Why does pop star John Mayer think racism is funny? asks Alexander Billet
John Mayer (pictured left) is the musical equivalent of Wonderbread: flashy packaging covering a complete lack of taste, substance and anything vaguely nourishing. And very, very white.
There are plenty of media outlets trying to downplay Mayer's comments in a recent Playboy interview. For the likes of TMZ and Rolling Stone, Mayer's crack about having a "nigger pass" and the disturbing notion that he has a "David Duke cock" are "all in good fun." To most of the mainstream press, the fact that he was supposedly making a joke that he is now sorry for is where the matter ends.
None of them are getting at the heart of the issue. To them, the fact that Mayer made a public apology at his concert on February 10 is enough, and time to let bygones be bygones. They're willing to accept his argument that the majority of his touring group is African American, which must be the pop-star version of "I can't be a racist because some of my best friends are Black."
None are willing to point out that his idea of "wit" is likely to offend the very people whose music laid the groundwork for Mayer's entire catalog. In recent years, his music has become much more influenced by blues and R&B (albeit in their most watered-down forms).
If today's music industry treated these musical genres with any respect, this fact alone might have made for a double indictment against Mayer. But that's not the case, so the singer was let off the hook. But this is par for the course for the mainstream media. For them, history and current events happen separately, and comments like Mayer's are best swept under the rug because they're ultimately harmless and have little to do with the rest of the world.
It's an outlook that even seems to have influenced some on the left. Jay Smooth, host of WBAI's Underground Railroad and one of the best alternative pop culture commentators out there, posted a video blog on his Nil Doctrine Web site in which he insists that focusing so much on Mayer's comments can mean that we're likely to "forget that a whole bunch of the biggest race questions - the ones that impact our lives the most and that we most need to change - are the ones that don't manifest in the form of words or people's emotions. A lot of the most important race issues are institutional, systemic, structural issues."
In one sense, Smooth is right. Racism, sexism and homophobia run a lot deeper than just bad ideas or insensitive words. But letting John Mayer's frat-talk fall by the wayside is to miss the connection between the institutional and the day to day. They may just be the words of a camera-hungry rock star, but in an economically unstable world where race can easily become the new fault line, they can have much wider ramifications.
In fact, entire movements have been touched off by similar comments. During the summer of 1976, when an economic slump had most of the planet in its grip, rock god Eric Clapton took the stage of the Odeon Theater in Birmingham, England, and launched into a drunken racist screed. Blaming Black immigrants for the sorry state of the Empire, he insisted that Britain was on its way to becoming a "black colony," and vowed support for arch-racist and former Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. (A favorite slogan of British racists back in that time was "I'm with Enoch!")
For Clapton, whose career was built on Black music, to make such a statement was the worst kind of rank and hateful hypocrisy. His career had hit a slump before his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." But given that a fascist group like the National Front was at the time trolling the streets of Britain and gaining votes at the ballot box, Clapton's comments were especially dangerous.
This spurred a group of music lovers and activists to write an open letter to Clapton published in Britain's largest music rags. The letter lambasted Clapton: "Come on, Eric. Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist...P.S. Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"
The letter also called for the formation of a grassroots group mobilized against the "racist poison music" that would become Rock Against Racism. RAR managed to organize a full-on movement, joining forces with the Anti-Nazi League to push back the National Front and bring out some of music's most militant voices - from the Clash to the Specials to X-Ray Spex.
Now, Mayer didn't call for everyone to vote for Sarah Palin. Clapton, drunk though he might have been, was being serious, while Mayer intended his comments as a joke. But it would be irresponsible to say there aren't consequences for what Mayer said in these volatile times. Barack Obama's frustrating inability to deliver on any of the "change" he promised has opened the door for some of this country's less savory elements to exploit the presence of a Black president.
In their heads, the debilitating recession is the fault of affirmative action, "illegal" immigrants, "welfare queens" and entitlement programs. The momentum that their thinly veiled racism can be seen clearly at everything from Minutemen patrols to Tea Party conventions.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that far-right hate groups are growing right now. Fascist groups have become increasingly brazen in staking a public presence from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Recently, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Front announced their intention to demonstrate in Chicago on March 21--a date originally chosen by the anti-apartheid movement to highlight South Africa's oppression of Blacks.
Legitimate anger in times of economic crisis can easily be taken advantage of by bigots. Music, far from being separated from the rest of the world, is bound to reflect these kinds of contradictions. What we need is a movement that can challenge racism, sexism and homophobia head on--a movement that can mobilize the power of beats against bigotry in the streets, on the stage and in the music press.
Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel Frequencies.
Thanks to NewsHound for the heads-up