In the process of auto-Googling, I’ve come across some things I didn’t expect to see. After a lifetime of toiling in the musical vineyards, there is actually a considerable amount of information about me available on line, and I am much more of a public figure than I was, say fifteen years ago.
This increased visibility has some drawbacks. For example, some guy on YouTube made a comment about the fat white guitar player in the “Monkey Man” video looking like a beached whale, not a monkey. I could have done without reading that. I’ll cop to being fat and white, though there are others even fatter and even whiter. But I don’t think I look much like a whale, and I do my best to stay off the beach. The sun is bad for my skin. This experience did give me a little taste of what really famous people feel when people talk about your weight (which is really a very private struggle) in public. And perhaps a smidgen more sympathy for those who spend all their time in the spotlight, instead of hanging out back by the drummer as I usually do.
I also found myself referred to in a reggae discussion thread about “White Exploiters.” This was actually funny, for reasons I will explain below. I used to hear this stuff a lot, especially when I was starting out. When I was walking around the streets of Kingston with my guitar looking for session work, people accused me of all sorts of things. I was a CIA agent and/or informer. I was a spy. I was a Botha supporter (this was at the height of the South African struggle). I was a thief who was going to steal reggae music and take it back to America and make a million dollars with it. And so on.
At this point I have a pretty thick skin about it. White, sure. Exploiter? I’ve managed to collect a few guitars and a lot of funny stories in the thirty-seven or so years that Jamaicans have been paying money to me to play reggae, but I’m a pretty poor exploiter. (I’ve had lots of exploits though.) Just ask George, my accountant.
Every year when I give George my tax stuff, he shakes his head after he looks through it and says, “Music is great…but part time.” (George knows; he used to play drums for Carmen McRae, and also appeared on the Tonight Show with her. He even played drums with Monty Alexander when Monty first came to NY in the early sixties. Then he became an accountant. A very successful accountant. For years my son Liam used to go with me when I went over to see him at his beautiful Manhasset home, just to look at George’s chandeliers.)
What I found peculiar about reading the “White Exploiter” discussion thread was that some of the people on it knew quite a bit about me. One guy said (correctly) that I was from Hartford and that my parents were both in the insurance industry (also true). Somebody else knew quite a bit about who I’d played with and that I’d made a lot of records.
Another person said something to the effect that there wasn’t much suffering in my background. (Debatable. My mother insisted that I take ballroom dancing at age thirteen. This was excruciating, as I have poor gross motor skills and there was nothing less appealing to a young rock and blues fan than ballroom dancing. Plus no one wanted to dance with me. Trust me, getting in and out of Channel One in one piece was less scary than dance class.)
Others vouched for my bona fides, which I found touching. But they all had screen names. Who were these people? How do they know all this stuff? And were the people who didn’t approve of me correct? Am I a white exploiter? I’d hate to think so, but it’s a good question, and deserves an answer.
First of all, if I am an exploiter, I’m not a very successful one. I won’t publish my net worth, but after four decades in reggae, it is nothing to brag about. I think to really qualify as a member of the White Exploiter’s Club, I would need to derive at least 50% of my annual income over a minimum of five years from funds unjustly obtained from Jamaican reggae artists and/or musicians. And I think a minimum requirement of $50,000 of exploitation-derived income per year is also appropriate for membership. These are arbitrary criteria, but I think they are reasonable points of departure for the discussion. Maybe the 50K per year income requirement could be assessed over five years, so if you have a bad year this year, you can retain your membership by really putting the boot in the next year to make up the difference.
Here’s an example to show you how it could work. To name one scam I’ve heard of, I could book a show for an artist, charging the promoter 30K US, telling the artist the gig paid 15K, pocketing the difference, and then charging the artist 10% booking commission on his 15K performance fee. (The person who did this to the reggae artist in question was black, but never mind. A great idea is timeless.) Gross income from exploitative manuver: $16,500 US. If I can pull this one off four times a year, I’m in the WEC with money to spare.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any entrepreneurial skills. So the best I can do is play my guitar for those who do, which is no path to riches, let along a membership in the WEC. It’s hard to exploit people when you’re an employee. Well, perhaps I am an exploiter because I get paid to play a style of guitar that was invented by black people.
Maybe so. But most all of us who play reggae guitar now started working after the basic parameters of the style were set, back in the rock steady era. Are we all exploiters because we play a style we didn’t invent? Do I have to be a Jamaican to play reggae and not be an exploiter? Well, Lynn Taitt invented a lot of what we now think of as reggae guitar, and he was a Trini. Ask any of his contemporaries how much he contributed.
And before Lynn there was a white Australian guitarist living and recording in Jamaica named Dennis Sindrey. He’s on some of the first Derrick Harriott and the Jiving Juniors records. What about Dennis? I don’t think he’s a rich man either. If he is, it’s certainly not because of the enormous sums of money he made playing sessions in Jamaica in the early sixties. Maybe the WEC could have a failed exploiter division, or provide us with remedial training.
The white exploiter topic is worthy of exploration. I have thought about it a lot and I definitely have a chapter planned for it in my book. It may deserve a book of its own.
Certainly there are white exploiters, both inside and outside of the music business. And people’s rage about them is perfectly legitimate, and understandable. However, there are also black exploiters. If we are discussing economic exploitation in terms of money owed and tally up the dollar amounts by ethnicity, black people owe me substantially more money than white people do. And all the Asian and Hispanic accounts are completely up to date.
I don’t think this is particularly useful information, nor does it lead me to generalize about exploitation based on ethnicity. I work a lot more for black people than I do for white, so the odds of my getting shortchanged or stiffed by a black person are higher.
The issue of cultural exploitation is a lot more complicated, and perhaps dealt with best by citing examples. White British blues-rocker (or their management) putting their name on a song (and publishing it) clearly taken directly from a record by an older black bluesman who is credited as the songwriter? Outright theft, right?
Well maybe so. Until you trace the heritage of the song in question further and realize that the bluesman credited with writing it actually cobbled the song together from five or ten older blues records, without crediting any of the artists as co-writers. Is he a black exploiter? Well, I guess so. But there’s a long tradition in the blues of combining and reordering stock verses to tell a new story.
I saw Bobby Bland once do a stream of consciousness slow blues; it didn’t have a name. He just looked at his guitarist and said, “Slow blues in G.” Then he proceeded to pull stock verses and rhymes from easily a dozen songs into a seven minute tour de force that could have been titled any of them, but was actually something new when he was finished. It was a remarkable window into how things were done back into the day. If Bobby had put a recording of it out and claimed authorship, I for one wouldn’t have questioned it, even if I’d written one of the tunes he sourced.
In the case of reggae, the near universal practice of putting new lyrics and melodies on old rhythms poses many questions about exploitation. Can you copyright a rhythm? And if so, does the copyright belong to the producer who paid the musicians for the session (or didn’t pay them and put the record out anyway)? Or should it be shared among the musicians who played on the track? In my experience the vast majority of reggae producers never made any specific musical contributions to the creation of rhythm tracks. If they were even in the studio at the time, their contributions were basically to approve what we were doing or to tell us to try something else. They never dictated specific parts, though occasionally the singer might. So why do they own the rights to a product that they did not contribute to creatively?
So is the reggae singer cutting a dub plate on the same rhythm track for a sound system exploiting the musicians who played on it? The more you look at this issue, the stickier it gets.
OK, what about someone like Chris Blackwell, a white man who made astonishing quantities of money out of Bob Marley and the other artists he signed to Island. Is he an exploiter? Well, he certainly made plenty of money from the work of black artists. I have no specific knowledge, but I suspect that the contracts his artists signed were a lot more favorable to Island than they were to the artists.
On the other hand, Chris also put out a lot of money to promote Bob and the others until they caught on, with no guarantees at the time that he would ever recoup it. Suppose Bob Marley’s career had been a failure and Chris had taken a net loss on his investment. Would he still be an exploiter? Bob would have made more money out of the deal than Chris did if it went bad. Or is it only exploitation when you make money?
Would Bob Marley have ever made it out of Jamaica without Chris Blackwell? Or would he have had a career like Bob Andy or Dennis Brown, universally respected within the reggae community but largely unknown outside it? It’s a legitimate question.
Let’s take another example of white exploitation, or cultural appropriation: Paul Simon with “Graceland.” He went to South Africa, hired local musicians, used their rhythm tracks to write songs to, and had an enormous hit. The process involved isn’t much different than Beres Hammond rewriting Studio One rhythms. But there were all sorts of indignant statements about Paul exploiting African music at the time. I don’t know the details of what he paid the band, but it was probably more than the $8 per side that Gallo used to pay them for sessions. Should they have gotten writing and publishing? Maybe, but if that’s the case, so should the Muscle Shoals band and the Stax session players as well as the reggae cats, and a lot of other pop session people. Paul recorded at Muscle Shoals and Dynamic too, to get local flavor. It’s part of the way he works.
I don’t know the MS people, but I do know the guys who played on “Mother and Child Reunion” and they don’t have anything bad to say about Paul. I’ve asked. Winston Grennan, who played drums on the song, told me repeatedly that that session made his career in America possible and that he was very grateful to Paul for the opportunity. Was he exploited? He didn’t think so.
None of the above is meant to defend things like record or publishing companies simply refusing to pay monies due artists or writers. That’s a breach of contract; end of story. Or putting out something without permission and not paying for it. The very common practice of convincing an artist to turn his publishing rights over to the producer and/or record company for little or nothing in return is exploitative too.
But when considering whether a given situation is exploitative or not, remember the following: musicians have always borrowed licks, lyrics, and ideas from each other, sometimes in large quantities, session people are rarely properly recognized or compensated for their contributions to the songs they play on, and business people have always made deals in their own interest. There isn’t anything particularly racial about any of that.