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Columns | Fall 2016

Thoughts To Chew

Skin Color

For twenty-five years I’ve organized Kids Koncerts at the Theatricum Botanicum here in Topanga, California. I try to balance male and female acts, and sometimes it’s difficult to make sure there’s an ethnic mix in the series. Seems like most people who perform music for kids and families are white. Steve Denyes of Hullabaloo has the same difficulty finding kids’ performers of color to present at his Hullabaloo Family Music Festival in San Diego.

I wondered why there weren’t more people of color pursuing this kind of work, so I thought I’d check with our community. I went to the Gathering of Children’s Artists Facebook group, which is “committed to providing extra value to the music and live performances we create for kids and families to help them cope with the many difficulties they face daily.” I sampled the 624 friends in the group by looking at everyone’s face (that’s why it’s called “Facebook,” right?), and my rough estimate was that one in eighteen members looked to be non-white! I posted a request for a discussion about this and sent a message to each of them. I even put up some of their photos: Norman Jones of Rhythm Child, Aaron Nigel Smith, Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis, Birdie Mendoza, Isabel Brazon and Luke Bluske of the Baila Baila Band, Wooden Roots, and Mati Waiya. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our posts:

Peter: I write a “Thoughts To Chew” column for CMN’s Pass It On! journal. I’d love to hear any of your thoughts about why we have so few performers who are black or brown. Comments? Analysis?

Donna Washington: I’m a storyteller. I work with kids all over the country, and see lots of pretty diverse audiences. I belong to the National Association of Black Storytellers, and I know lots of artists who are either African American or Hispanic, and some who are both. I couldn’t speak to why you don’t have more participation from brown folks.

Allan Hirsh: I’ve been told that “children’s music” is mostly exclusive to Western culture. Though all cultures have children’s songs, few focus on it like the English. Maybe it is time to change this. Ella Jenkins comes to mind. I spent the weekend in Seattle at the International Children’s Friendship Festival. Both days were filled with groups of children from many countries, dressed in traditional costumes, singing, dancing to traditional songs in native tongues. All regions of the world were represented. The songs were amazing and quite touching to say the least. Children’s music at it’s best.

The idea of people sitting quietly in a crowd just listening to musicians and not actively participating with them is decidedly a Western cultural phenomenon. We’ve learned to treat music as a commodity to be consumed, rather than an activity that binds a community together. As children’s performers, we’ve had to learn how to get our audiences to sing and dance along in order to survive on stage. Those activities make what we do more international in feeling. It also empowers kids to think, “Hey! Maybe I could do that too!”

Bob Reid: As a “person of color” who has spent forty years playing for children in schools and other settings, I have noticed the lack of diversity. I suspect that when a group forms with a pre-existing cultural bias (white kids’ performer organizations?), it is difficult to invite in those who were left out of the initial circle. If a group is inclusive from the beginning, it is much easier to bring people in because they already see people like themselves included in the group. As one of the founding members of the People’s Music Network, I know that, as well meaning as we were, multicultural representation was not accomplished in those early years, and apparently you are experiencing that in the present. The group has made efforts to recognize people of color doing work with children, but still, they are the exception and not the rule. Pete and Toshi Seeger often expressed frustration at the lack of diversity at many festivals and in organizations they were involved in. They made an effort to point this out and try to address it when they had opportunities. Often, it is a matter of being aware of the lack of diversity in the lives we lead. Thanks for pointing this out!

Then I called my friend Norman Jones, who plays djembe in his band, Rhythm Child.

Norm: This is important for me because it’s about why I do what I do. When I had my sons fifteen years ago, I looked around for music that reflected me and what I wanted to present to my sons, culturally. I couldn’t find any, and I found it was very sensitive to bring this up with some people, because they don’t want to get into race. I work in a lot of different schools and museums, and I don’t see the faces representing all of society. In Southern California I see a lot of Latinos and Caucasian people. They’re represented, but I don’t see a lot of black faces in my audiences. When I asked, “Why is there no children’s music for black children?” the response that I got was, “We were raised on the music of our parents as black children, and that was good enough for us, so why do we need something different for our kids?” 

My argument is that children need their own music. I grew up on Sesame Street and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. My mom made sure that I had the sound of children’s voices in my head. I think it’s important to value the imagination, dreams, and possibilities of our children’s lives. Adult music kind of forces everybody to grow up too soon, and to adopt thoughts and ideas that they don’t understand. The Kindie scene in our children’s music is a wave of musicians from the rock world that had kids and decided that they wanted to sing songs for their kids. Why hasn’t that happened in the Black community? Very few artists of color that are parents have made recordings specifically for their kids. In an interview once I was asked, “What about jazz for our children? Isn’t that giving them a musical experience? Or the Jackson Five?” But it’s not. Let’s expose children to all different types of music. Jazz is great, and good for their brain…but it’s not children’s music. It’s not music expressly written to talk about a kid’s experience, or to help them process their life experiences.

Sounds like they were thinking “music” and you were thinking, “kids need songs to help them figure out their black kid experiences in a predominantly white culture.”

Norm: We want to help model heartfelt ways of being in the world for all kids, but it’s difficult to pull off in an entertainment field that’s driven by profit. I’ve had this conversation with Aaron Nigel Smith and with Birdie Mendoza. When I talked to Birdie, she said, “No…in the Hispanic culture, we don’t have ‘music for kids.’ We listen to what we listen to. When we listened to the music in the car as a kid, my parents told me, ‘Don’t you touch that radio, or this car will crash!’” (laughs)

There’s an Armenian School in Glendale that brings me back every year to play music with their kids, but the schools and churches in the Black community don’t find me. That kind of boggles my mind. I’m not that hard to find! I think we need to educate all adults to seek out people of color, to bring something to their community that they maybe don’t have within. It’s more than just important; it’s necessary to make these efforts to help our kids cope with the changing scope of the world we’re in. I do what I do because I want to pass these ideas on to the next generation, and see if we can get others to be intentional about taking this up as a mission for children, regardless of our skin color!

Reggie Harris and I go back together more than forty years. He’s a wise man and a folk musician who plays concerts, festivals, clubs, and school shows with his wife Kim as “Kim and Reggie.

Reggie: Why aren’t there more artists of color out here? Being on the road is not a very hospitable place for people of color. It’s hard to get work. There are not a lot of people who look like you in your audiences, so it takes a set of special skills to exist in that world and have enough success so that you stay, and deal with the difficult things you’ve got to deal with, so that you don’t just get broken down and decide to do something else!

How do you take care of yourself and stay out of the depressing headspace that “I am surrounded by racism”?

Reggie: Bottom line is you have to make enough money to make it worthwhile (laughs). You have to get hired. We actually went into doing school shows because the folk scene was so tough. In the colleges, too, they’d say, “Well, we like what you did, but we don’t have a lot of African Americans on campus.” Or we’d go there, and people wouldn’t come to see us. It was the same thing at folk venues. The mostly white audiences see our picture and they are not interested in what they think we’re going to do. Most of the time, white people don’t even realize that they’re reacting to our color. They just don’t “get it” that we’re people doing people music.

Today I spent all day with second graders writing songs about freedom. We used one of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s songs, “Ella’s Song,” whose chorus is, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” We get the kids writing and brainstorming about “what is freedom to you?” and “how do we make freedom possible for other people?” Everything we do for kids is about giving them context and background for the songs—about history or the environment or about everyday life, because we’re not born knowing this stuff! A lot of the parents don’t know either, so we do get pushback from time to time.

So we tell stories in song, because we are all hard wired for stories. I tell a story about a young boy who loved baseball, and I involve the audience with his story. I tell them about Satchel Paige’s life, and then we do a song about him, and they can hear it better than if I complain about how hard it is for black people in this country. Kids get this story immediately. “That’s not fair!” Rosa Parks was somebody who was respected because she worked hard and she was kind, but she was also tired of being mistreated, so she sat down in the bus. We appeal to the better angels of our audience to realize “that’s not fair.” It’s a whole different way to come at it. These are hard stories, but it’s not the anger of it, so eventually we can get there with them. Where we are with our educational system and where we are with our social system, with all the polarization of not only our American system but the whole world…people have to be eased into these things, or they run screaming from the building! So we give people a personal experience of what this feels like, then we can widen the frame to see the bigger picture.

We have to try to understand where they are. Most of our audiences don’t have our life experiences, so coming into their midst...just the fact that I’m there is a big deal! I walk in the building, and things change. I have to be aware of that and know how I’m going to address people who are uncomfortable. What’s our mission? And no matter which topics we cover, we have to know them inside and out so we can present in a way that will connect, like a teacher. People take in information at different rates, so if we’re going to do this work, we have to be intentional about it. And we’re going to have to deal with our own “stuff”—our history, our psyche—and know what internal triggers we have that we’re not aware of, so that when we get in these situations we can be prepared. And it helps to remember...it’s only a skin color.

Sounds like a song to me! Hopefully we’ll explore these “thoughts to chew” about the importance of diversity in our own lives. Pass it on!

by Peter Alsop
© 2016, Moose School Music (BMI)

to the tune of “It’s Only a Wee-Wee, So What’s the Big Deal?”

As soon as we’re born grown-ups check how we look
Then they look up our color in the Skin Color Book
If we’re darker or lighter, they size up our skin
‘Cause they want to know where we’re gonna fit in!

It’s only a skin color, what’s the big deal?
It’s only a skin color, what’s all the fuss?
It’s only a skin color, everyone’s got one
You’re human, so you’re one of us!

Now racism happens when folks are afraid
And that fear gets passed on to us kids, so they say
Our parents who love us want us to go far
But our choices get fewer, the darker we are!

And most grown-ups know how this whole system works
It was set up by white guys with odd “white-guy” quirks
No matter our color, let’s all take a stand
’Cause this skin-color thing is way outta hand!


When us kids make friends, it’s not based on our skin
And we usually don’t care whose family you’re in
We like other kids who have kid appeal
We make friends with kids who care how we feel!

We know it’s no fair to treat dark folks like less
This skin color thing makes the whole world a mess!
Inside all our bodies, we have the same stuff
So let’s just decide that enough is enough!

Chorus (2x)