Our Responsibilities as Swing and Blues Leaders

Hello, swing and blues community. The shit has hit the fan.

As you all know, Black people dying at the hands of American police isn’t exactly a new thing. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are just the most recent names in a long and dark history of this country. Anger at this inhuman treatment for hundreds of years has recently erupted. Unfortunately, this has resulted in additional clashes between peaceful protestors and law enforcement. There have been multiple accounts of white people crashing peacefully organized protests across the country and destroying businesses and other property, leading police to retaliate against the Black peaceful protestors. It’s pretty ugly.

Our country is not okay. It’s going to continue to not be okay for a while.

To better understand the current situation, Trevor Noah’s video “George Floyd, Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery & Amy Cooper” does an excellent job describing the factors that led us here. View on YouTube or Facebook. Viewers in some countries may not be able to access these links, please search using the video title for a link that works in your country.

We have some work to do

The non-Black scene leaders of our global swing and blues community have some work to do. This includes our organizers, our instructors, our DJs, and any individual whose voice is prominent in their community. And yes, this also means those of you not in America. Jazz and blues music are rooted in the American experience of Black people. All scenes around the world need to understand and grapple with these realities to participate in this art form. We are responsible for being good allies and educating our local communities.

It is also important to point out that none of these points are new. Many people in the swing and blues community, most notably Black voices, have been saying similar things for years. I hope you can use this as a meta-analysis to help guide decisions for your local scene.

Be the ally you want to have

First, as scene leaders of a Black American art form, we have a responsibility to be good allies to Black communities. An ally is someone who takes an active role to stand up for equality and against systematic oppression. Even if you do not personally act in racist ways, we are all apart of a racist society that has systematically oppressed many different groups of people—most notably Black communities. While everyone should strive to be a good ally, it is most important for scene leaders to model this behavior for their local scenes. Educate yourself on how to be an ally. Start with this article, there are many more resources a quick Google search away.

It is also important to be aware of the experience of Black people in the swing and blues community. Read this article for links to important posts written by several Black swing and blues dancers. Read this blog post to see why you need to do the work yourself. Watch this discussion for experiences by several Black Lindy hoppers. Listen to this podcast interview with more experiences from Black Lindy hoppers. Follow and support blogs such as Obsidian Tea, The Git Gud Factory, and Yehoodi for numerous insights into Black culture and what’s going on in the swing and blues community.

Allyship is an important topic that deserves its own space for discussion. I encourage you to do your own research as there is no universal checklist to being an ally. Once you’ve checked out the resources linked above, look at this giant list of anti-racism resources.

With great power comes great responsibility

Second, we are responsible for educating our local constituents. Our community members look to us for guidance. New dancers model their behavior on ours. We have the power to create a ripple of effects by changing our behavior, and we have the responsibility to use that power to shape our community for the better. More than just modeling good behavior, we are responsible for educating our local communities on the history and culture where jazz and blues came from. Start by answering this list of questions for swing and blues community leaders put together by Julia Loving. Next, consider these different areas where you can educate your community:

The history and origins of jazz and blues music

It’s political. It’s protest. It’s the product of rage and frustration and desperation of generations of systemic racism. There are more and less useful ways to frame the history of jazz and blues when you introduce new people to these ideas, but whitewashing history helps no one. Anyone who says less or complains about people “trying to make it about politics” should not be engaged in a leadership role in this community.

If you need the basics, start here. Then read books such as Steppin on the Blues or Jazz Dance. Read this blog post by Shelby Johnson to help you decide which book to read first. Explore AllMusic.com to learn more about different musical sub-genres and musicians.

The Black experience in America

It’s several centuries of pretty bad stuff. Race riots, lynching, Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow of private prisons, redlining, segregation, Little Rock, the white-washing of Rosa Parks and Dr. MLK, Jr. (just think about how many people omit his title) to just name a few. It is actually about slavery. These experiences are the roots of jazz and blues music and dance. Understanding this history is crucial to understanding the music. Keb Mo’ and Barbara Morrison discuss the “dark history” of Blues at Signifyin’ Blues Festival 2019 (starting around 41 minutes). Understanding the social context will not only enrich our experience and understanding of the art form but will allow everyone to take actionable steps to start dismantling systemic racism.

There’s a lot here to unpack, but good places to start are Stamped from the Beginning and A People’s History of the United States.

How to be an ally

Once you learn what it means to be an ally, share that with the rest of your scene. Actively model this behavior. Share the resources you found with your community.

Current news

These injustices aren’t just things of the past. We need to know what’s going on right now. Learn the names of the victims. Research your local politicians. Are they doing good? Learn about your local police precincts and whether they are taking the right steps.

My favorite place is to follow Trevor Noah on YouTube, however it is also helpful to seek out news specific to your local area.

Local activist groups

Learn what is going on in your local community and who is doing good work in your neighborhood. Find your local Black Lives Matter chapter. Find people who are helping feed, house, and educate underserved communities. Use your platform—the community of empathetic, caring dancers you fostered—to lift up as many as you can.

My personal favorites are Black Lives Matter, NAACP, and Tsuru for Solidarity. Make sure to look and local organizations, as many times the biggest impact you can have is in your local community.

Where to go from here

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be feeling like this sounds like a lot of work. A lot of work on top of a relatively thankless, stressful, organizer position. Welcome to being an ally.

It’s no coincidence that the swing and blues dance community is made up of a lot of people who are under-employed, LBGBTQIA+, chronically disabled, and POCs of all denominations. Blues music is the song of the oppressed. It is generations of sorrow, fear, and anger given timeless form. It attracts people who experience frustration in their own lives. While we gravitated towards this music and dance because it resonates with our struggles, we also need to be respectful to the unique and horrifying experiences that come from skin color-based racism. It is our duty to continue to strive to be better.

It is important to take these actions as a leader in the swing and blues community to lead by example. We have a lot of work to do, but we have the power to actively transform our communities in a better direction. This is a lot of work to do all at once; it can be powerful to take small, regular steps in the right direction so your community can grow with you. Don’t feel like you have to do it alone. Organizing is already a team sport, reach out to your community to bring up others who can share the load or take over for you.

More than scene leaders

While this post is aimed specifically at our community leaders, you don’t have to wait for your local organizers to take action. Read, listen, and educate yourself about the history of the thing you love and where it came from. Most Western entertainment has roots in Black American art forms (ever heard of Elvis?), everyone should learn about this. Use your knowledge and passion to lift up the communities that have been downtrodden for so long.

Give thanks

As in many things, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are here and can celebrate this culture because of the people who came before us. Don’t forget to acknowledge the people who helped you. I am especially grateful to Odysseus Bailer, he has helped me see and understand many nuances about the Black experience and blues history. I am also grateful for the work done by Damon Stone and Grey Armstrong in the blues and swing community. I have learned many things from them directly and I have benefitted indirectly from their repeated efforts to educate our community.

With love,

Thank you to everyone who commented on this article including Damon Stone, Shelby Johnson, and Ross Blythe. This article is better for your insights.

Update 6/18/20: I expanded the section on Allyship, added a few additional resources throughout, and added more references to the people who I have learned from. Thank you for everyone’s comments so I could improve this article.