I believe that it was bell hooks who once described the blues as an antithesis to hip hop.
Hip hop was either about the block party, or about the war (the battle rap in which one MC emerged victorious, the street CNN report on the jungle about to take us under, or the nation of millions to hold us back).
The blues are not an expression of irreverence or braggadocio or a call to arms. The blues offer an un apologetic vulnerability without the pop charts Hollywood feel good ending that comes after emptying the contents of one’s heart. The blues are not about a country lifestyle, a brooding grunge attitude, a punk rock undrowning, or a classical palate, or the genius of jazz. The blues are a wailing soul in existential crisis. There is no gospel higher power offering catharsis through exaltation.
The blues strip everything away and speak to you in a voice you understand because you are Sisyphus, and your life is defined by the daily repositioning of stone. There are those who live the blues. This is not the majority of the population. But it is possible for many, so many more than those who live the blues to listen, and truly hear them.
BB King said, “If you’re black and you’re a blues singer it’s like being black twice, two times.
BB King said, “If you’re black and you’re a blues singer it’s like being black twice, two times.”
That’s because the blues were born from a cappella chants, moans, cries, and songs bound to the rhythms and melodies carried by the Diaspora through a resilience as tightly bound and interconnected to humanity as DNA. The Sears & Roebuck catalog sold guitars through the mail, for an affordable price, across color lines, and it suddenly became possibly for the blues to belong overwhelmingly to one instrument.
Few would make the case that the blues are political. When folks write about the Back to Africa, or Black Nationalist, or Nonviolent Civil Rights movement, folks do not often reference the lyrics of the songs BB King and his predecessors and contemporaries made famous. Yet when I listen to the blues, when I crack open my dusty guitar case and play them, there isn’t one note or silence that doesn’t drip with the politics of liberation.
Lani Guinier described African Americans as the canaries in the mine, demonstrating the harms of society on an incessant basis, with the hopes that others might realize the dangers and work to avoid future calamity. She said that every immigrant group has a moment in which it is either aligned or disassociated with the African American experience. We have become accustomed to discussing the movements led by undocumented immigrants and of LGBTQIA communities without specifically acknowledging that these two movements are equally owned by Black undocumented immigrants and Black LGBTQIA community members.
The blues remind me of this equal ownership, and of the double Blackness BB King described. In the blues I hear #BlackLivesMatter not only from those whose membership in the Diaspora confers vulnerability. But also from those who are not Black but feel solidarity because of membership in another marginalized community, or because they acknowledge the privilege they enjoy, and seek to leverage it for good.
The blues also remind me that there is a space where no matter the histories, identities, or experiences that separate us, there is an inexpugnable vulnerability that we all share. It is not that we all fear death, or abandonment, or isolation or irrelevance. It is that we all want so desperately to find our Lucille.
We need to find whatever it is that will pull out what is inside us. It may not be a musical instrument, or a canvass. Octavio Paz said Mexicans used the food, drink, revelry, and exhaustion of festive days to emote what was otherwise trapped within.
The bottom line is that each of us is a Pandora’s Box: Once opened, what comes out is unlikely to please all those around us. But within each of us is something invaluable. The blues makes it locatable.
Thank you BB King for helping so many find that diamond within.
Rest In Power
Unai Montes-IruesteClick here for reuse options!
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