Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk

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I was at a retreat about four years ago and we were asked the question, “Who’s your tribe?”  It was a way of getting at one’s identity, where you feel most comfortable, most like your true self.  I immediately thought “Phish fans are my tribe” because music festivals are my happy place—of course for the music, but also because of the generous, communal vibe created through a shared love of that music.  I always leave hoping I can bring a bit of that positive energy back into my “civilian” life.

In the ensuing years, as the Movement for Black Lives took hold and the nonprofit I work for held several racial equity conversations and trainings, I began to have a pretty disturbing thought: Damn, my “tribe” is pretty much all white.  (It’s also very male—more on that at another time.)

In the wake of the hate-fueled violence in Charlottesville, and amidst the national conversation about white supremacy it launched, this seems like a good time to talk about race and privilege in the Phish/jam-band community.

The fact that the fan base is extremely white isn’t particularly surprising.  Phish is a band of four white guys from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation.  They developed their fan base at elite northeastern colleges, which are disproportionately white (and wealthy).  They play jam-infused rock, a type of music that owes much of its roots to black American artists but that has long had a very white fan base (see: any Grateful Dead concert).

That it’s not surprising, however, doesn’t mean it’s totally innocent.  The fact that Phish built such a white fan base playing their twist on black music in front of rich college kids is itself reflective of centuries of cultural appropriation and racial hierarchy.

Then there’s the question of whether it matters.  There’s no bustling movement to integrate Phish shows.  In a country where white supremacists murder counter-protesters, black people are regularly shot by police, and Latinos are targeted for harassment and deportation, it seems hard to get worked up about the demographic mix of Section 119 at Madison Square Garden.  Diversity is important in lots of places such as democracy, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods—because it brings inherent value and ensures equality of opportunity.  But, does it matter at a rock concert, or in a music-based community more broadly?

Probably not as much inherently.  The opportunity stakes aren’t nearly as high, and there’s not necessarily a clear collective goal that would be furthered by more varied perspectives in a music scene.  It may not be critical to building an inclusive democracy or society that we all rock out together.  But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all: broadly speaking it would encourage racial healing if we shared more passions across difference.  To the extent that racism is rooted in seeing people who don’t look like us as “other,” seeing people who look different grooving to the same tunes would discourage this outlook.

And, this intersects with another, related question: Do people of all types feel comfortable at a Phish show, or is the scene exclusive based upon race?  Whiteness tends to build upon itself—once a scene or culture is overwhelmingly white it becomes very difficult for it also to be welcoming for people who don’t fit neatly into the mold.  The same is true of class, gender, and other lines.  We could be denying people access to a great experience because they are not white—and that’s a problem.

As I became more aware of systemic racism baked into U.S. history, politics, law, and culture, I began to notice a few things about our own beloved Phish community.

Our entire scene is built upon a foundation of white privilege.  Walking around Magnaball in 2015 I had this disturbing thought for the first time.  A Phish festival is essentially 30,000 (white) people running around with glitter all over us, selling all manner of non-FDA approved meals, and openly consuming all manner of drugs—all while police officers stride around on horses just making sure we’re safe.  Can you imagine 30,000 black people being afforded the same indulgence in the United States of America in 2017—or at any time in our history?

We’re not immune to racial bias.  Most Phish fans aren’t overt racists, but I have heard some fucked up shit at shows.  And, unfortunately when I have heard the occasional racist outburst I have not heard anyone intervene and tell that person his bullshit isn’t welcome in our scene.  (To be clear, I have failed to intervene myself.)  Beyond overt racism, we all have our implicit biases and tend to make assumptions about people based upon shortcuts like class and race.  This is magnified in a heavily white environment.

It might not be so awesome to walk around a Phish festival or show as a person of color.  At Magnaball I really started to think about what it might be like to be a person of color walking through a sea of white Phish fans.  Would it be a welcoming space?  Or—especially if you’re a black male—are many people assuming you’re there to make a buck selling them something rather than enjoying the music?

While working on this post I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of Phish fans who are people of color, and have learned a bit about their experience.

First, not everyone feels there’s a problem. Christopher Jett is a 41 year old of African-American and Native-American heritage who has seen more than 250 shows since 1994.  He told me, “I have never felt uncomfortable at a Phish show. In fact, that’s where I feel most comfortable in my life period.”  “Honestly,” Christopher added, “being a person of color on tour, especially in the 90’s was a positive experience. It actually helped me become who I am because I was one of two to three people of color on tour at any given time. Everyone knew me, even the band, and that’s fucking cool.”

Lisa Nolan of North Carolina also saw her first show in 1994, and is a member of a Facebook group of about 50 African-American Phish fans.  She hasn’t seen much racism at shows, but does encounter a persistent assumption that she can’t possibly be that into the music: “People are always amazed that I’ve been to as many shows, know as much about the scene.”

Shaunea Robinson has been seeing Phish since 2010, and she picked up on that theme.  “I’m constantly asked if this is my first show, even with a faded tour shirt on,” Shaunea told me.  “I took my fiancé (who is not at all a Phan) to Magnaball, and people constantly assumed because he was a white man that he brought me along.  They would speak to him and not even acknowledge me, then get surprised when he told them it was only his second time seeing the band, but I’d seen over 30 shows.  These days, if I’m doing a show solo, I’ll avoid conversation, just so I don’t have to see the surprise on someone’s face when they find out I’m actually knowledgeable about Phish.”

Beyond that, Shaunea told me that negative encounters are rare, but she’s had experiences that “have ranged from weird to awkward to downright hostile,” including being accused of selling fake tickets.

Jamie is 36, and has been attending jam-band shows with her 46-year-old African-American husband Alex (who saw his first Phish show in 1991) for 18 years.  She had a much more frustrating story to tell about their experience.  Jamie wrote that Alex is constantly asked where the bathroom is (“100x a night, no exaggeration”) because people assume he works at the venue, despite that fact that he’s “clearly wearing a Phish shirt with sunglasses and a Grateful Dead hat, and still all of this happens because hundreds and hundreds of people each run can only see his skin color, not that he could maybe be a potential Phish fan.”  She says that their time together “usually gets intruded on by arguments with racist frat boy types” and while they encounter this problem at lots of concerts, “it’s always waaaaaay worse than anywhere else at a Phish show.”  She continued:

Racism happens at 100% of Phish shows, both blatantly and drunkenly and by those just inexperienced and sheltered… Some people think he’s the token ‘cool black dude’ at shows and he hates it and would rather they go away and let him dance. Mostly it’s people thinking he works there…and it happens every 5 minutes…. It really is a buzz kill and puts a damper on his weekend and all of the fun that it was supposed to be, to realize that even in the place he was hoping to have the most fun and be the most free and blissed out, people still see him only as his shade of melanin, and that the world, even the more fun part of our lucky world, is still full of race stereotypes.

In sum, a Phish show is clearly no Trump rally, but I think it’s fair to say at minimum that our beloved scene hasn’t been welcoming for all people at all times.

So, what can we do?

First, I think we white Phish fans need to start having this conversation.  It’s our responsibility to address the challenges in our community.  Most of the fans of color I spoke with—even the ones who’ve generally had good experiences—were excited to hear that I was attempting to spark a conversation about race among white Phish fans, especially about the white privilege.

Shaunea told me she has a good crew that makes her feel comfortable “but other times, when I have brought up the issue of race and racism in the scene, I’m either silenced or derailed with ‘love and light’ rhetoric. It’s disappointing, because for a group that is generally socially conscious and left-leaning, a lot of white Phans seem to turn a blind eye to racial disparity.”  Jamie says when she’s brought up her husband’s negative experiences in the past people accused her of making it up.

I’m not sure that our overarching goal should be to make the scene more diverse.  If fan diversity increases as a result of making our community more welcoming, great.  But, the last thing we should do is try to drag our friends who are people of color into our scene to make ourselves feel better.  And, as noted above, diversity isn’t as inherently necessary or valuable in a music scene as in other aspects of our lives.

I think our dual goals should be to make the scene as welcoming as possible for people from all kinds of backgrounds; and to be more aware of our tremendous privilege, and bring that awareness into the other aspects of our lives in the form of a responsibility to fight racial oppression.

On the first front—making our scene more welcoming—I can think of a couple of things that would help.  

Be race conscious, not color blind.  Research shows that being aware of our own biases can help combat them.  So, don’t pretend you don’t see race.  Acknowledge difference and the background assumptions that can come along with that, and make a direct effort to treat fans of color just like everyone else.  Lisa summed it up well: “As a fan of color, I just want to be treated like any other ‘phan.’ I’m there to share in the groove just like everyone else there.”

Be on the lookout for unwelcoming behavior and intervene.  Let’s commit to each other that whenever we see or hear anything that would make our scene less comfortable for people of color (or women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities) we will proactively intervene and make it 100-percent clear that such rhetoric or behavior is not welcome in our community.  This could be micro-aggressions against people of color (like assuming they work at the venue or are vending), or racist comments or jokes among an all-white crowd.

Next, we must acknowledge our privilege and treat it as a responsibility.

Can we turn our community into a force for racial equity?  Folks in the Phish/ jam-band community are already a pretty progressive bunch.  You can probably count the number of Trump voters at any show on a few hands.  And though the band is famously apolitical, drummer Jon Fishman was quite vocal in his support for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

But, can we take that base and turn the community into the strongest band of white anti-racists around?  Can we model what it means to create a welcoming majority-white space at our festivals and shows?  More important, can we embrace the responsibility we have as people whose happy place is steeped in privilege, and use the realization that people who aren’t white wouldn’t be allowed to enjoy our favorite thing as motivation to smash racial hierarchy in this country?

In other words, can we as a community get active in fighting racism on the issues that really matter?  To take one example: mass incarceration and over-policing in communities of color.  If the police searched us as aggressively as they do black people a good chunk of us at any show would go to jail.

I think these should be our collective goals.  And I’d be very excited to be part of a conversation about how to get there.  Or about different, better goals.  Let’s just start talking about race in the jam band world.

You can see more of Adam’ Lioz’s Phish-related writing on his travel blog at www.gringoygallo.blogspot.com. If you’re interested in being part of a conversation about race in the jam-band community, please email Adam at [email protected].

Tell your friends!