I’m going to wander for a while. You’ll get it eventually.
In developmental psychology, there’s a concept called “nature vs. nurture” that always seems to rear its head. The generally held belief is that our psyche is built up by a combination of our genes and our past experiences– that the way you interact with people is based on a heredity of shrewed minds but also from being hated by one’s boyhood peers because of that mind. We’re complex beings. However, it’s worthy to note that the past is always growing. I am the man I am today not only because of what I went through at 5 but also because of what I went through at 22. The environment nurturing our personas is an ongoing process. We are what we see everyday.
All too often we say these things but never realize the full breadth of such an idea. We talk about impoverished communities needing examples of success in their midst to act as inspiration because sometimes poor kids don’t know what success looks like. We have vastly different ideas across the country of what income level is perceived to be and actually part of the 1% because our idea of rich is different depending on region, cost of living, and the culture of extravagance. We rail on and on about declining family values because of mass media, all the while neglecting to articulate and stress the importance of such values in the home which has a greater, more immediate impact. Yet we fail to think about these same things in adulthood, at least not critically about ourselves and how our perspectives are shaped.
Recently, heading off the Oscars came a report from the Los Angeles Times stating the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences skews overwhelmingly white, male, and old. Thereafter, Billy Crystal hosted a generally tame ceremony for the ninth time to red flags (for a Sammy Davis Jr. impression which is essentially performing in blackface) and received middling reviews. On the following Tuesday, the New York Times reported the evening’s flat ratings, especially among the 18-49 demographic, and asked if this kind of viewership would be the new normal. Upon reading this, I commenced with yelling at my computer. I’m not saying the Academy is racist, but I am saying I’m perplexed that this group of old white men are so befuddled that they don’t have a more diverse viewership. Of course, they may not have enough folks around different from them to provide them that fresh perspective. It would seem almost painfully obvious that the membership of the Academy needs to expand not only for the sake of its own vibrancy but also, especially at introspective times like these, its own continued livelihood. When old white people like old white man movies (with a little bit of white guilt tossed in from time to time), it’s only natural that the rest of the country would recoil from this. This isn’t because of some sort of malicious bias that is deep within the heart of the Academy, they honestly don’t know any better. They can’t. They don’t see that much diversity everyday.
This is the importance of diversity. As constantly growing, developing human beings, we are always in part the culmination of our surroundings. If our surroundings are not diverse, we cannot be shaped by the ideas that root from diversity. We can only reap the benefits of homogeneity. While this is helpful in some respects to comfort and cohesion, one should not be surprised if the well of ideas runs dry at some point. If you’re not seeing much different everyday, you may not be growing to be much more than you currently are.
A few weeks ago, I indulged a bit into my personal roots pertaining to jazz and talked about this community’s cousin in smooth jazz. I did that to defend (as I constantly [and likely unnecessarily by this point] seem to do) my smooth jazz upbringing as a gateway to the genre at large and the rest of its branches but also to note that I was very much a product of my environment. There’s likely many a musician thinking of their musical families inspiring them to devote their lives to putting together that perfect tune in their head. When I heard smooth jazz, I only knew of smooth jazz. When I got slightly older and riffled through my uncle’s CDs and asked to borrow his copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue because I didn’t really know what it was but heard the name somewhere and had a feeling it was important (Seriously, to anyone who ever has a discussion with me about music, set a clock on when that expression comes from me in some form, “Oh? No, I haven’t heard of them but I think I heard that name before.” This habit of mine likely formed from this moment in my past.), I started to learn about more kinds of jazz music (and subsequently started listening to the radio station where I’m now honored to be a part of). I couldn’t know of something to which I wasn’t exposed, but once I was, I immersed myself in it. I became what I saw everyday.
Now cross apply the gray old AMPAS with the jazz community, itself constantly lamenting its own persistent aging, overwhelming maleness, and ever encroaching whiteness. How is the genre aghast that the audience for the music is aging and growing less diverse if the musicians are in those same demographics? The community has trouble seeing this because it isn’t surrounded by diversity as much anymore and thus the audience can’t regenerate because it no longer has an interest in it, at least overarchingly.
This is all very reminiscent of something Robert Glasper said in an interview with the New York Times‘ Nate Chinen recently, jazz is sending Grandpa to the playground and wondering why the kids won’t play with him at recess. The main reason why Glasper is seeing so much success in his latest release is largely because he has devoted himself to being surrounded by new energy. His album and his own sense of style is built up from his youthful, musically diverse environment. Compile this with the fact that a main point of the album was to recreate a radio format with which he was extremely familiar in an earlier era that he knew because it was relevant to his culture (and in some aspects still is [case in point, in his recent stop in Atlanta last week, he appeared on the hip hop station V103 instead of Clark Atlanta University’s public jazz station, WCLK]). (Side note: anyone who approaches Black Radio as some new, post-genre album that breaks real boundaries is obviously someone who isn’t familiar with this kind of music. R&B was always doing stuff like this. Of course, I can say this pretty easily since this is what I used to listen to everyday.) Other artists typically lauded by Nextbop, The Revivalist, Search and Restore, and other sites focused on the present and future of jazz music all have this in common– the background of the melding of musical styles based on a generation’s valuation of diversity in taste. The youth of this era have more options of entertainment and are exposed (and have access to) many different genres of music which ultimately shape the music they make (at least those who make music). They are shaped by all they see everyday.
Such is the case with culture. My viewpoint on the world around me is shaped by the fact that I am black, Christian (devoutly Baptist, to be even more precise), male, Texan, educated by a historically black college, harboring ill-will from a primarily white rural high school, loyal to my black elementary school teachers, etc. Each of these attributes are instrumental in shaping how I see the world. Not one of these things can be cast aside as something I should “get over” or invalid because “we’re all one people of one race”. While the argument of race can go on and on, our individual experiences based in part on race or any other attributes are valid nonetheless. Culture is the culmination of environment and a collective’s continual response to those surroundings. Culture is what we see everyday.
I say this to clarify a misconception some folks make about the validity of culture and its tendency to mold our viewpoints in all that we do. When we speak on the impact of race, we’re really speaking on the impact of culture– something that most certainly cannot be cast aside in some foolhardy, myopic ideal of “post-racialism”. To deny our past and current environments and its impact on our persona in the name of some artificial, kindhearted, but dismissive sense of equality is to deny what makes us individuals.
Think on this in all that you do. When hipping your friends to a new album, wondering why Linsanity and DuBoisian double consciousness don’t show up together in many Google searches, discerning if republican friends are backing Gov. Romney or Sen. Santorum, or figuring out why you prefer ales instead of lagers in the summer. We are shaped by our continually growing past. We are made up by the culmination of our past experiences and our approaches to the world in arts, music, and New York or Montreal bagel preference is all part of that, for we are what we see everyday.
The sine qua non of cultural analysis should always be rooted in a meditation of “nature vs nurture”. When we’re asking about how to bring young people into jazz music or whether or not we should change the name of the genre (we totally shouldn’t, by the way, no matter what trite pablum Nicholas Payton so ardently but inanely spouts), we have to think about the folks to whom we are trying to appeal and on what in their collective experiences should we focus. We have to figure out why people are the way they are in order to determine what it is they want, no matter their walk of life. These are the things cultural critics do, and to an extent we are all cultural critics. Our interactions with one another are in part based on how we size each other up and discern how to interact with one another on a day-to-day basis. In a Rouseauean sense, by the mere fact that we function together in a society, we are all social critics. In order to best navigate this world, we all must think from time to time of what we have all encountered everyday. This is the best way to judge our actions and how to best appeal to one another’s sensibilities. Let this become your mantra: we are what we see everyday. The world becomes just a little clearer, and we then start thinking about what we need to see in order to understand the viewpoints of others. At the very least, Robert Glasper’s new album would then make a little more sense to some befuddled white folk out there.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.