"White Music for Black People": How the Veldt Are Helping to Shape a New Racially Inclusive Music Scene
The logical question for most would be: How can we fix this? Simply by listening.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Cumming
If the 2015-2016 US presidential crises have proved anything it’s that racism is alive and well, and it’s not afraid to rear its ugly, combed-over head in public. We live in a system that is riddled with institutionalized racism and sexism. The logical question for most would be: How can we fix this? Simply by listening, says Hana Jama, member of the Babely Shades collective. “Don’t speak over us, listen to us, support us by listening and asking when we’re done talking if there’s anything you can do to help us.”
Enter the Veldt. After reading about their odyssey, Jama was inspired to kickstart a documentary project and Babely Shades brought the band to Ottawa for their DIY Spring Series with the collaboration of ally and local non-profit Debaser. Babely Shades is a collective of Ottawa-based artists and activists who have gotten lots of terrible backlash from not-so-closet-bigots by protesting shows they feel unsafe attending, including bands like The Queers and Black Pussy, and the venues and promoters who host them. But while one hand taketh away, the other giveth. They are not just protesting shows but promoting them as well. The collective wants to promote a healthier, more diverse music scene in Canada’s capital.
“That’s our goal, that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Jama. “We’re trying to diversify it more because punk isn’t just white and DIY music isn’t just for white kids. We can play in bands too, we can sing too, we can put on shows as well, and were going to show you. Were not just going to tell you. A lot of people underestimate us as these young kids of colour but we pulled it off.” A North Carolina shoegaze four-piece, The Veldt’s music missed the mainstream but their presence in and of itself is historic. Twins Daniel and Danny Chavis have been plowing the way for marginalized voices in the music industry since they first signed a record deal with Capitol Records in 1989- who ended up shelving their entire album. When they went to record they were labeled as difficult because essentially they didn’t sound how they looked, they didn’t sound black. The group quickly realized that if they wanted to be heard, they would have to do it themselves.
“There’s a movie called Straight No Chaser and it’s with Thelonious Monk,” Daniel Chavis says, “and he’s surrounded by all these record people telling him ‘we think you should do this, or we think you should do that, what we really think you should do is...’ He just stopped the one mid-sentence and said, “Well when do I get to do what I want to do?” [laughs] When do I get to do what I want to do? It was kind of like that you know? We were surrounded by a bunch of flunkies that had no idea about what kind of music background were coming from. Everybody had their idea about what we should be doing but whenever we said what we wanted to do, we were labeled difficult…” After putting The Veldt on hiatus at the end of the 90s, the Chavis brothers released an album called White Music for Black People under the moniker Apollo Heights in 2007.
Photo Courtesy of Jordan Craig
“It’s from an old 1950s Jimmy Jay Hawkins album called, Black Music For White People. Because of questions we had been asked, about the band’s make-up, we’re black and everything, we thought we’d take a twist and call it that. It was a kind of a joke actually; our audience is primarily white anyways,” Chavis quips. As the papery-coloured audience turnout in Ottawa would show, he isn’t wrong. Nevertheless, their Friday night show at Legendary Zaphod Beeblebrox was smoldering with the band’s atmospheric sounds and the smoke of prejudices being lit on fire. The Veldt’s Ottawa date coincided with the release of the band’s comeback EP The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation.“They’re brave,” Jama comments. “To be black and to be anything different, just being 100 per cent yourself, there’s a lot of stereotypes or preconceived notions that get put on black musicians like ‘you have to sound like this or you have to do this’ but it’s like really no I don’t have to do shit, ‘fuck you I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.’ And that’s the attitude I like from them. I like bands like that, I like Bad Brains, I like Death [Detroit protopunk] I like Fishbone, I like RHCP, I like weird bands that go against the grain and I felt that’s 100 per cent what they’re doing.”
The story of The Veldt is so much the story of Babely Shades; a group who also decided to say fuck the rules. The former flipped the bird at overbearing and clueless record execs, and the latter, wannabe punk neo-nazis. One must only look back a few years to the righteous fist of Kathleen Hanna and the Bikini Kill movement to see what a powerful force organized rebellion can, and should, be. “To be a good ally you can’t speak over us, you have to let us speak but at the same time you have to be involved and use your white privilege to support us and show support, because if a lot of racist white people in the punk and DIY scene see a lot of other white people supporting us then they may change their minds. We might have changed someone’s mind.”
Griffin Elliot is an ally. Follow him on Twitter.