My professor was elated to announce that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize. Excited and compelled, he shared a bit about Dylan’s history with the class. Wooing over his impact on society, emphasizing the importance of folk music and the seriousness of Dylan’s lyricism. Then he played “Hurricane.”
Unrealized, I read the lyrics and became quickly fascinated with the message and rendering. As it finished, the students began to share positive comments and compliments on Dylan. How his power and bravery stood the test of time. Raving over the power of “Hurricane” because it overturned Rubin Carter’s case. And while everyone paraded over the composition of the song and Dylan’s success, I couldn’t help but feel a little angry.
When asked if I enjoyed the song, I responded with a bubbling angst. I explained to my professor that Carter lost everything and was only able to find freedom because a white man shared his story. Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate Bob Dylan; His music, composition and social narratives changed America for the better. His significance as a musician was the fact that he spoke for the voiceless and shared stories of the untold. He was the voice of reason and ignited social change. I completely understand that.
What is unsettling about “Hurricane” is that it confirms a fear I have. I’m afraid that society, particularly America can only learn of people of color’s narratives if they are presented by white curators.If Bob Dylan never voiced his concerns with the legitimacy of Carter’s case, he might still be in jail. If your still unconvinced, let me share some of my experiences with you.
Last year, I went to a festival at my college. My professor at the time asked for his students to attend for extra credit. He was a sax lead in the jazz band. As I entered the Auditorium, it was blatantly clear that I probably was the only black person in attendance. As the curtains opened, they began to play Duke Ellington. Every member of the band were young white men dressed in hawaiian button ups. The band proceeded to then play a samba-like jig and then a latin mix. Impressed, I clapped with the crowd but I felt uneasy. There was an isolation here. Even worse, a preservation of isolation.
We are talking Jazz. The first people that come to mind are musicians like Count Basie, John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong. Black artists who struggled to get their art out. Who made vast contributions to musical artistry. Who still had to eat in segregated establishments. Who birthed whole genres, which ultimately rooted from negro spirituals of their slave ancestors. And here I am, a young black woman sitting in a sea of white audience, cheering on an all white jazz band in 2016.
When I was a journalist for my college newspaper, I went to a showing of a movie about child convictions. I had to interview the curators, two white women. The story particularly about a black 14- year old facing life, trying to get an appeal, which was shortened but still gave him 30 years. Again, I’m sitting in a large auditorium, majority white- gleaming at the screen and sharing their concerns about the justice system.
Now, I’m sure some might argue that I’m looking at a cup half empty, then half full; but think about it. Even iconic movies telling of black lives like “The Color Purple,” “Django Unchained,” and “Native Son” are directed all by white men. Stories like these are made to participate, but often only examined.
I don’t fear the integration of art originated by African- Americans, but the isolation of it’s preservation away from African- Americans. America’s history has followed this trend, especially with black people. When the identity and contributions of a people are conjured, it takes a toll on the culture as a whole. There is a need for purpose and those answers are whispered in representation, portrayal and assumption.
There is something obscure and frightening when the remnants of a culture is not only being dominated but isolated from it’s origins. The fact that I can enter an all white audience with an all white band playing jazz, Not only increases the power of it’s influence but also the ability of being lost in translation. And the same thing is beginning with Rap and Hip-Hop.
The audience bigger, hyper sensationalized and greater receptions when there are white curators. I think this is also in part why Dylan received the Nobel Peace prize with no response. His work as a musician wasn’t to be awarded. He wanted respect for the unspoken, demanded equality for every person, exposed the dangerous illusions of life. Let’s not award, lets change. And let’s not lose those roots.