A Two-part Essay by Bill Johnson, General Manager WRTI-FM, Philadelphia
Hello everyone. I hope you’re all safe and healthy as we confront multiple challenges in all of our communities. Below are two pieces that I felt compelled to write. The first is to all of you as peers who I’ve come to respect after seeing the extraordinary work you do day after day in service to our country. The second is a personal reflection that I thought might provide some insight into how I’m processing what’s going on in the country right now and the important role of Black Music in that process.
Part One – A Message to Public Radio
Tuesday, June 2nd was designated by the music industry as a blackout day or a day of silent protest in support of Black America. WRTI’s mission is to champion music as a vital cultural resource – that cannot be done in silence. So we weren’t.
We scrambled to produce “Acknowledgement: How Music Responds”, a special live program addressing Black Music as a form of social engagement. We leveraged the life wisdom of our regular host Bob Perkins who also happens to be an octogenarian. He brought perspective to what we’re experiencing now. He provided the foundation upon which we were reassured we could and would get through the upheaval, fear, and anger.
The musical guests were all Black Americans including NEA jazz masters, elders of the music, voices of radical change, and others who simply could speak from a spiritual, cultural, or artistic perspective that is relevant to our time.
The conversation was moderated by Josh Jackson, a serious radio professional who understood when it was time to interject and when it was time to let the guests speak their truth, even when we knew the message would be overshadowed by the style or choice of words of the messenger.
As expected, there was both positive and negative feedback. There were sighs of relief from some listeners and pointed anger over specific things said from others. No different than most other days in public media in that respect. But in another respect, there was a profound and collective sigh of relief from our staff. It was as if everyone was holding their breath waiting for when we’d really wade into the water and take on what we truly know we can and should do – and what this music and our community deserve – an unfiltered conversation about the Black Experience with people operating at the highest artistic levels of Black Music.
It was not high production value radio. It was raw, direct, and authentic, and sometimes inelegant. We will get better. Even more importantly we will not shy away from the hard work of engaging voices about hard truths that will undoubtedly make some people uncomfortable. The words we choose and stories we tell in the context of playing music is a sweet spot for social impact.
I describe what we did on-air, and will continue to do, because it’s a reminder that music stations are about so much more than the notes. We must and will continue to push to find the right words and platforms to help the notes blossom into their full potential for social impact. We simply cannot listen to John Coltrane’s Alabama and not embrace the enormous gravity that four Black girls had to die in a church bombing to bring that piece of art into our lives – OR that we are nowhere near fully digesting the impact of that, and countless other atrocities, on Black America or our national psyche.
As a music station general manager I must confess most days I awake feeling like a Who looking for a Horton, hoping our system will hear our voice and embrace the tremendous power of music stations to not just complement news and information but to complete our public service mission; to bring the mind and spirit together and help listeners achieve peak consciousness to participate in the nurturing of a more perfect union. It’s at the heart of what we strive to do every day.
But in the end, I must recognize that being a Who is to give up the power we possess. We are Horton. So, I’m telling you now that there is a message and a medium that we have not fully tapped on behalf of the American people. It’s the power of music to put our extraordinary journalism and storytelling into a personal and inspiring context. It’s the immersion in the art that connects the intellect and the soul to spark action. It is the art that can make the irresolvable solvent; provide clarity and conviction in the face of confusion and angst.
I’m asking you to consider the opportunity to push ourselves into uncomfortable places. To work together to create content that flows across formats. To consider ways of storytelling that are fluid and acknowledge the strengths of great journalism and great music. To embrace music stations as partners who possess a unique perspective on the relationship between listener and host, and the power of that host to inspire social impact through music. The power of music to bring diverse perspectives together in ways that society otherwise has walled off through color, class, or privilege.
Our job in public media and at WRTI is to pursue our mission to serve. We do that by disciplined thoughtful action that brings to bear our immense capacity for intelligent and impassioned content creation, in all formats and platforms, to move the American narrative forward. And right now I fervently believe we have to be smarter and more committed to public service, and each other, than ever before because what’s at stake is the soul of our nation and Democracy itself.
Part Two – A Message to Myself
I hurt. As a Black man in America, I hurt. I don’t need the highlight reel of victims, no matter their color. I don’t need calls for peace that dismiss the rage inside. I don’t need tone-deaf calls for dialogue with people who don’t speak my language. I don’t need other’s stories of their cultural atrocities. I don’t need to hear, “That was a long time ago.” I don’t need to hear move on. I don’t need to hear we’re all equal. I don’t need to hear about wrongs being righted in Heaven. I don’t need to hear, “But they DID break the law.” I don’t need to hear anyone. say. anything.
I need some Black Music.
And then I need the rest of America to listen to a LOT of Black Music.
Listen for the voices of my ancestors in the holds of ships crossing the Atlantic. Listen for the screams of pain from the whip across their backs. Listen for the fear of hooded men gathering under cover of night. Listen for my father’s voice telling me how a diner wouldn’t serve him as a young airman in basic training as he prepared to put his life on the line for this country. Listen for Brother Hannibal and Sister Rosa. Listen for the man who called me a Nigger out loud in a local bar. Listen for the racist who said to me, “I don’t like Black people but you’re not like them.” Listen for the cries of people shot in the street for exercising rights promised on paper but denied in practice. Listen for the sound of feet crossing the street because you’re coming their way. Listen for the sound of code-switching. Listen for the sound of a school without books or computers. Listen for the sound of the Church taking the pain away. Listen for the sound of being called an Oreo. Listen for the sound of my mother telling me to be careful in those streets to this very day. Listen for the sound of chain gangs digging ditches. Listen for the sound of families turned to dust on the auction block. Listen to Black America. It’s all there. Just Listen.
Black Music is the story of the Black Experience. From rhythms and melodies heard in the fields to the sounds of violence in the streets. It’s all there. The stories have been told over and over and over and over. No conversation necessary. In fact no conversation POSSIBLE – until you hear the story.
Whether it’s Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Hannibal, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Last Poets, The Roots, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, or thousands of other Black voices, there is no shortage of narrative about the Black Experience – a living narrative continually being written by Black artists hoarse from shouting so loud.
George Floyd’s death and the country’s response were utterly predictable. And that breaks my heart. It was simply a question of how many George Floyd’s did there have to be before enough was enough? Black Music has posed this question incessantly for over a century. Black Music chronicles the Black Experience which in my mind, by definition, is the American Experience. A country built on the sweat and subjugation of Blacks is a country defined by the Black Experience – an American Experience.
For me, Black Music is an immediate reminder that I am not a victim but rather I’m part of a powerful legacy. A reminder that I can not and will not fail my elders or ancestors who endured so much more than me. I am of a people who have withstood horror and evil in this country for 400 hundred years. Yet we stand. Our backs are not broken and our hearts are strong. In fact, our story has changed the world through music – gospel, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, the blues, funk, soul – Black Music.
If America wants to understand, truly understand, the anger and the pain and the frustration and fears of Black America then listen to Black Music. Listen past the feelings of guilt over slavery. Listen past the horrors of lynchings. Listen past the rapes, killings, and torture. Listen until the Truth emerges; that despite it all, together, as equals, valuing love for each other over all else we can conquer all things. It’s in there.