When the finalists for the 2019 Grammy Awards are announced this week, it’ll be official: the blues is no longer an African American music.
I’m an African American Blues guitarist. I came of age in my father’s ramshackle juke joint, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall in Louisiana. I was the last 20th-century ‘folk-blues’ artist to be discovered by a folklorist from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. I played a blues guitarist in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and won a Grammy for its soundtrack. But when I submitted my latest album, Hotel Voodoo, for consideration under ‘Best Contemporary Blues Album 2019’, I learned that I no longer fit the Grammys’ criteria for blues.
I phoned my regional Grammy representative in New Orleans. He connected me with the head of the Blues Grammy committee in Los Angeles. The head of the Blues committee phoned me, and confirmed that the Grammy committee had dropped me from the ballot because I wasn’t a blues artist and my album wasn’t a blues album. He admitted several times that Hotel Voodoo was outstanding, but said it didn’t meet their notion of ‘authenticity’. He said the decision was final.
This is not personal. It’s larger than me. It’s about the usurpation of my culture. In 2018, African Americans can be banished from participating in their own music. It’s incredible that I’ve been forced out of the blues to make room for Mick Jagger, a billionaire Englishman, and his Rolling Stones.
Indeed, Sir Mick and the Stones’ Blue & Lonesome won last year’s Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. The Rolling Stones and their fellow rock stars have returned to gentrify what’s left of our marginal music landscape. The ‘World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band’ is stealing Grammy nominations away from more deserving African American blues artists. It’s cultural appropriation at its most shameless. They won’t let us African American blues people have nice things.
The 2019 Blues Grammy Awards are continuing a racist trope. By nominating Jagger and Richards in the Traditional Blues category, the Grammy organization pushed out elderly unsung black men and women who most likely can’t afford Obamacare, not to mention a pricy Rolling Stone concert ticket.
Last year’s Blues Grammy Awards was like a Roman vomitorium. Gluttonous billionaire rock stars flew in on their private jets. They puked up lavish meals pilfered from the sweat and tears of bluesmen and women, to make room for the chitlins. This travesty reveals rock ’n’ roll’s dirty little secret.
From its inception, rock was a segregated music. It developed during Jim Crow. It usurped billions of dollars, and priceless prestige, from African American artists. From the 1950s on, white merchants and musicians seized the most lucrative aspects of Blues music for themselves. They dominated commercial radio play, filled stadiums, and sold millions of records. Meanwhile, they left the Chitlin’ Circuit to their African American inspirations: dive bars, honky-tonks, and juke joints, like the one I grew up in.
For their 1964 debut album, the Rolling Stones recorded ‘I’m A King Bee’ by Slim Harpo, the trailblazing bluesman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A few years later, in 1968, Mick Jagger, in his first in-depth Rolling Stone magazine interview said, ‘You could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean what’s the point in listening to us doing “I’m A King Bee” when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?’
The irony is, Blue & Lonesome sounded like the Stones’ early albums. But their early albums were called rock ’n’ roll, not blues. However, African American Blues people always knew that rock ’n’ roll was a veiled segregationist term for African American blues created by whites for whites. The blues are still defined as primitive, as the pseudo-anthropologists and racist folklorists of the 1920s and 1930s had claimed.
Today, the criteria for the Blues is still only a few degrees removed from blackface minstrelsy. And minstrelsy is what the Grammys wanted me to do. Hotel Voodoo was an iconoclastic statement exposing racist fairytales and superstitions about my culture. The Grammys have chosen to silence me. But I will not be silenced.
I will not boast here about my talent, or my successes, or my authenticity, except to inform the casual reader that throughout my career I have been in the vanguard of Blues. My body of work has largely defined contemporary blues. Moreover, I lobbied the Grammy Awards to create the Contemporary Blues award in the 1990s. I served for nearly a decade — at my own expense — as a member of the Blues Committee in Los Angeles.
I resigned a few years ago in protest. I had the pleasure of serving on committees with knowledgeable and influential African Americans, such as Randy Jackson and Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father. Many African Americans are working to protect the integrity of the Grammy process. But when it comes to the Blues category, the African American aesthetic is all but ignored.
Today, the rock ’n’ roll record business is no longer the cash cow it once was. Aging and aspiring rockers are coveting our cultural space; seems our humble chitlins are looking mighty good suddenly. This continued encroachment on an already small niche is a threat to our livelihoods.
A Grammy nomination gives a blues artist belated recognition and, more importantly, better-paying gigs. There’s already an entirely separate award ceremony called the Latin Grammy Awards. So why can’t the Blues Grammy reflect African American culture?
We blues people don’t have the megaphone to call attention to outdated racist tropes and stereotypes, and the appropriation of our music and culture. We need intellectuals and those with strong voices and means — from all cultural backgrounds — to join us. The blues Grammys need an ‘Oscars So White’ reformation.
Indeed, the blues Grammy Awards has become a farce. Even worse, America’s greatest musical art form, is no longer welcoming to African American artists — like me. The question is, does anyone really care? ‘First they came for the blues…’
Chris Thomas King is a Grammy-winning contemporary blues artist and actor from Louisiana. His latest album is Hotel Voodoo.