The Racist Confrontation that Inspired “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr.

Success is no guarantee of security, especially when it comes to prejudice. One can win all sorts of accolades, be publicly recognized, and inspire others, but some people will simply not acknowledge that. Or they are ignorant of who you are and what you bring to the world. Grammy Award-winning blues rocker Gary Clark Jr. faced that situation years ago, and he turned that negative experience into the powerful song “This Land” from the album of the same name.

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Not a Simple Misunderstanding

In late 2016, the acclaimed guitarist bought a 50-acre ranch near his hometown of Austin, Texas, and he, his wife Nicole Trunfio, and their two toddlers had just settled in. Life was good—he had already won a Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home” from Blak and Blu, his debut album for Warner Bros. Records which went Top 10 in America. He had played on stage with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Dave Grohl, Tom Morello, and many others. He had even performed for President Barack Obama in the White House.

One day, a neighbor came by to ask for the owner of his house, suspicious of why Clark was there. He couldn’t believe it was him and insisted he meet the real owner of the property. The blues prodigy had experienced racism growing up, but with a hateful, vitriolic president in the White House at the time, race relations took an uglier turn in America. “It’s 2017,” Clark told The Guardian in February 2019, “and I’m being confronted with racism in front of my own house.”

A Protest Anthem is Born

Clark channeled his rage and sadness at the situation into the bristling song “This Land,” the title track for his third album that was released in 2019. The tune combined Clark’s bluesy guitar and impassioned vocals over a hip-hop groove. The title was a play on the famous Woody Guthrie folk song “This Land Is Your Land,” the lyrics for which start: This land is your land, and this land is my land / From California to the New York island / From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me.

The lyrics Clark brought into his chorus were much more blunt and direct:

Ni–a run, ni–a run
Go back where you come from
Ni–a run, ni–a run
Go back where you come from
We don’t want, we don’t want your kind
We think you’s a dog born
F–k you, I’m America’s son
This is where I come from

“This Land is My Land”

When asked by The Guardian about his process for addressing racism and the current state of the union, Clark replied, “The process was, one, being black in the south, and two, it was right around 2016 and it reflected what the climate was, what the culture was, what was in the news, both for black people and anybody else who feels discriminated against. There was a situation that I had, which wasn’t a big deal but it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I found it frustrating and sad and I just decided to go write a song about it. I had the music to it already.”

Enough is Enough

In speaking with American Songwriter in 2019, Clark declared he had had enough of racism. “I spent my whole life being black in Texas, and [you experience] blatant and subtle and abrasive discrimination,” he said. “With the current climate politically, it’s like, ‘What the f–k is happening?’ Everyone just wants to be treated like a human being.”

The video for “This Land” includes Clark singing and wailing on his guitar from the balcony of his ranch, along with images of young Black children finding a noose, and later watching it burn along with a Confederate flag. There was also a moment where the kids were standing on Confederate flags and one child pulled out a Native American arrowhead from some dirt. That image alone was an ironic statement about a white racist saying a black man doesn’t belong in his country when his own ancestors killed and displaced the Native American population.

Clark also recalled to American Songwriter how “This Land is Your Land” was one of the first songs people learn as a kid, just as one learns to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “When you’re kids, everybody’s together,” he noted. “You don’t see differences until you get older, and older people influence you to think about other people a certain way. I just want to get back to singing that song like we were kids again, you know?”

A Message Heard Loud and Clear

While there has yet to be any indication of how the neighbor felt about his staunch rebuff in song, “This Land” made Clark’s feelings—and those of many others—known quite clearly. The song and album were nominated for four Grammy Awards and won three at the 2020 ceremony—for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance. Clark performed the song with The Roots at the show, although he removed the N-word and F-bomb to avoid any on-air bleeping.

This Land was the third Top 10 album in a row for Clark. He also landed a lot of media coverage for the song and his career at that point, including a profile on CBS Sunday Morning. He performed the title track on Saturday Night Live, The Howard Stern Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The video has racked up 8.5 million Spotify listens and 4.5 million YouTube views. It has been said that success is the best revenge, although in this instance it would have been better if such racist incidents were left to the past.

Clark’s latest album, JPEG RAW, has expanded his scope to include a wider range of African music influences and also look at a broader world view. It opens with the song “Maktub,” which is the Arabic word for fate or destiny. 

In discussing his latest release, Clark told, “The last record was This Land, but what about the whole world? What about not just focusing on this, but what else is going on out there? And we drew from these influences. We talked about family, we talked about culture, we talked about tradition, we talked about everything. And it’s like, let’s make it inclusive, build the people up. Let’s build ourselves up. It’s not just about your small world, it’s about everybody’s feelings. Sometimes they’re dealt with injustice and devastation everywhere, but there’s also this global sense of hope. So, I just wanted to have a song that had the sentiment of that.”

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Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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