Rhythm unraveled: The buried racism in our music scene

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As a major city in the American southeast, Charleston is far from a stranger to horribly contorted race relations. While the city tries to bill itself as an oasis in a region that has been segregated and suffocated with prejudice since Europeans landed, it simply is not. And there is no part of the city that tries harder to express that it is accepting and inclusive as much as the local arts community. But that façade was chipped away earlier this year in September, when Charleston music collective Hearts & Plugs stunned the city’s arts community with a racially insensitive drawing and pun on the name of one of their signature bands. And saying that both the drawing and the pun were “insensitive” is putting it mildly, as it depicted a caricature of a “slave baby.” Of course the joke had a damaging impact on Hearts & Plugs’ reputation, but that is nowhere near the actual tragedy or wake up call to all of this. The Heart & Plugs incident put on full display that even in a city with a growing arts community that claims to be a progressive pocket within a conservative state, there is still a disturbingly deep racism and sense of white privilege. As much as we want to ignore it into oblivion and go about our merry way, pretending that the arts put up a barrier to keep out prejudice, that strategy is never going to work. Especially in a time of continuously unfolding and worsening gentrification in Charleston.   

That’s where Khari Lucas comes in. He has never for even a fraction of a second attempted to ignore, sugarcoat, remain silent or apologize when it comes to race relations within the city’s arts community.

Lucas (a.k.a. Contour) is a Charleston native and experimental hip-hop artist. While his sound has a base in hip-hop, he mixes in qualities of house music and jazz into his songs along with incorporating disco and Brazilian bossa nova into his DJ sets. He is also a part of a label called Born Again New York that operates out of New York but consists of rap artists scattered around the mid-Atlantic United States.

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(Photo courtesy of Sean Money & Elizabeth Fay)

 To put it bluntly, Lucas is first and foremost an artist. He feels that he has a duty to his art and his continuous progression as a creative. He spends most of his time making music, researching the musicians that he is currently listening to, learning an instrument — anything that he believes can improve his own music. The issue is that opportunities for artistic progression have been stomped out at a citywide level for black artists. “Having issues booking shows at venues or getting exposure because of institutional racism creates an obstacle that shouldn’t be there. There could be a group of teenagers sitting in a bedroom in Charleston right now who have brilliant ideas and want to make really good rap music but they don’t want to try because they don’t have the chance. And I’m sure that there’s a lot of black artists out there who are afraid to make something that’s unapologetically black for any number of reasons.” And rap is a genre that especially needs to be capitalized upon from a social standpoint. Rap artists have always taken a socio-political stance within their music, but now that rap has become the most popular genre in a country that is continuing to experience drastic racial division, there is a lot of room for growth and expression that can be witnessed by anyone thanks to social media. “There’s no avoiding rap playing an important role, it’s everywhere now,” Lucas said. And that impact can even be felt at the local level, not every artist or statement has to resonate from sea to shining sea for it to have a legitimate effect.

Despite the reactions and conversation that the Hearts & Plugs incident generated, Lucas was not especially surprised by the drawing. “The thing is, it’s not shocking that someone could be so oblivious as to do something like that,” he said. “From the perspective of someone who has been disillusioned with the local music scene since I stepped into it, that almost seemed inevitable to me.”

The Hearts & Plugs controversy sparked a forum called Southern Discomfort that took place Oct. 2 at the Redux Contemporary Art Center on St. Philip St. The forum set out to provide a place for an honest dialogue on the state of race in Charleston, and while the forum was successful and the drawing itself made a number of people consider the idea of white privilege in an arts community that is supposed to absent of privilege of any kind, nothing has really changed since the drawing went up on Instagram. Hearts & Plugs did apologize for the drawing and even supported the Southern Discomfort forum, but after the forum the whole situation seems to have vanished. Hearts & Plugs are still at the top of the local music scene in terms of popularity and publicity — as if nothing ever happened.

Lucas’s goal is to cultivate an arts community within the city in which anyone is genuinely able to become the best artist they can be. And that goal comes from the fact that he is afraid that Charleston music is on the verge of a renaissance that may never happen due to the city’s institutional racism and social segregation. Lucas sees Charleston music as currently divided into two sectors. There is an upper class which consists of the bands that are consistently advertised around the city, given regular press and promotion and get the chance to play in larger venues.

In terms of both the performers and listeners, this upper class is almost entirely white and within the same genres of alternative soft rock and folk influenced music. That is not to say that those are bad or lesser types of music, but it has made popular local music incredibly stagnate. Then there is the underground community that operates via self promotion and collaborative house shows. “The house show crowd is a lot more inclusive,” he said, “you actually see new people at those.” While there is no way for there to not be distinct musical genres or niches within a community, he believes that “in the ideal situation, all of these people would be contributing to and growing from each other in the sense of going to shows and supporting each other. Even just talking to one another, that’s what’s going to contribute to the greater community.” He considers himself lucky because he feels comfortable interacting with a wide variety of people within local music, but it is an unfortunately rare occurrence in Charleston to have someone who is comfortable with and can organize a show with a surf rock group on a Thursday and an R & B singer on Saturday.      

When asked if whether or not he thinks the racial divide in Charleston can ever be fixed, Lucas assuredly says, “I think it could” but followed up with a slow, “but do I think it ever will? …I really don’t know. Unfortunately, a lot of it is outside our control and I can’t help but be cynical about it because of all that’s happened here lately. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. If we’re ever going to, it needs to start now and it can’t just be Facebook trading cards of how socially aware you are. We need to actually do things.”

Here’s the thing, Charleston. Yes, we are technically considered a beacon of acceptance in the American south. Yes, we have a rich artistic history for a southern city outside of Atlanta. But if the Hearts & Plugs controversy has shown us anything, it is that we are still far, far away from being good enough. Especially when this arts community is one of many that owes just about everything to black art and black stories. If we want to keep filling the Spoleto festival with paintings of African-American women weaving sweetgrass baskets, remembering ourselves as the home of “Porgy & Bess”, and talking about how much we love diversity, then we need to actually start practicing what we preach. Khari Lucas could not be more right, we could be sitting on what could be a thriving and genuinely inclusive arts community. But because of the social and institutional order of things, we may not know it. We are almost there, but we are also getting dangerously close to missing out on an opportunity to make things better. But it is going to take work, it is going to take real action, it is going to take uncomfortable conversations, but first we have got to start not only giving people a chance to become artists, but letting them know that they have the chance to do something great.

*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.

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