[This guest blog post is courtesy of Adam Lioz (user @RadicalSuit) and Malcolm Howard (user @mhoward205), who are are founding Board members of Phans for Racial Equity.]
Juneteenth commemorates the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. were granted freedom in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. What’s the relevance of a celebration of Black liberation for the largely White jam band community? Why should we keep Juneteenth in mind as many of us plan to head back out on tour for the first time in more than a year?
First, although our scene is predominantly White, there are more jam fans of color--and more Black fans specifically--than you might think. One of us is a Black man who has been “on the bus” for more than 30 years--and we’re out there. The challenge is that many fans of color don’t feel comfortable at 95% White shows, so you may not see them around. We should take a moment to celebrate emancipation with and for the many Black folks within our own community.
In addition, as members of the jam band community, we have been thinking about the holiday through five key lenses: respect, freedom, responsibility, vigilance, and action.
Respect. There is no jam band music without the Black American experience of slavery, subjugation, and resistance--what some have called the “beautiful struggle.” The Grateful Dead was a blues band before a turn toward psychedelia (RIP Pig Pen). Phish covers Black artists liberally; collaborates with Black musical icons such as Jay-Z, BB King, Branford Marsalis, Merl Saunders, and more; and blends various Black musical styles such as jazz and funk into its own unique blend (sometimes called Cow Funk in a nod to the group’s Vermont origins). We owe a deep debt of gratitude and respect to Black artists and activists going back centuries for laying the groundwork for our current passions.
Freedom. Juneteenth is fundamentally a holiday about freedom, and jam band fans are very familiar with the concept--it’s what many of us seek when we walk through the turnstiles. Not from bondage of course, and we don’t mean to imply any equivalence. Freedom from the stress of daily life, a kind of collective ecstatic release that some people find at church and we find at the peak of a blissful Harry Hood or at the depths of a soulful Morning Dew.
This freedom, however, comes alongside a fair amount of privilege. White fans (like one of us) move through festivals, arenas, and smaller venues expecting we won’t be hassled by security, accused of selling drugs or fake tickets, stared at like an exotic other, or even just asked where the bathroom is. It’s also a lot easier to bliss out inside a venue when we’re not facing the constant gauntlet of being Black or brown in America on the outside. Even fans of color benefit from moving in a heavily White scene where police engage differently than they would at a majority Black festival.
Responsibility. Once we recognize that the freedom we experience at jam festivals and shows is rooted in privilege, as a community we have a responsibility to pursue true liberation for all people--the kind celebrated by Juneteenth. For us, this means two priorities.
First, we need to work to make our own scene as welcoming and anti-racist as possible so that fans of color are able to enjoy the same carefree moments of bliss that White fans largely take for granted.
Next, we need to be actively involved in the present, urgent fight for Black liberation in the U.S. While we’ve largely moved past physical bondage (with the glaring exception of racialized prison labor enabled by mass incarceration), Black Americans are still fighting every day for liberation from state violence by the police, under-resourced schools and a biased criminal justice system that create a “school to prison pipeline,” sharply differential health outcomes highlighted by COVID, severe racial wealth disparities, direct attacks on their fundamental right to vote, and more.
Vigilance. As we head back out on tour this summer, we need to watch out for each other. Many White fans are tempted to think that the country’s current hateful climate can’t possibly infiltrate our open, inclusive community. Peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors are accused of terrorism and accosted with loaded weapons; Asian Americans in cities across America are afraid to leave their houses lest they be spit on, randomly punched, or worse; and school districts across the country are denying children accurate U.S. history out of hysteria about “critical race theory.” But everyone’s safe at a show, right?
Our beloved jam band community can't afford this wishful thinking. As a Black man who’s been on lot at shows for 30 years, “if I told you about all that went down, it would burn off both your ears.” In the summer of 2018 two Black Phish fans were viciously assaulted at the Gorge. We both know fans of color who are planning to skip tour entirely this year because they don’t feel safe.
It’s up to all of us to shape the culture of our own scene, intervene if we see any racism on tour, and send a strong message that we don’t tolerate excluding or demeaning anyone in our community based on race or other identities such as gender, sexuality, or disability status.
Action. This all adds up to a simple conclusion: all of us in the jam band community need to move beyond platitudes about “love and light” to be actively anti-racist; we need to join the beautiful struggle for collective liberation.
In 2017 we and others launched an organization called Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE) to help our community do exactly that. You can start by signing PHRE’s Jam Band Community Racial Equity Commitment Statement, and learning how you can get more involved.
In addition, right now there is an epic battle for our democracy and voting rights for Black and brown Americans. Conservative politicians have introduced hundreds of bills--including 22 that have passed in 14 states--to erect barriers to the ballot in the name of Trump’s Big Lie. Progressives are pushing for two critical protections at the national level: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The For the People Act has passed the House with President Biden’s support, and the Senate will vote by the end of June. Call your senators right now, and join up with the 60th anniversary Freedom Ride from Mississippi to DC organized by Black Voters Matter.
On this Juneteenth--more than a full year after George Floyd’s murder--the U.S. is being called to an honest accounting of our deep history of structural racism--and the jam band community has a choice. We can pretend we “don’t see color” and sit on the sidelines, jamming out to music rooted in the Black experience as our democracy crumbles and Black people are shot down by police. Or we can see that the beautiful struggle for racial equity is our struggle, and let the freedom we feel deep inside a soaring jam inspire us to fight for the liberation of all of our fellow Americans.
Come on, let’s all get on the bus together...it’ll be an amazing freedom ride.
Malcolm Howard is a Black small business owner who has been seeing Phish and similar bands for more than 30 years. Adam Lioz is a White voting rights attorney who saw his first Grateful Dead show in 1991. Malcolm and Adam are founding Board members of Phans for Racial Equity. They look forward to seeing you on Phish tour this summer.
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I love Phish and motor sports. As soon as you declare a scene 'predominately white' you start to build walls. The best race car driver in the world, Lewis Hamilton, is dark skinned. The leader of the free world for eight years was black. The greatest guitarist of all time was Jimi Hendrix...not white.
Teach children of every color with the same love and not divide them. Teach opportunity, inclusion, and not separation. WHAT DOES JUNETEENTH MEAN FOR JAM BAND FANS? It means nothing except that federal employees just got another day off.
"Hamilton led F1 into adopting a diversity initiative and holding a pre-race anti-racism gesture on the grid. He wore T-shirts promoting Black Lives Matter, equality and diversity and bringing attention to the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in the US. He used his position as a globally recognised star to speak out repeatedly on the topics."
From Obama's speech on the 50th anniversary of the Selma Montgomery marches:
"Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth. “We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
On Jimi Hendrix:
"And yet I think the topic of race was layered into everything Jimi Hendrix did. Even in England, which was a more progressive place, he was harassed occasionally by police for having a white girlfriend. Here was a guy who felt music was not about race, he didn’t write"'black” music; he wrote music. And he didn’t play only to one kind of fans. Primarily his audiences were white unfortunately, but to Hendrix, race was something he was always trying to escape from, and yet could never actually escape from."
The idea that because there are examples of black excellence in sports, politics or music that means we live in a society free of racism is I think only something that someone who doesn't regularly experience racism themselves can suggest. This isn't an attack on you @disco_stu1973. Having these discussions, analyzing and investigating our implicit biases may be uncomfortable for white fans (and I absolutely include myself in this group of course) but it's necessary because it's not about us. It's about acknowledging reality and working to make society better for everyone. It's only divisive if we make it so.
And the article clearly and in detail addresses exactly why Juneteenth has relevance to our scene, despite the majority white fanbase. I hope everyone actually reads it all the way through and sincerely considers the message.
That is a very well-written and thoughtful reply. I do need to put more thought into my "replies" here.
I have the luxury of living in a neighborhood whose residents look more like a Crayola box than a blank sheet of paper. Same as my office and many of the bars that I frequent. But I also know that I can take that for granted and it is not like that everywhere and not for everyone.
I do wish I had some constructive ideas. But when you are not attracted to a lot of what comes from the far left or pretty much anything coming from the right, it starts to get real weird in the middle. So I apologize for taking away from what was a good article with my short sighted ramblings about 'equality' over 'equity'.