Malcolm Howard and Adam Lioz of Phans for Racial Equity discuss the new federal holiday.
This essay was co-authored by Malcolm Howard and Adam Lioz. Howard is a black small business owner who has been hanging out with Phish and similar groups for over 30 years. Lioz is a white voting lawyer who saw his first Grateful Dead show in 1991. Malcolm and Adam are founding members of the board of directors of Phans for racial equity. They can’t wait to see you on the Phish tour this summer.
Juneteenth commemorates the day the last slaves in the United States were granted freedom in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. What is the relevance of a celebration of black liberation for the predominantly white community of jam bands? Why should we keep Juneteenth in mind when many of us are planning to go on tour again for the first time in over a year?
Firstly, although our scene is predominantly white, there are more jam fans of color – and more black fans in particular – than you might think. One of us is a black man who has been “on the bus” for over 30 years – and here we are. The challenge is that many fans of color don’t feel comfortable in shows that are 95% white, so you might not see them. We should take a moment to celebrate empowerment with and for the many black people within our own community.
Additionally, as members of the jam group community, we have thought about the party through five key lenses: respect, freedom, responsibility, vigilance and action.
The respect. There is no band jam music without the black American experience of slavery, subjugation and resistance, what some have called the “beautiful struggle”. The Grateful Dead was a blues band before a turn to psychedelia (RIP Pig Pen). Phish generously covers black artists; collaborates with black musical icons such as Jay-Z, BB King, Branford Marsalis, Merl Saunders, and more; and mixes various black musical styles such as jazz and funk into its own unique blend (sometimes referred to as Cow Funk in a nod to the group’s origins in Vermont). We owe a deep debt of gratitude and respect to black artists and activists going back centuries for laying the foundation for our current passions.
Freedom. Juneteenth is fundamentally a festival of freedom, and jam band fans are very familiar with the concept – that’s what many of us look for when we go through the turnstiles. Not bondage of course, and we don’t mean to imply any equivalence. Release from the stresses of everyday life, a sort of collective ecstatic release that some people find in church and found atop a blissful Harry Hood or deep in a touching Morning Dew.
With that freedom, however, comes a fair amount of privilege. White fans (like any of us) move to festivals, arenas, and small venues expecting us not to be harassed by security, accused of selling drugs, or fakes. tickets, looked like another exotic, or even just wondered where the bathroom is. It’s also much easier to thrive inside a room when we’re not faced with the constant challenge of being black or brown in America on the outside. Even fans of color enjoy walking around a heavily white stage where the police engage differently than at a majority black festival.
Responsibility. Once we recognize that the freedom we experience in jam festivals and performances is rooted in privilege, as a community we have a responsibility to seek true liberation for all, that celebrated by Juneteenth. For us, that means two priorities.
First, we need to work to make our own scene as welcoming and anti-racist as possible so that fans of color can enjoy the same carefree happy moments that white fans largely take for granted.
Second, we must be actively involved in the current urgent struggle for the liberation of blacks in the United States. Although we are well beyond physical servitude (with the glaring exception of racialized prison labor permitted by mass incarceration), black Americans still fight every day for the release of state violence by the police, underfunded schools and a skewed criminal justice system that creates a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, strongly differential health outcomes highlighted by COVID, severe disparities in racial wealth, direct attacks on their fundamental right to vote, and more.
Vigilance. As we go on tour again this summer, we have to look out for each other. Many white fans are tempted to think that the country’s current hateful climate cannot infiltrate our open and inclusive community. Peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters accused of terrorism and accosted with loaded weapons; Asian Americans in cities across America are afraid to leave their homes lest they be spat on, hit at random or worse; and school districts across the country are denying kids the exact US story out of hysteria about “critical race theory.” But everyone is safe at a show, aren’t they?
Our beloved jam band community cannot afford this wishful thinking. As a black man who has been in shows for 30 years, “if I told you about everything that happened, it would burn both ears.” In the summer of 2018, two Black Phish fans were viciously assaulted in the throat. We both know fans of color who plan to skip the tour altogether this year because they don’t feel safe.
It’s up to all of us to shape the culture of our own stage, to step in if we see racism on tour, and to send a strong message that we don’t tolerate excluding or demeaning anyone in our community on the basis of race or other identities such as gender, sexuality or disability status.
Action. All of this leads to a simple conclusion: all of us in the jam band community must move beyond the platitudes about “love and light” to be actively anti-racist; we must join the beautiful struggle for collective liberation.
In 2017, we and others started an organization called Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE) to help our community do just that. You can start by signing the Community Racial Equity Jam Band from PHRE Declaration of commitment, and learn how you can get more involved.
In addition, there is currently an epic battle for our democracy and the voting rights of black and brown Americans. Conservative politicians have presented hundreds of bills– including 22 who passed in 14 states – to erect polling barriers in the name of Trump’s big lie. Progressives are pushing for two essential protections at the national level: People’s Law and the John Lewis Advancement of Voting Rights Act. The People’s Law was passed by the House with the support of President Biden and the Senate will vote by the end of June. Call your Senators now and join the 60th Anniversary Freedom Run from Mississippi to DC hosted by Black Voters Matter.
On June 17 – more than a year after the murder of George Floyd – the United States is called upon to give an honest account of our deep history of structural racism – and the jam group community has a choice. We can pretend we ‘don’t see the color’ and sit on the sidelines, jamming to music anchored in the black experience like our democracy is collapsing and blacks are shot by the police. Or we can see that the beautiful fight for racial fairness is our fight, and let the freedom we feel deep in a rising jam inspire us to fight for the liberation of all of our fellow Americans.
Come on, let’s all get on the bus together… it will be an incredible journey of freedom.