Our series Ain’t But a Few of Us, black music writers telling their story continues with a voice from the San Francisco Bay Area. I first met Eric Arnold in 2003 on a magical journalist junket to Morocco to cover the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, then down to the coast for the Gnaoua & World Music Festival in Essaouira. Eric represents the new breed of black music writers who are conversant on black music from hip hop to jazz and beyond.
According to Arnold, "I’m not really a "jazz writer," though of course I have written about it; I tend to cover music of the diaspora, which is black music, Latin music, Caribbean music, African music, hip-hop, soul/funk, and various hybridized and fusionistic forms thereof. It’s hard for me to separate music into "serious" and "non-serious" categories; I tend to look at it as a whole. I think the seriousness comes from how folks approach the subject — to me, the recent album of jazz-funk covers of Wu-Tang songs was as serious as, say, the last Joshua Redman album."
What motivated you to write about music in the first place?
When I was in college I read LeRoi Jones’ "Blues People" in my African American Music course, taught by Nate Mackey, a professor who was also a jazz DJ. At that time I was also DJing, on the college radio station. I started writing for the school paper and just went from there.
When you first started writing about music were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about this music?
Not really. That became obvious later on.
Why do you suppose that’s still such a glaring disparity — where you have a significant number of black musicians but so few black media commentators on the music?
That’s a big question. I think there’s always been a certain amount of cultural appropriation going on with respect to black music; you can look at Baraka’s essay "Jazz and the white critic" for a historical reference. There are so few black-owned media outlets — that’s one reason. And for most white editors who want to cover black music, I don’t think they really see a problem with having non-black writers do it, because they’re not really aware of the cultural nuances. Cultural appropriation is not really somethiing white people take seriously; there’s no impetus or motivation to be culturally authentic.
Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American jazz writers contributes to how the music is covered?
Absolutely. A lot of times, the whole notion of race as it relates to music is de-emphasized or tokenized. I think this extends past jazz, into all genres of black music.
Since you’ve been writing about this music, have you ever found yourself questioning why some musicians may be elevated over others, and is it your sense that has anything to do with the lack of cultural diversity among writers covering the music?
That’s kind of a leading question. You’d have to be more specific about who gets "elevated." In general, the lack of cultural diversity among music writers affects a lot of aspects of how music is perceived, what can be said — and what isn’t said.
What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards this music, despite the fact that so many African American artists continue to create this music?
The easy answer is, they’re all sellouts who chase the economic bottom line and don’t really have an investment in their own cultural traditions.
How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how this music is covered has something to do with who is writing about it?
Well, I don’t think that’s contention but fact. Let’s just say something gets lost in translation culturally.
In your experience writing about this music what have been some of your most rewarding encounters?
Hmmm, good one. Hearing Oumou Sangare jam with a bunch of folks in a small club in Morocco was pretty special [Editor: Indeed!].
What obstacles have you encountered — besides difficult editors and indifferent publications — in your efforts at covering this music?
The worst is when you pitch a story to a newspaper and they pass on it, and then some time later one of their white staff writers writes a story [on the same or a similar topic] that’s not as good as what you could have done. This happens a lot.
What have been the most intriguing records you’ve heard over the last several months?
Ironically, I’d say Quantic and His Combo Barbaro. Quantic is a white guy from England who went to Columbia and recorded a bunch of native musicians; that album is really good. I like some of the Afrofunk stuff that’s come out lately — Sila & the Afrofunk Experience’s Black Presient is really good. The Mulatu Astake — Ethiopian jazz guy — anthology is amazing. Iike the Amadou + Maryam album, and Sister Fa — she’s a female MC from Senegal.