Music luminary Vernon Reid returns to Lincoln Center on August 3 with a celebration of the influential writer and critic James Baldwin. He recently stopped by with one of his collaborators, the award-winning writer and performer Carl Hancock Rux, to discuss the project Tones of a Native Son: Words, Life, and Spirit of James Baldwin.
Vernon Reid: It occurred to me that August 2 is James Baldwin's birthday, and it's been 30 years since his passing. In a previous show at the Atrium I had brought in this conglomerate of musicians—the Hexadecimal Gris Gris, which is a combination of members of the band Burnt Sugar, some folks that had played with me in Masque, DJ Logic, the Yohimbe Brothers—and it was a combination of electronic grooves and live performance with a bit of conducting, and it worked really well. We even had an LED dancer, which was beautiful. And I thought about something along those lines to play off of, celebrate, acknowledge the importance of Baldwin.
In terms of my aesthetic and in terms of everyone who's coming together for this, Baldwin has had a profound impact on all of us. And at a certain point I was thinking about pieces that inspired some of the titles of his books, like "Go Tell it on the Mountain." I knew that Carl had written extensively and created pieces about Baldwin, and he is one of the most dynamic, powerful, contemporary voices who's extended this kind of critique, this kind of witnessing, this kind of examination of all these different aspects of how we came to be who we are. You know, this kind of multiple split personality that we walk with, this kind of living, breathing contradictory thing of what it means to be an American.
See, Baldwin really always talked about being an American. Not Afro-American, not Black American, but American. I understand—because I also refer to myself as African American—I understand the kind of self-protection that's generated from cleaving to this group, but the thing that upsets the other side is when you claim being an American, you are entering into the struggle about what it is to be an American, because there's a definition that does not include us.
Carl Hancock Rux: That's what Baldwin's very clear about. He's very clear about the idea of being identified as someone who belongs to a sub-group of this country, therefore not part of the relevant conversation. And he's saying, "We're not a sub-group." He was very clear about that. He was a brilliant polemicist.
"He would literally speak truth to power in whatever form that power came."
VR: He really understood that the battle was in language, was inside of language. And he also understood when he was dealing with the saints—he talked about the Church in a very particular way from the inside; he was a boyhood preacher himself—he also knew that there were secrets and contradictions. And lies, outright lies. But that there was a possibility always of transformation. That the liar and the sinner could somehow be confronted with their truth that they can't run from. And it's not a truth that you can proclaim consciously. It doesn't work that way. It's like falling in love is a moment. There's a moment of recognition. It's terrifying. That's one thing that Baldwin got. He always said that facing the infinitude, facing what God's love is, facing that moment of connection is a terrifying thing. And he got that really powerfully.
Thinking about a piece like "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel"—which we're going to do—it's completely otherworldly, this whole idea about a wheel that's turning and burning in the air: Alberta Hunter says "Big wheels run by faith, little wheels run by the grace of God." So that means the galaxy is doing its thing, but you? You're just here through grace alone. You could also not be here.
Whether you believe in any of the mythologies or not, there's a thing that happens with people connecting. The possibility—like a team playing sports can get into a flow. Everybody's on the court for their own reasons, but at a certain point they become one. They can become one body. And one of the things that Baldwin was saying is that we're missing out on how great America could be. So when you hear "Make America Great Again" it's one of these crazy things. The problem with the ism is not that you're mean or you're nasty, whatever. The problem is that you don't see people clearly. You can't see people clearly.
CHR: You don't see history clearly if you say that, or if you even believe this idea of making America great "again."
VR: When was that?
CHR: When was it and for whom? Was it great for women always? Was it great for people of color always? You know, who are you talking about? What are you talking about?
VR: The most dangerous person in any room is the person that everyone is willing to listen to. But also the most powerful person in any room is the person who everyone is able and willing to listen to. And it exists. That's why the whole "inciting a riot" is such a charge. That's why Baldwin was so incendiary. He was considered to be very dangerous because he was so well spoken, he was so intellectually on point, he was so funny that he was a very dangerous person.
He would literally speak truth to power in whatever form that power came. And this was also a way that he became very influential because: number one, he was seen as uncompromising; number two, someone with integrity; and number three, someone that was not cowed by a group dynamic where "you should be in this corner."
CHR: Which is—the word you used, "incendiary"—the danger of being the voice that people listen to. Because it's what consumes, right? It happened to Nina Simone. It happened to Baldwin. You get consumed. Because there's also that point where you're a voice in the wilderness and the world itself is just fracturing and what more can you say that you haven't already said? And then you just will yourself to this self-imposed silence, if it doesn't kill you in the moment.
"I think part of the thing that artists take on is the burden of their truth, the burden of their obsession, the burden of whatever it is that motivates them."
VR: We included "I Put a Spell on You" in the program because I came across a photograph of Nina Simone and James Baldwin and it was so clear that they were very, very close. And that Baldwin delighted in her. They clearly had a very close relationship and they were of a piece with that voice in the wilderness that was so about their people but also understanding that, you know, "my people may not understand me."
CHR: That's right.
EW: What do you think is the particular power of artists in terms of being prophets, incendiaries, the people who are willing to speak?
VR: I think part of the thing that artists take on is the burden of their truth, the burden of their obsession, the burden of whatever it is that motivates them. And understanding that, you know what, your thing is not pop. The very folks that you're doing it for are going to tell you, "That’s not poppin', that's whack." And to stand inside of that and to continue with the work, which is actually extending the frontiers of the possibility of what it means to be who you are.
All artists that are bringing their excellence, their craziness, their sense of absurdity—all of us are extending what it means to be young, gifted, and Black, or to be old, gifted, and Black, or to be whatever that is. That's the thing Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix—they're of a piece to me. Sonny Sharrock, Sonny Rollins, are of a piece to me. Gary Bartz, you know what I mean? Gil Scott-Heron. Sekou Sundiata. They're all of a piece. Muhal Richard Abrams. Art Ensemble of Chicago. KRS-One. They're all an ongoing narrative and it's so important. And the fact that they're not top ten or whatever, that's not so crucial. And to take that on in a consistent way and to combine with other artists that have that same sense of propulsion, that same sense of integrity, that same sense of forward vision, you know, because we're all of us beyond the pale, if you will. And that's what's crucial. Because Baldwin lit the way. He held a torch and lit the way for so many—he lit the way for Octavia Butler. The visionary people who are like, "I got this thing I'm saying and y'all ain't going to understand it." We talk about prophecy—you know, it's one thing to say someone's ahead of their time or they're a prophet. You know, it sounds like a compliment, but it's actually not. It's actually like, "Good luck, buddy!"
CHR: It's almost like what Baldwin might have responded to that is, "That's the price of the ticket." You know what I mean? That's the price of the ticket. The price of the ticket sometimes is death. The price of the ticket sometimes is silence. Or to be silenced.
If you think about Lorraine Hansberry—she wasn't here very long. They were very close. You know, just at the moment when she starts to realize what is Black feminism, just at the moment when she starts to realize her own same-gender–loving self, just at the moment when she starts to write about bodies that are not Black but also other bodies, she goes. She dies. The price of the ticket sometimes is that. I don't mean to say that if you speak truth to power you have to die, but in some ways the price of the ticket is the death.
EW: At the least, it's isolation, or excommunication.
CHR: Absolutely, isolation.
VR: Which is its own kind of death. Excommunication. Which is its own death.
You know, part of the thing about the American experience...anything that's to the bone true has a place at the table.
This whole idea of keeping it real. I love that. But what about creating? Creating this other space, creating an otherworldly space. Creating the thing that is not now. And Baldwin was always thinking about—and Martin Luther King was thinking about, and Malcolm X came to realize—there's a thing that is not yet. The thing that is not yet.
We're all chapters in an ongoing story: every leaf, every ant, every person. We're an ongoing thing heading to destinations. And that really is what it's more about. It's not about a fixed point or a conclusion. Baldwin is not the kind of personage that you could just say, "Well, this is what he was." It's not fixed. Like Kendrick Lamar is doing Baldwin's work in his own way. And that's what we're honoring and we're a part of it. It's incredible to be able to be with people who are also part of this ongoing thing. It's an ongoing thing.
Baldwin saw very clearly in his time. Everything he wrote—you could dig it, you could not dig it—but he saw us in our complexity, he saw us in our deviousness, he saw the potential. He saw how we would have to betray that potential to protect other things. I can't think of a writer who got the dynamics of family so well.
EW: For young audiences and readers now, what would you want them to take away from Baldwin?
VR: I would say witness everything. Really pay attention and really—don't just sloganeer, think about it. Don't just slogan about it. Because I think one of the terrible things we do is demonize. Baldwin was against demonization because the demon has no responsibility, because the demon's not human. If the demon's not human, the demon's going to do what the demon does. And demonizing feels great. But he got that as just like a cold comfort.
When we see each other as human beings, even as we are in a fierce debate, it's important to actually see each other. So I would say for young people, see other people. Don't just slot them into boxes so you can just do what you do. See other people. I think men sometimes don't see women. I think that people of different races—it's not just Black and White, there's a whole bunch of other players on the field—we have to see each other. Actually see what's happening.
"Witness everything. Really pay attention and really—don't just sloganeer, think about it."
CHR: It's a lot of work. To be a witness is a lot of work. To be a witness isn't—in the Black Church, which Baldwin comes through—if someone says, "Can I get a witness?" They don't just mean, "Can I get someone to stand up and look around the room?" They mean, "Can I get someone to stand up and testify and tell me what's happening?" To be a witness is not just what you see. The translation becomes really critical. Now that you think you see, how do you communicate what you see and to whom do you communicate it? And whom do you see? And that's a lot of work.
EW: As performers, what do you feel you owe Baldwin, in terms of paying him the proper respect or homage? Do you feel a burden on that front?
VR: I don't feel a burden. I feel just...gratitude. Gratitude.
CHR: The same. I think I've realized that what’s owed, or rather what Baldwin was asking for, is our astute intelligence. The sharpness and keenness of our awareness. I think that's what he was asking for. And that we always remain a part of the struggle, as opposed to just sitting it out. And I don't just owe that to him. You know, we owe it to ourselves.
VR: I come back to the way he just saw us so clearly. He saw us for everything that’s great and everything that's not great. And that's a beautiful thing. And that has inspired us as writers, as creators. You know, he was not a triumphalist. The fact that Baldwin doesn't make characters that have this kind of moral certitude, the fact that he got how we're all capable of betrayal, how we're all capable of not being our best selves, that's a gift.
About the Artists
Guitarist Vernon Reid founded the Grammy Award–winning band Living Color and cofounded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. He has worked with a wide variety of musicians and artists across genres, including Defunkt, Bill Frisell, Public Enemy, John Zorn, and Arto Lindsay, among others.
Carl Hancock Rux is an award-winning poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and recording artist. He is the author of the novel Asphalt, the OBIE Award winning play Talk, and the Village Voice Literary prize–winning collection of poetry Pagan Operetta.
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.