Touring While Black

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Hello, my name is Jake Uitti. I’m 38 years old and I live in Seattle. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. I am 25% French, 50% Finnish, and 25% a mix of Irish and other European ethnicities. I hesitate to say I’m “white” because I believe the term is a stupid catchall that seems more in opposition to Blackness than a race itself. It’s a lazy, reductive idea, to me.

Black, on the other hand, is a necessary term as the result of a sad past. Many Black Americans don’t know their family’s heritage like I know my own. They can’t trace their family tree’s roots back as far as I can because those roots for many were cut, broken, and stolen as the result of the slave trade, which was a global problem made especially acute in America.

Being who I am, I didn’t have to think about race much growing up. I felt it listening to certain music, playing certain sports. But largely I was just like everybody else around me. Growing up this way, I was not privy to a series of worries that those who don’t look like me had to deal with in their childhoods and later into their adulthoods.

We all have problems. We all have unique stories. But often, people of color have those same problems with the added worry of random profiling or experiencing ignorant prejudice that’s even sometimes incentivized by people who otherwise should be protecting the citizenry. Listen, we are all prejudiced in one way or another; it’s part of being alive in a scary world. The only tool against that, though, is education and proximity. That’s what I believe.

More than FIGHTING WHITE SUPREMACY on every corner by wielding anger at every chance in the name of “progress,” I believe education is paramount at fighting back hate, ignorance, division, and exacerbated prejudice. Equal opportunity is essential, too. Tolerance and inclusion, also. So, why am I saying all this? Because I’m trying to give context to the piece at hand.

My wife is Black. She is the frontwoman of a Seattle-based rock band that she founded with her twin brother. They usually employ a third Black member to play bass, though I sometimes sit in. Yet, despite being a heralded, capable three-piece, my wife often insists that I come along with the group whenever they go out on tour, so as to have someone with my complexion in the car at all times.

Right now, any person of color reading this is nodding their head. I’ve seen it happen in real-time. When my wife talks about this at her shows, Black folks in the audience nod, knowingly. And while I’m happy to help my wife, happy to accompany her on every gig I can (her band is GREAT), it got me thinking: are there other Black artists who, when planning a tour, have the added burden of considering how people outside their band might receive them?

Heck, in 2018, a movie (Green Book) entirely about this phenomenon won the Oscar. Yet, while progress has been made, it has not been completed. On one recent trip from Seattle to Oregon, for example, my wife’s band and I drove by a Proud Boys rally in broad daylight, an hour or so outside the “liberal” city of Portland. Confederate flags flew—in Oregon. Other worries abound: a possible racist police officer, a group of Ku Klux Klan members empowered by others looking the other way (see: this tweet from a Black artist just two weeks ago), a truck stop jerk, a bored fair-skinned woman with dubious intentions, or some other entity that can reasonably get away with putting my wife, her brother and/or her bandmate into harm’s way—these are the things I did not have to think about prior to saying “I do.”

Though my wife and her family always, always have.

So as we head into Black History Month, American Songwriter reached out to a number of other accomplished musicians—Black musicians—to see what they might want to say about the subject on the record. Mind you, as you read this, remember that their quotes and thoughts in this piece do not come lightly or easily. Nor do I feel giddy in sharing them. This can often be a matter of safety for people, even life or death. This isn’t territory anyone WANTS to have to discuss. Yet, it is important.

Some important notes before we begin:

To be clear, this piece does not speak for everyone. No one person, or even group of people, can speak for any whole race of people. While I reached out to a number of artists for this piece, not everyone had negative things to say about their travels and not everyone wanted to participate. Perhaps they are too high profile or travel in manners that avoid these potential pitfalls. Who knows?

Or maybe progress has been made to such a degree that only a small fraction of touring artists feel this worry I’ve described. Or, perhaps, many who I reached out to did not want to comment on the record for fear of retribution. I honestly don’t know. And any further guesswork on my behalf would be unfair.

To those who say: Why are you bringing race into this—again? I understand your frustration. I, too, would rather not talk about these matters; I, too, would rather relax at home with a binge-worthy television show than worry about my wife’s safety. I, too, wish these problems would go away. But wishing does not make a garden. Hard work does.

Finally, I want to thank the folks who did share their stories and honest perspective. Let’s hear what they have to say.

Justin Golden is a blues songwriter and performer from Richmond, Virginia. He has a new album coming out on April 15, Hard Times and a Woman. He’s also a touring artist who spends most of his time on the road in the mid-Atlantic region. In 2019 he toured from Vermont to Florida, in 2020 he visited New York City and Boston. In his own words, along these journeys, all he needs is a sense of safety. Yet, it’s not a gift so easily given with wishes.

“It’s something I think about constantly,” Golden says. “For me, most of my anxiety is derived from traveling to and from the shows. I am always worried about stumbling across the wrong cop or just someone that’s having a bad day and wants to take it out on me because of how I look.”

In order to achieve this safety, he works hard at it. He says, “I try my best not to speed. I normally plan my routes through the most densely populated areas. Just in case I get pulled over or need to stop. I want as many people as possible to see me. Driving to new places through remote areas seems like the beginning of a horror film even if it’s just a few miles off the main road. I feel like something is always waiting to get me. At the same time, I feel like I need to push through those fears and pray that I’ll be ok on the other side.”

Hearing Golden talk, one might think: Get over it, why are you so paranoid? But if you listen a bit more, you’ll find at least one major reason why. He explains:

“This is an incident that happened to me back in the Fall of 2014. I had just finished up at college the year before and came back to visit on Thursday night to hang out with an old friend of mine. She was white and of the opposite sex. My visit had been planned for at least a week or two and I had asked multiple times to be sure that she told all her roommates that I was coming and that there would be a black guy sleeping on the couch so they weren’t alarmed.  

“This is something I was always taught to do when staying over at someone’s house. Especially if that person was white and that was twice as important if they were white and female. This measure is frequently taught to young black men as an extra layer of security for ourselves—just in case someone gets alarmed and sees us as a threat.”

Golden got to his friend’s house. He and a group went out for a night on the town. They came home early and ordered a pizza, which came and was devoured.

“Once the pizza was delivered and eaten, my friend went to bed. I put my jammies on, fold up my clothes, and head to her room to use the restroom (which was inside her bedroom). I see that she hadn’t quite made it to her bed and had fallen asleep on the floor in her dress from the bar. I use the restroom and let her sleep where she is. Then I fall asleep.

“Sometime later, groggy, and half-sleep, I noticed someone in the kitchen. I just figured it was one of her roommates, so I just went right back to sleep. The next thing I know, two police are busting into the apartment. Guns drawn. Waking me up from a dead sleep, they yell, ‘Don’t move! Give us your wallet!’ I say back, ‘Which one do you want me to do?!’ After the initial shock, I gestured towards my wallet, which was sitting right on the table. 

“They say with a mocking tone, ‘Oh, did you get drunk and wander in the wrong apartment?’ I say no, I’m staying with my friend, and recite my friend’s name and full address, and apartment number. They tell me not to move and go knock on my friend’s door. My heart really started to race at that moment, because of the way I had last seen her laying on her bedroom floor in a dress. Luckily, by that time she had made it to her bed and was in pajamas.  

“We cleared things up with the police and the roommate and the police left. The roommate said she called the cops because she wasn’t expecting to see a black man sleeping on the couch. My friend said she hadn’t informed that roommate I was coming because she usually stayed in another town part of every week.

“I don’t blame my friend or her roommate for what happened to me that night. It’s really something that is very deeply ingrained in our society: to feel threatened by black people.

“Even though this happened before I was traveling much for music, it has been something that I always have to think about before I go anywhere or agree to any gig. Will I be safe there? Do I feel safe performing anything that the audience might not agree with? Do I have to travel through some less friendly parts of the state to get to the venue? How are the police in that area? The list goes on and on.”

Jake Blount is an accomplished traditional musician and songwriter. He plays banjo, sings and his 2020 album, Spider Tales, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts. He says he tours between two and three weeks each month, mostly in the United States. All he looks for is a place to sleep, three meals, and good times with his bandmates along the way. He says his experience hasn’t been as dire as Golden’s, yet it’s still something that’s always on his mind.

“Rarely do I encounter outright discrimination and hatred,” says Blount, “but I’m often reminded that the infrastructure of touring is not designed with people like me in mind.”

He continues, “Touring necessarily involves some activities that are likely to attract police attention, and that causes me the most stress. Some venues, for example, don’t have a parking space and instruct you to double park out front so you can unload before the show, and reload when it’s over. New York City is especially guilty of that.

“At the last show I played there, several police officers actually showed up and were waiting around the car when we finished unloading. I’m not sure why they were there, as they didn’t say anything to us—perhaps they were just making sure we didn’t stick around too long. But that felt really stressful and dangerous to me.”

Like Golden, though, Blount worries about the nights after the gig, staying with folks the venue connected him with.

“I’m so grateful to the folks that open their homes to traveling musicians. I would not have made it through the early days of my career without them, and we don’t talk enough about how critical that kind of volunteer hospitality is to the music scene. There have been times, though, where venues or festivals have set up homestays for me without thinking about any issues that might arise due to my race.

“This can overlap with the first issue I pointed out when people invite you to stay at their place when they aren’t home and send you searching around their yard with a flashlight to find a spare key. Every time that happens, I feel certain a neighbor is going to call the cops.”

And even when he doesn’t have to search for keys, other issues may arise.

“Other times, the issues arise between me and the hosts themselves—the most extreme example for me was a homestay that a concert series set up for me, where the house had both an active gas leak and a room devoted to blackface minstrel paraphernalia.”

Sunny War has toured with acts like Keb’ Mo’ and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Watchhouse, and Valerie June. From 2018 to 2020, she says, she was on the road for at least two weeks every month and she has performed all over the United States, a bit in Italy, Canada, and South America, including Brazil and Colombia. When she takes her act on the road, she says, safety is often on her mind.

“Unfortunately, I have to think about my identity every time I leave my apartment,” she says. “By birth, my Black cis female existence is forever at the misogynistic crossroads of racism and sexism.”

She adds, “I would say the majority of the shows I’ve played since the release of my first LP [With the Sun] in 2018 have been sort of scary for me. Because I play acoustic music, I am usually booked by Folk/Blues/Bluegrass/Americana type festivals and events. A lot of my gigs are in predominantly white areas of the country. It wasn’t until I started touring that I fully realized this country really is only 13% African American. I only feel comfortable in diverse areas of the country—but work is work.

“[America is] rooted in slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. These things become very clear when you literally see the entire country. It’s all in the flags. I pay close attention to all the flags … I mostly hide in the car or in the hotel until it’s time to perform and that is just my way of touring.”

For Sunny, education remains paramount as a way to change the past and present for a better future. She recommends:

“Learn more about how many police officers are in the KKK and have been since the Klan first formed. It would be a lot more progressive and patriotic to embrace Critical Race Theory than it would to hang an American flag.”

Shaina Shepherd is a vocalist like none other. She recently opened for John Legend and, with that, earned this feature in Essence. She’s also worked with Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. While she is strong, confident, and capable, she also feels a sense of safety at work when accompanied by “a white person.”

Shepherd says, “I’ve definitely felt safer with white people present on the road—especially in those towns that still have Trump 2020 signs on their small businesses. It’s a hard thing working in entertainment when you’re a Black woman—dressed for the show, chatting up drunk people who don’t know you, about your music and experience.

“Most of the time it’s just awesome sharing perspectives with new folks, and sometimes it becomes unsafe based on things you can’t see or control. Having a white person on hand to remind someone toxic that they’re toxic and we are all just people at work or at play is, unfortunately, a necessity for the road kit between, say, Seattle and Salt Lake.”

Eva Walker, who is the frontwoman for The Black Tones, a band that has worked with the Seattle Sounders MLS soccer team, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, opened for Mavis Staples and Weezer and Death Cab, says she and her twin brother think about identity a lot when on tour (which is why they ask me to come along so often, as stated above).

Walker says, “We do generally get nervous in certain areas in the country when driving. Before we leave, we make sure there is no immediate reason to pull us over like a brake light being out, and we make sure both blinkers work. We make sure the car tabs are still on the car (making sure no one stole or removed them) and ensure the headlights work and the registration and insurance are easily accessible. Things like that. We always fill up on gas because the fewer stops we can make in not-so-welcoming areas the better, avoiding them altogether is best.”

Walker continues, “I personally sometimes wear an American flag jacket or something with the flag on it because people in certain areas tend to be nicer to us if we are dressed somewhat patriotic and at this point, it’s about surviving and avoiding conflict.”

Walker says, “I wish we didn’t have to think about this stuff. I wish we could travel around this country we all were born in and grew up in, pay taxes in, obeying the laws without feeling fear of someone targeting us over something ridiculously petty as someone’s skin color. Something a person that was born with can’t and shouldn’t change.”

In the end, while this story is long and likely hard to swallow at times, these are true accounts, true feelings, and realities that everyone—not just our Black family and friends—should consider and try to work out to make a better world. So that we can all be unfettered by these poisons.

Thank you for reading.

Photo of Sunny War by Florencia P Marano

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