Malcolm Howard is a Black small business owner who has been seeing Phish and similar bands for more than 30 years. Adam Lioz is a White voting rights attorney who saw his first Grateful Dead show in 1991. Malcolm and Adam are founding Board members of Phans for Racial Equity. They look forward to seeing you on Phish tour this summer.
Juneteenth commemorates the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. were granted freedom in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. What’s the relevance of a celebration of Black liberation for the largely White jam band community? Why should we keep Juneteenth in mind as many of us plan to head back out on tour for the first time in more than a year?
First, although our scene is predominantly White, there are more jam fans of color--and more Black fans specifically--than you might think. One of us is a Black man who has been “on the bus” for more than 30 years--and we’re out there. The challenge is that many fans of color don’t feel comfortable at 95% White shows, so you may not see them around. We should take a moment to celebrate emancipation with and for the many Black folks within our own community.
In addition, as members of the jam band community, we have been thinking about the holiday through five key lenses: respect, freedom, responsibility, vigilance, and action.
Respect. There is no jam band music without the Black American experience of slavery, subjugation, and resistance--what some have called the “beautiful struggle.” The Grateful Dead was a blues band before a turn toward psychedelia (RIP Pig Pen). Phish covers Black artists liberally; collaborates with Black musical icons such as Jay-Z, BB King, Branford Marsalis, Merl Saunders, and more; and blends various Black musical styles such as jazz and funk into its own unique blend (sometimes called Cow Funk in a nod to the group’s Vermont origins). We owe a deep debt of gratitude and respect to Black artists and activists going back centuries for laying the groundwork for our current passions.
Freedom. Juneteenth is fundamentally a holiday about freedom, and jam-band fans are very familiar with the concept--it’s what many of us seek when we walk through the turnstiles. Not from bondage of course, and we don’t mean to imply any equivalence. Freedom from the stress of daily life, a kind of collective ecstatic release that some people find at church and we find at the peak of a blissful Harry Hood or at the depths of a soulful Morning Dew.
This freedom, however, comes alongside a fair amount of privilege. White fans (like one of us) move through festivals, arenas, and smaller venues expecting we won’t be hassled by security, accused of selling drugs or fake tickets, stared at like an exotic other, or even just asked where the bathroom is. It’s also a lot easier to bliss out inside a venue when we’re not facing the constant gauntlet of being Black or brown in America on the outside. Even fans of color benefit from moving in a heavily White scene where police engage differently than they would at a majority Black festival.
Responsibility. Once we recognize that the freedom we experience at jam festivals and shows is rooted in privilege, as a community we have a responsibility to pursue true liberation for all people--the kind celebrated by Juneteenth. For us, this means two priorities.
First, we need to work to make our own scene as welcoming and anti-racist as possible so that fans of color are able to enjoy the same carefree moments of bliss that White fans largely take for granted.
Next, we need to be actively involved in the present, urgent fight for Black liberation in the U.S. While we’ve largely moved past physical bondage (with the glaring exception of racialized prison labor enabled by mass incarceration), Black Americans are still fighting every day for liberation from state violence by the police, under-resourced schools and a biased criminal justice system that create a “school to prison pipeline,” sharply differential health outcomes highlighted by COVID, severe racial wealth disparities, direct attacks on their fundamental right to vote, and more.
Vigilance. As we head back out on tour this summer, we need to watch out for each other. Many White fans are tempted to think that the country’s current hateful climate can’t possibly infiltrate our open, inclusive community. Peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors are accused of terrorism and accosted with loaded weapons; Asian Americans in cities across America are afraid to leave their houses lest they be spit on, randomly punched, or worse; and school districts across the country are denying children accurate U.S. history out of hysteria about “critical race theory.” But everyone’s safe at a show, right?
Our beloved jam band community can't afford this wishful thinking. As a Black man who’s been on lot at shows for 30 years, “if I told you about all that went down, it would burn off both your ears.” In the summer of 2018 two Black Phish fans were viciously assaulted at the Gorge. We both know fans of color who are planning to skip tour entirely this year because they don’t feel safe.
It’s up to all of us to shape the culture of our own scene, intervene if we see any racism on tour, and send a strong message that we don’t tolerate excluding or demeaning anyone in our community based on race or other identities such as gender, sexuality, or disability status.
Action. This all adds up to a simple conclusion: all of us in the jam band community need to move beyond platitudes about “love and light” to be actively anti-racist; we need to join the beautiful struggle for collective liberation.
In 2017 we and others launched an organization called Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE) to help our community do exactly that. You can start by signing PHRE’s Jam Band Community Racial Equity Commitment Statement, and learning how you can get more involved.
In addition, right now there is an epic battle for our democracy and voting rights for Black and brown Americans. Conservative politicians have introduced hundreds of bills--including 22 that have passed in 14 states--to erect barriers to the ballot in the name of Trump’s Big Lie. Progressives are pushing for two critical protections at the national level: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The For the People Act has passed the House with President Biden’s support, and the Senate will vote by the end of June. Call your senators right now, and join up with the 60th anniversary Freedom Ride from Mississippi to DC organized by Black Voters Matter.
On this Juneteenth--more than a full year after George Floyd’s murder--the U.S. is being called to an honest accounting of our deep history of structural racism--and the jam band community has a choice. We can pretend we “don’t see color” and sit on the sidelines, jamming out to music rooted in the Black experience as our democracy crumbles and Black people are shot down by police. Or we can see that the beautiful struggle for racial equity is our struggle, and let the freedom we feel deep inside a soaring jam inspire us to fight for the liberation of all of our fellow Americans.
Come on, let’s all get on the bus together...it’ll be an amazing freedom ride.