask them to check through “So Sick” and “Da Da Da” for swears.”
At this point, I realize she thinks we’re performing “Wicked Games” by the Weeknd when in reality we were performing Chris Izaak’s “Wicked Game.” I tell her about this mistake and also listen on the other end to my friend Jess as she, for good reason, becomes frustrated.
“Why am I, the leader of an all brown band, getting asked this question 2 days before this event? Furthermore, they were the ones to reach out to us, why would they assume we’re going to play a song that is filled with swear words if they claim they know our music?” Jess exclaimed.
It’s important to note that I, Laura Lou, am the only one who received this message. It’s also important to note that I’m the only leader in our collective that is white.
“Do they not know how meaningful “Get Up, Stand Up” is for my all-brown band to play at this march? Why do I even have to have this conversation? I wish I wasn’t surprised by this, but this happens to us all the time” she reflected.
In fact, If you talk to Jess, you will hear that Soul Beautiful often has trouble getting booked at venues here in the cities.
She has received feedback on multiple occasions that the name “Soul” throws bookers off, and she’ll often never receive responses back after putting out booking requests. Because her and her bandmates have experienced this type of discrimination before, she chose to keep the conversation from her bandmates until after the Women’s March was over.
So, our contact quickly realizes the awkwardness of this conversation and sends me a “Okay good! Sorry, I hope I didn’t offend anyone!” message.
Now, this is an opportunity that we white folks are often presented with and never accept. Do I a. Speak up for my black friends who are experiencing some covert racism right now, or do I b. Say nothing.
I chose a.
I wrote back:
“While this may not be an offensive inquiry towards me, I think it’s really important to be aware of the historical relevance that goes along with the censorship of black and brown bands. “Get up, Stand Up” is not only only a very culturally appropriate and relevant tune for my black and black bandmates, but also for other march goers, especially those folks of color.
Although it is a “family friendly” event, I want to stress how important it is to be careful about how white folks go about censoring bands mostly made up of people of color, especially when the March holds principles that are culturally inclusive and progressive …
“Family friendly” to white folks can mean something much different to black and brown folks. I’m saying this for both Soul Beautiful and Everything’s Been Taken, but also for other bands of color that you’ve asked to play … Hopefully you can share some of these thoughts with your executive committee so there can be opportunities of learning and growth moving forward!”
Now, this is another common tale where white folks often make bad choices. We tend to respond to these kinds of conversations in defense, with comments like “I couldn’t possibly be racist” or “well, I didn’t mean anything wrong by it.”
Thankfully, our friend at the women’s march chose differently that day.
“I will absolutely share that with other leaders. With everything we are doing for the march, we have been striving to be as inclusive, welcoming, and sensitive as possible, but we obviously have our own limitations and lack of knowledge with certain things, which is one of the reasons why it’s even more important to have this type of diversity represented. I personally was not aware of the history of censoring bands, so thank you for making me aware of it. Had I known, I would have approached this song situation entirely differently.”
Jess and I reflected that we both really appreciated this response, especially because it often isn’t the one we hear. When she told her bandmates about our exchange, they had a very similar experience of frustration and fatigue over the fact that we even had to have the conversation to begin with. They also expressed how grateful they were to have someone else take the lead and express things they’ve had to advocate for their whole lives.
This isn’t the only time I’ve observed my privilege at play when navigating situations as the only white leader in our group. It wasn’t the first time I had to “speak up” and I’m sure it won’t be my last.
My fellow white people: it is our responsibility to do this. We have to learn how to better leverage our privilege by centering the stories and experiences of our friends of color, and demanding better for them. It’s not always easy, it’s not always pretty, but it is always the choice we have to make.
Speaking up matters, and it matters that we white folks are doing it now more than ever. So, when presented with the option, please choose a.
Laura Lou is a singer-songwriter living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is also the Director of Music and Outreach at Intertwine Northeast, a new community start-up within the ELCA. As a musician, she performs with a number of groups including Everything’s Been Taken, and has a passion for incorporating her music with social justice activism. Through her work with Everything’s Been Taken and Intertwine Northeast, she helps put on events that focus on how we show up for one another in our most honest, authentic, and action driven way.