The Blues Is Our Story (Celebrating Black Music Month) by Brother Yusef
The blues is healing. The blues is freedom. That is the message I take with me everywhere I perform. As an African American blues artist, I feel it is essential to have a clearer understanding of this music. Sadly, the real knowledge of what this music is about is too often overlooked.
Blues began out of a need for African Americans to seek healing and freedom in a society that denied them both. This music allowed black folks a way of expressing their humanity in a world that, for 400 plus years, refused them of their humanity. The blues was a way of saying, “we matter.”
I’ve been a professional blues musician for over 25 years. I started playing guitar in 1982 at the age of 19. At the time, being a blues artist was the furthest thing from my mind. My interest was in jazz, reggae, funk, and rock. I just wanted to be good. But I knew enough history to understand that everything I needed to learn about contemporary American music was rooted in the blues.
After nine years of learning to play different musical styles, I decided to devote all my energy to the blues. As I began my exploration into the blues world, I noticed a lack of younger black performers like myself. The older legends like BB King, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker were still going strong, but the new crop of black blues artists were missing from the larger mainstream. Was blues being appropriated by white musicians? It seemed African Americans have all but abandoned the genre. I decided to become a full-time blues artist out of a desire to preserve what I consider my cultural birthright. I take special pride in performing the blues and giving honor to my past. Unfortunately, I felt many white artists lacked a full understanding of the music’s cultural complexities. They loved the fruits of the black struggle without understanding the roots of the black struggle. And that struggle continues to this day.
Today, young African Americans find strength in hip hop music, which I consider a modern evolution of the blues. Hip hop was born out of the same conditions that gave birth to the blues. Poor and disenfranchised black and brown youths were seeking ways to express their humanity amid poverty and abandonment. If the blues was our healing, today, hip hop is a more potent medicine meant to help cope with today’s societal struggles. The line that connects blues and hip hop is strong and clear.
It was not uncommon for me to perform Blues festivals as the only African American act on the bill. Many times I’d see major Blues events featuring acts that are not even blues, much less featuring African American acts. That’s not to say non-African Americans shouldn’t participate in the celebration of blues culture, but imagine having a Celtic music festival without featuring a traditional Scottish, Irish or Welsh act or a mariachi music festival without a Mexican mariachi band. Ideally, blues festivals should be settings meant to celebrate and showcase the music and its rich culture.
Admittedly, I made the mistake of thinking African Americans had abandoned the blues genre. Today, I am greatly encouraged by the number of young African American musicians reclaiming what I call their cultural heritage. Many are choosing to take up the mantle by expressing themselves artistically with the music of their forebears. Artists such as Marquise Knox out of St Louis, Mo, and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram from Clarksdale, Mississippi, are two artists that come to mind. With the help of social media, I’m discovering more younger African American blues artists. The blues is in good hands. The blues is our story.