Racism In American South Inspired Gary Clark Jr.'s 'This Land'

Feb 23, 2019
Originally published on February 24, 2019 3:41 am

A small moment of anger pushed Grammy-winning artist Gary Clark Jr. to create the unapologetic, seething song "This Land."

The singer and guitar prodigy grew up in a place he describes as "right in the middle of Trump country," in Austin, Texas, where he experienced regular instances of racism. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clark talks about instances of people writing the n-word on the fence outside his house, shoving dog feces in his mailbox, or putting the Confederate flag over his fence.

It wasn't until last year that his anger over how he was being treated hit a boiling point.

In an interview on All Things Considered, Clark told NPR's Michel Martin that a neighbor came up to him last year and asked who lived on the 50-acre property that Clark had bought in Austin with his wife Nicole Trunfio to raise their two children.

"I do," Clark responded.

"There's no way you can live here," the neighbor responded.

His neighbor didn't believe him, he said, and insisted on speaking with "the homeowner," despite Clark repeatedly insisting, "This is my house."

The whole time, Clark's 3-year old son was watching, and later asked, "Daddy, why is he so mad?"

Clark said he usually keeps his mouth shut in these types of situations, but his anger continued to bubble up, until it finally overflowed in the studio.

"I'm sitting in the booth and I didn't write it down. I just kind of freestyled and let this thing go," he said. "Everybody kind of took a breath after I'd done the take and I just sat on it."

The first reaction came from Jacob Sciba, Clark's engineer turned co-producer, who said, "It's angry, I don't like hearing you angry."

Clark doesn't like being angry either.

But in his latest album, This Land, he wanted to be honest about his feelings.

"That's what came out as a result of you know, life being black in this country, in this world, unfortunately," he said.

Racially charged headlines starting from the 2016 presidential election onward — such as Charlottesville, Colin Kaepernick, or police brutality — all festered in Clark's mind, he said, so the incident with his neighbor opened the floodgates to think about racism in America.

In response, Clark comes out swinging in his album's title song "This Land." The song starts with synthetic tones and raw guitar riffs, but quickly kicks off with a cantankerous beat as Clark talk-sings:

Paranoid and pissed off

Now that I got the money

Fifty acres and a model A

Right in the middle of Trump country

I told you, "There goes a neighborhood"

Now Mister Williams ain't so funny

I see you looking out your window

Can't wait to call the police on me

Flames of anger lick the notes in the song and then full-out explode in a chorus of rage when Clark sings about people telling him to, "Go back where you come from."

YouTube

In the song's music video, Clark's anguished face leans out of the shadows and he offers a defiant, in-your-face response.

"I'm America's son. This is where I come from."

The line has a gruff bite to it, contrasting with Clark's usual easygoing and relaxed voice. "This Land" is an outlier on an album of easy-to-swallow tunes that crisscross multiple genres like rock and roll, rhythm and blues, funk, reggae, and hip-hop.

For "This Land," Clark was concerned about portraying himself as the racist stereotype of an angry black man, but he felt it was important to keep it real.

"There's levels to me," he explained. "If I'm going to mix genres up I should be able to mix up emotions too."

Among the album's 16 songs is "Pearl Cadillac," in which Clark sings in a Prince-like falsetto about his gratitude toward his mother.

I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac

I was searching for some kinda way to pay you back

For your love, your love, your love

The Cadillac Clark sings about is his 1994 purple DeVille Cadillac, which he said he packed up to tour with American blues rock guitarist Jimmie Vaughn roughly 15 years ago.

Right before he left, Clark said his mother said to be careful and "make me proud." Her support inspired the powerful ballad, which Clark then performed on SNL.

Halfway through the song, Clark's soft, sweet voice singing "I don't wanna let you down. Oh, I only wanna make you proud," contrasts with the wailing of his guitar one beat later when Clark puts flesh to the strings. Never missing a beat, Clark sways and leans into the music.

It sounds as though he's bleeding himself out in notes; everything is left on the stage.

In This Land, it's easy to hear the connection to Clark's early soul music influences such Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder. Some of these influences came from his parents, but some came from his hometown music scene in Austin as well.

"Going up and down 6th Street, you can hear jazz, reggae, blues, Americana, country, hip hop, EDM, everything was there," Clark said. "I was intrigued by DJs. I was intrigued by horn players, fiddle players, all of it."

So, Clark decided he wanted to try it all.

He started collecting every single instrument he could — if it made noise, Clark loved it. He even owns bagpipes, though he doesn't know how to play them yet.

"I just want to figure it out and be a part of it. All these influences have sucked up into me," he said. "I just put it all in one big pot of gumbo and started stirring it around and see what happens."

The political and social commentary in This Land through songs like "Feed The Babies" and "The Governor" is nicely balanced with experiences from Clark's personal life. Though every track is different, sometimes dramatically so, Clark emblazons each one with searing guitar and the flavorful spirit of the blues.

Clark is currently on tour for the album, which will bring him across the U.S. and around the globe, far from his Texas roots.

"I'm singing like I never sang in my life before," he said. "I'm going to be exhausted after this but it's time to put it all out there on the table."

With career opportunities like these, Clark said he hopes to progress the fight for equality that those before him — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — took up.

"I'm not going backwards, it's like we're standing here strong, we've worked way too hard," he said.

After his tour, Clark will return to the 50-acre home for which he worked.

He earned it, and he's not leaving.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Gary Clark Jr. has won a Grammy, played alongside superstars like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, and he performed with B.B. King at the Obama White House. And yes, he can shred.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY CLARK JR.'S "PEARL CADILLAC")

MARTIN: That's one of his new singles, "Pearl Cadillac." But if you think he's just here to entertain, well, wait until you hear his new album, "This Land," especially the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND")

GARY CLARK JR: (Singing) Paranoid and pissed off. Now that I got the money, 50 acres and a Model A right in the middle of Trump country. I told you there goes the neighborhood. Now Mr. Williams ain't so funny. I see you looking out your window, can't wait to call the police on me.

MARTIN: And Gary Clark Jr. is with us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif., to talk about that album and whatever else is on his mind. Gary Clark Jr., welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

CLARK JR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like you had a lot on your mind, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean, I think, if I may say, it certainly has echoes of Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is My Land," but you definitely have your own perspective on it. And I just - just tell me about the the way this song came to you. Did it come to you in kind of a moment? Was it something that had been kind of percolating in you for days or weeks or maybe even years and you finally had to let it out?

CLARK JR: It was kind of all of that. It was - I was seeing the news. This was right around 2016 and the presidential election and, you know, things following that. And it was, you know, Charlottesville and Dakota pipelines and Colin Kaepernick and the NFL and the police, and I was just thinking about all of that. It reminded me of what it was like when I was a kid and certain instances that I've had, you know, where people would come up to me with the Confederate flag and call me out of my name.

And all the way up to last year, having a situation where I'm at my house and a neighbor comes up to me. And, you know, all is fine and well, and he asked me who lives here. And, like, I do. And he's like, there's no way you can live here. This isn't your house. I need to speak to the owner. And I'm like, this is my house. And things start going back and forth. And it gets a little bit tense.

And my 3-year-old son's there at the time, and he was like, you know, daddy, like, why is he so mad? Why is he so angry? And I just let it go. I was like, you know, he's having a bad day. I don't - you know, I'm not sure what what's wrong with him. And so I was like, come on, let's just go play, you know. And I didn't think of it. And it was just kind of bubbling up inside me, and I was just thinking back to how I was being treated.

And then it made me think about my mother and then my grandmother and then beyond that and just where we come from. And it's like it's 2019 and to still be at my house and be meant to feel this way like I'm not equal to or up to par or whatever, you know. I was just like, man, it made me angry. And I usually don't say anything. And I've just kept my mouth shut.

But I was in the middle of the creative process, and I had this music that I was working on. It was the music for "This Land," and I was making beats, and I was chopping samples. And all this stuff was happening, and it just bubbled up and I said, I think I got something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND")

CLARK JR: (Singing) We don't, we don't want your kind. We think you's (ph) a dog, boy. [Expletive] you, I'm America's son. This is where I come from. This land is mine. This land is mine. This land is mine.

My producer, Jacob Sciba, said it's angry. I don't like hearing you angry. And I said, you know what? I don't like to be angry either. And I don't like that I was provoked to be angry out in front of my house hanging out with my child, you know. And I said to him when we went into this album-making process, I want to make a true real, honest album and not hold back anything and not filter. And unfortunately, that was what happened. That's what came out. It was a result of life - being black in this country, you know, in this world.

MARTIN: There's so much to what you just said, and there's so much there on so many levels. I mean, first of all, just as kind of your own sort of take and meditation on that classic 1940s, you know, folk song which so many people learned in school. It's like this nice song that kids in elementary school learn. But also as a specific reference to a specific thing that happened to you because you do have your 40 acres, as I understand it. I mean, people will understand the 40 acres and a mule reference, but you actually do have 40 acres as I understand it.

CLARK JR: Right, 50 acres and a Model A, you know.

MARTIN: You actually do have 50 acres (laughter).

CLARK JR: You know, you're not going to give it to me, I'm going to earn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY CLARK JR.'S "THIS LAND")

MARTIN: Let's play something else just to give people a sense of the range on this album. And as I said, you have a lot to say. There's 16 tracks on it. It's quite rich, And it has lots of different flavors to it. But let me play - how about - let's play some more of "Pearl Cadillac" that we heard at the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEARL CADILLAC")

CLARK JR: (Singing) You say I owe you nothing. If I could, I'd give you the world. You make something from nothing. I thank God for such a beautiful girl he brought in this world, yeah. I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac.

MARTIN: You're like 6'5" aren't you? It's just funny to hear that falsetto come out of this giant - like, this giant LeBron dude.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Tell me about this song.

CLARK JR: That's hilarious.

MARTIN: What inspired it?

CLARK JR: That is hilarious.

MARTIN: Tell me more about this song. What inspired it?

CLARK JR: This song was inspired by 20 years - no, 15 years ago or something. I went out on tour, just had a great time. But when I was leaving, I had this pearl Cadillac 1994 sedan DeVille. And I packed up all my stuff, you know, with all of our gear. My mom said to me basically, she was like, be careful out there. You know, make me proud, you know, basically. And I was just thinking, you know, being honest and being real, having conversations with the guys in the studio, I was like, man, I got to do one for my mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEARL CADILLAC")

CLARK JR: (Singing) I'm sorry all the things I did wrong. I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac. I was searching for some kind of way to pay you back for your love, your love, your love, your love, your love, your love, your love, your love, your love.

MARTIN: I read a review in American Songwriter that called your album "This Land" a virtual survey of black American music from blues to hip-hop to reggae and Motown to Prince and the Jackson 5. I know, nice, right? But is that something that you're striving for - not to be, you know, a catalog of black American music but to just sample everything?

CLARK JR: It's important to me, but I don't think about it like that. Yeah, I think it's important to respect where you come from. You know, if you're going to be a musician, where does all this stuff come from? Who did it first? And I also grew up in Austin, Texas. I grew up listening to soul music, my mom and dad playing records from Sly And The Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross. You know, when I started playing guitar, my dad said, you got to listen to Santana and Eric Clapton.

So people were giving me music as well - Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix. When I started playing on the music scene in Austin, going up and down 6th Street, you can hear jazz, reggae, blues, Americana, country, hip-hop, EDM, you know. Everything was there. And I was intrigued by deejays. I was intrigued by horn players and all of it. I collected every single instrument pretty much that you could have. I have bagpipes for no reason. I don't know how to play them, but I just love anything that makes noise.

So consciously and subconsciously, all these influences have sucked up into me. I just put it all in one big pot of gumbo and started stirring it around and seeing what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEED THE BABIES")

CLARK JR: (Singing) Oh, it's hard out there for a man. It's cold out on the streets. But the world is my buffet, child, and I'm just looking to eat.

MARTIN: That was Gary Clark Jr. talking about his latest album, "This Land."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEED THE BABIES")

CLARK JR: (Singing) I ain't trying to compete. But the world is my buffet, child, and I'm just looking to eat. And feed the babies, oh, got to feed the babies now, yeah. So come on brothers and sisters, it's the same path you walk. Come on mothers and fathers, teach the babies to talk. Come on brothers and sisters, it starts with a song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.