Samuel James is an artist and all around raconteur based in Portland, Maine. He is a seasoned and celebrated blues musician—touring around has taken him all over the planet. His writing about race has been featured in the Phoenix and he recently told a story up growing up in foster homes on the popular radio program The Moth (which was recorded in front of a sizable audience at Portland’s State Theater this past June). His overall work and approach reminds of the importance of art and storytelling as a means of opening and changing minds.
James was already on my list of folks to profile, though we ended up talking earlier than expected while debriefing about developments in Ferguson yesterday afternoon. As he has written about about and addressed race extensively—Ferguson and Trayvon Martin in particular—and as it is something we often discuss, the subject comes up a lot in our conversation below. James and I are friends, and so this exchange is more of a dialog than it is like the other profiles in the Maine, Thankfully series.
We touch on it in different ways throughout the conversation, but the reason I thought to profile James is different from the reasons I have chosen to highlight others. In other profiles, I look at causes and organizations and specific activism, advocacy and community-building work. James’ approach is interesting because it is comprised of the sum of his outlook, craft and output, the whole of which makes him someone for whom we should be thankful. He is socially conscious but he is not a protest or political artist. James has, though, cultivated his voice and audience with which he shares his outlook, vision and when the occasion calls for it, commentary and criticism.
WARNING: There is some swearing so stop reading if swearing bums you out.
When did you first start to see creative expression as a means by which you could your truths?
I don’t know if this is true for everybody—and I think you know this well—but the freedom of being honest is like nothing else. I think I have known that from the beginning.
There was a time where I had more of a stage persona. Once I was performing at a show where two people were talking and they were the only two people talking in the whole room. As a performer if you’re at a venue and everyone is talking then your place is in the background. Don’t fight it because you won’t win. But if you’re at a place and only one or two people are talking, the crowd is on your side because those who are talking are interrupting the show everyone came to see. Those two people were in the front and they were talking real loud. I kept trying to hint at it and not break my stage persona. Then I remembered a story about Charles Mingus where people were talking during one of his sets—he was notoriously volatile—and he put a microphone on their table and went to the bar. So that’s what I did but I didn’t go back to the bar; I sat back on stage and stared at them. Everyone was with me, but I didn’t really consider that. I was trying to do my thing and these two were in the way of that. That was the moment where I realized I could be honest on stage and be honest with what I was doing. It is not that I wasn’t being honest before, but it was more of an act.
When writing about Ferguson, people know that I am honest with them. The same thing has happened with my songs—I used to tell more linear stories but now I tell more personal things.
Something you said to me recently stuck out. We had talked on Halloween and I asked what you would be doing that night. You said that you would be staying in to avoid seeing people in black face. If you did, you said, you might hurt them.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Always. Ever since I was a kid, I have been so into it. One year my father made me the Headless Horseman by making for me these fake cardboard shoulders that went under my costume. I have always loved it so much. But last year after Trayvon, there were all those costumes related to that. Now, every year there is someone in black face and before I would carry that candy blood with me. If I would someone in black face, I would spray it in their face. I would laugh and they would usually laugh. It was my passive aggressive way of doing something about it, but it also made a joke out of it. That was my reaction before Trayvon. After Trayvon, I just don’t trust myself out there. We have gotten to a place where it all seems political. Pre-Obama there was a time where people were embarrassed the kind of shit they openly say now, but because everything is so polarized, everything on the left is “wrong” and it gives a certain kind of permission to a certain kind of person on the right to come out and say that black people are wrong, that it is wrong to be black.
Remember how this was supposed to be a “post-racial” era? I feel like if we were a country that claimed to be a “post-racial” country, and then we looked at the currency and saw that only one race and one gender was represented there, you might doubt those claims.
We have a hard time—let me take that back—white America has a hard time looking at itself from the outside. Many of those things are very clear to everyone else who lives in the country.
I don’t believe that we live in a post racial society, but I think the status quo outlook is one that has embraced gentrification to mean something more than it does. We live in a largely gentrified society that chooses only to pay attention to its gentrified parts while ignoring the problems gentrification deepens and perpetuates. It looks “post-racial” to many of those receiving the benefits of those shifts, and to those who have one foot in and one foot out, the problems are clearer. For those who live on the other side entirely—who have been pushed out or not at all allowed in—they will be likely live trying, dangerous and terrifying lives.
My conversation with Kelly Arbor of Maine Educationists on Sexual Harmony stirred this in me a bit, but in a society that places an illusionary premium on gentrification to the point where we lie to ourselves as a means of believing it to be a sign of enlightenment, the role of the truth teller, the story teller, the raconteur, the artist, the queer, the bohemian is as important—if not more important—than it ever has been. It is a prophetic role and I think you’re one of those people.
I think that people who know who I am are aware that I am genuine and I speak my mind. Mostly I am a happy person. I think that if I am going to write something about Ferguson or talk about an issue, people consider what I say or write knowing that I am a happy person. There are definitely rabble-rousers and that is their stock and trade and I think people can grow immune to that approach.
A problem with racism in America is that a majority of white people are segregated from a majority of black people and so the only thing white people see about black people on TV is us talking about how race is an issue. When you actually meet a black person and they bring up race, to white people it feels like something they have heard a million times even though they have never before met a black person. It becomes something that they can toss away.
In a community like this one, people know who I am. When they hear me say something it seems like they listen because they know who I am and that I am affected by it.
Note: Justin Ellis, a mutual friend and former Press Herald reporter, works and writes for Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.
I was about to when you called. I think about Justin a lot in this regard as well. He is a giant black man. He is a big black man, and that is not how he has made his living. He is not a big black man professionally. People don’t go to him for race issues and I think that when he speaks, it weighs more.
You told a story about your upbringing at the Moth when that show came through town. I am curious to know how the cultivation of your voice came to be important for you.
I honestly believe that for me it is just genetic. My father was an amazing storyteller. My grandfather or my mother’s side was the sheriff of York County so he was a bit of a showman as well, you know?
Yeah, definitely. Preachers and lawmen make the best showman.
[Laughs] Definitely. And you know this because of how you write, but there is a certain amount of patience you need to do that—to be a showman or to tell a story. In order to guide an audience along to the payoff, there is a certain amount of patience that you need.
I think of my father. He is somebody who has managed to negotiate race throughout his life fairly well. My father the showman. One time when I was a little kid, my father and I were walking down the street. A white man comes out and calls my father “nigger” in the street. If someone calls you “nigger” in the street, they’re not trying to attack you. They’re trying to get you to attack them so they can do whatever they want and say that you threw the first punch. My father knows this, but I don’t even know if this is going through his head at the time. And my father is a big guy. He would have no problem grabbing this man and bouncing him up and down the street like a basketball and there is nothing that man could have done. My father doesn’t do that. He looks at this man with pity, the way you might look at a limbless child. It was that kind of pity. He looks him dead in the eye, sorrowfully, and says, “I don’t know who taught you that word but it is considered rude.”
I am assuming this now, but it seemed clear that the man knew from that that there was nothing that he could do to get under my father’s skin and he just walked away. I think about that because it seems that in my childhood it was possible to negotiate race in that way, to be a showman, to understand how to tell stories, to understand how to navigate people’s narratives. This guy had a narrative of my father and it was “nigger” and my father showed him that no matter what that idea was, it did not include the thing that came out of my father’s mouth.
I don’t see you as a protest or social issues musician or artist. You are, though, a musician and you tell stories and at some elemental level, protest and social consciousness is part of your message. The capital you have amassed as a musician and storyteller has allowed you to speak to those things, and to maintain an audience in doing so.
You’re right, none of my songs are political. Honestly, I think it is impossible to write a good political song, I think they all have been written and I think the time for that is over and the audience for that doesn’t exist.
I don’t think it is nostalgic or inaccurate to speak to the diminished power or imagination or protest music. The artists who wrote those songs that are now iconic in retrospect were addressing some real black and white shit. Nazis, on the books Jim Crow laws, the civil rights era, Vietnam. Speaking generally, it now feels like evil—and the forces that appear to be responsible for it—has come to feel increasingly abstracted, banal and difficult to pin down.
I guess what I am trying to say is that when I look at the sum of how you engage, that is where I see the difference in how artists can make statements today. With Dylan, or someone like Dylan, for a long time the message was the most radical thing about him. Then comes Punk and Hip Hop and New Wave and gay culture where over the long term, the way you engaged became as substantial, if not more so, than the message itself.
When I look at you, I see you as an example of someone who does that very well. You are someone who has a message that can’t be rendered into a single statement and you have a point of view and a perspective from which concrete messages can be taken away. But it’s really more about a range of deliveries and approaches that lead to you being most effective. You have cultivated a trustworthy voice and an audience that listens engages it.
What you are saying reminds me of a guy I met while playing in Wales. I was playing a festival there 4 years ago it was a really rural place. I don’t think I’ve ever been to another place like it. There were sheep and horses wandering through the streets and the festival was held in a field, but there wasn’t an actual road to the field. You have to get in an SUV and barrel down a dirt path to get there. They had a big SUV bus thing to bring people to the festival.
I am there and it’s raining and all muddy and everyone is trying to get under a tent. There is one guy in a wheel chair and he’s just trying like a motherfucker to push his goddamn wheelchair through this mud. I saw it happening and ran over and did my best to hoist him out of the mud while not knocking him out of his chair. His name was Philip and he thanked me and stuff and I said don’t worry about it [laughs] I want you in here to listen to my music. We talked after the set and he said, “You were the only person to help me.” I said that I had just acted the fastest. He said that no, because of the culture of the place people have a hard time with those who are disabled.
On one end, he said, he was made to feel lonely by it but on the other end he really appreciated his wheelchair because he said it kept the right people away from him. Like if you’re not the kind of person who would come and help someone in a wheelchair, then you’re not the kind of person he wants to be hanging around. I’m tearing up just thinking of that.
To me it’s something I carry with me. I did a good job purging all of the people online who were Facebook friends of mine and racist. It was really shocking to me that my music didn’t already do that because…
Because your music is black as fuck?
S: [Laughs] Yeah! And you would think that if you were going to hear a song like Big Black Ben or having seen my face or having seen me in a room, if you were a downright bigot you wouldn’t have listened to me in the first place. I was talking with my friend [singer Syreeta Neal] about this and asked her why so many racists were blues fans and her answer is that she thinks makes them feel nostalgic for the “good old days”. You know, “Dance for me, nigger.”
But back to Philip’s wheelchair. His wheelchair did that, you know? It is a filter.
Somehow race is a really convoluted thing. People like to think that racism is like the Klan trying to burn the cross. Think about addiction. Addiction is a word and the outcome of addiction is that you have wasted a lot of time and money and have produced nothing and have gotten nothing out of it. That can apply to food, video games, heroin. It can be anything. The word is so big, though, and when someone is addicted to things like food, their phones or video games, we still don’t think of those addictions in the same way we think about addiction to heroin, and we shouldn’t, but the outcome of those addictions is still sort of the same. The outcome is more extreme with heroin, of course, but there are still those losses. It’s the same with race. People want to say that racism is just the Klan, but it is not. It is also the upper middle class to rich white guy at the blues festival talking to me like he’s black. That’s racist too. Its not just as upsetting, but it is as galling. It makes my blood boil too.
I end all of these profiles by asking how readers can make a difference. You’re bit different as your cause and approach is so specific to you. Do you have any suggestions for those moved to action?
Can I offer a reading list? People should read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, A People’s History of the United States and Rules for Radicals.
PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Anton