afropunk interview: gary clark jr.’s protest music

February 22, 2019
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Black music is Protest Music. There is resistance in the creativity and freedom to release our soul through the lyrics, sound, rhythm and performance — it is part of our molecular composition and lives in our spirits. When we create music, we unleash our Blackness, our love, joy, pain and trauma. We use this art form to transform ourselves and our experiences, often to transcend the everyday brutality of being Black in a world where we are disrespected, ignored and unseen. When we create music, our presence is felt, our voices are heard, and our vibrations are amplified. We can’t be silenced.

Gary Clark Jr. is an old soul. At the age of 35, his version of the blues and rock is a reverberation from the ancestors. It’s soul-stirring, intense, cathartic and beautiful — and there is power in the deep resonance with every strum. When the Austin, Texas-born musician plays the guitar you feel it — it stirs your emotions and reminds you of home. Today, the Grammy-Award winning artist releases This Land, and album and an anthem expressing the rage and realties of being a Black man in America. The song was also a message to his son Zion to prepare him for his manhood in this country.

We don’t want, we don’t want your kind
We think you’s a dog born
Fuck you, I’m America’s son
This is where I come from”

This is Protest Music. Gary is using his voice, talents and platform to make a statement about the systemic racism, white supremacy and hatred that Black people experience in America — and the world. The message is hyper-relevant and resistant.

Last weekend, Gary performed on Saturday Night Live, as the musical guest at the request of his friend Don Cheadle, who was hosting. Radiating all of his guitar god swagger, Gary performed “This Land” and “Pearl Cadillac,” an homage to his beloved mother which has been compared to the music of the late and legendary Prince. The two songs are the perfect combination of Protest Music in its fullness and glory — all Black Rage and all Black Joy.

AFROPUNK spoke to Gary about SNL, “This Land,” and why his nickname growing up was Hotwire.

How was that experience on SNL for you, particularly with being on with Don Cheadle and performing “The Land” and “Pearl Cadillac?”

The whole experience was incredible. Leading up to it I was a little bit nervous. Stomach in knots. I’ve been watching the show since I was a kid. So to be able do it, I had all kinds feelings. But knowing that Don Cheadle was hosting, we’ve worked together before. He’s always cool, good energy, makes me feel comfortable so to be able to rock with him was awesome. When we walked in from jump, the cast and crew was welcoming and cool, and all that kind of nervousness went away. We did dress rehearsal and I was like, “All right this is happening.” I was excited — really excited.

The reaction to “Pearl Cadillac” has been really great. I mean who can hate on a song about showing love to their Mama. It’s been cool. My Mom was there so it was cool. She’s been putting up with me trying to do this music stuff for over 20 years. So to be able to share that moment on TV and be there with her was important.

Was your Mother always supportive of you, your music and your voice?

At first my mom was not supportive of the music because it was taking my attention away from school. So much so, that I didn’t even show up anymore for a brief period. That wasn’t happening at all in her house, so it was a little bit of an issue; but once she realized that I was focused on it and knew what I was kind of doing, people in the city, folks in the community started coming out in support, she kind of eased into it a little bit. She became my manager and was driving me down to gigs. So it flipped.

How did you deal with that before she accepted it? How did you deal with this artistic pull that created a tension in your family? How did you push through that? 

Well, I would get grounded a lot, so I couldn’t leave the house. But I started getting the nickname “Hotwire” because I would sneak out of the house because you weren’t gonna keep me from this music stuff. I would sneak out the house, put my parent’s car in neutral, push down the street, hop in it, start it off and head down to the club. So I was just checking out music and getting up on stage with people regardless if they wanted me to or not.

I was so impressed with “This Land” when it came out, and the fact that you would be so resistant, so political, and so intentional about it. And I know you’ve talked a lot about the emphasis of the song. But as a Black man in America today, why was it important for you to send this message through your music this way?

For me music has always been powerful. It’s changed my mind. It’s made me think in certain ways. It’s opened up my mind to accepting things, and understanding people’s perspectives and…it was something that I kind of had for a while, the idea of the song. I just was like, “you know what? Let’s just do it.” Not everything is about sweet love and it can’t all be pretty. Sometimes it’s nasty and a little bit hard to deal with. So it just kind of felt right to put that on the record along with every other kind of emotion in that situations that I deal with. It’s a lot to deal with being Black. Unfortunately, it’s been real and I never really addressed it.

And I think with that whole thing of having young children… Who am I representing if I don’t stand up and speak for myself and be proud and claim my place as a living, capable, equal human being in this world, whether people believe it or not. That’s the truth. So I just put it on record as opposed to expressing myself in any other way. Because, really, that’s the only way I know how.

We’re living in the trauma of the news cycle and it’s always something, Black face or Burberry doing nooses, every day seems to bring really callous representation of violence to Black bodies. So I feel like “This Land” really speaks to that. How do you deal with the news and just seeing all this stuff, especially growing up in the South and having dealt systemic racism? 

I’m so surrounded by love and open minded people. I get up on stage a lot of nights in front of a nice group of people, and do something that I love to do with people who love it as well. We all come from different backgrounds, different walks of life, and it gives me hope that the news isn’t everything.

A group of people can get together and, regardless of how they feel about people’s beliefs or whatever, this music stuff can bring them together for a short period of time. We can forget all that, and be in a moment that’s full of love and joy and contemplation. Just all of it. And for the most part, people walk out with smiles on their face. So that’s how I deal with it is knowing that regardless of the bad, there is some great. There’s something beautiful. And I’m surrounded by a lot of love and I’ve got a lot of people who are genuine people, who don’t have a hating bone in their body. So surrounded by love and trying to spread that energy.

When you performed at AFROPUNK Paris, it was really beautiful to watch how the crowd kept filling in as you were playing. People were getting really close to the stage, taking it in. How does that feel for you in those moments — especially being somewhere like Paris, where it’s mostly an African and Caribbean crowd — bringing that mix of people together to listen to the blues, to rock, to soul? 

I can’t really explain how that feels. But I can explain how the opposite feels, to go back 20 years and be playing in a bar and there’s one couple and maybe one regular and a couple sitting up-front. They kind of finish their beer, kind of just get up and walk out and then you’re just kind of playing to nobody and the tip jar is empty. It feels the opposite of that, which is amazing to be able to have these ideas and sit around with your instrument and be able to travel across the world to play a venue in front of people you never seen before. It means a lot. It was a beautiful day too because France won the World Cup. People were hype. It was awesome.