Photo courtesy of Chris Thomas King / Facebook

Bluesman Chris Thomas King says he’s been banned by the GRAMMYs

Grammy-winning blues musician Chris Thomas King has penned an open letter in response to what he says is essentially a complete erasure of his name from contention at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards.

After submitting his latest album, Hotel Voodoo, to be considered at next year’s ceremony, King says GRAMMY voters had removed his name from the blues category. “When I phoned my regional Grammy representative in New Orleans, he connected me with the head of the blues Grammy committee in Los Angeles, who called and confirmed the Grammy committee had removed me from the ballot because I wasn’t a blues artist and my album wasn’t a blues album. He said the decision was final,” he wrote.

As an American blues artist from Louisiana, particularly an African American, this reported snub carries with it deep significance, says King. “This is not personal. It’s larger than me,” he wrote. “It’s about the usurpation of my culture. My new album—which he admitted several times was outstanding but didn’t meet their notions of authenticity— featured my popular anthem “Les Bleus Was Born In Louisiana.” Apparently, a controversial artistic statement in blues circles. Clearly, the Grammy committee saw my music as an iconoclastic threat. Now, in 2018, African Americans can be banished from participating in their own musical culture.”

King published his open letter on both his Facebook page and his personal blog. Below, read his full letter.

It’s official, the blues is no longer an African American music genre. I submitted my latest album “Hotel Voodoo” to the 2019 Grammy Awards for consideration for “Best Contemporary Blues Album.” But I learned from voters my name had been removed from all blues categories.

When I phoned my regional Grammy representative in New Orleans, he connected me with the head of the blues Grammy committee in Los Angeles, who called and confirmed the Grammy committee had removed me from the ballot because I wasn’t a blues artist and my album wasn’t a blues album. He said the decision was final.

Indeed, as an African American blues guitarist who came of age in my father’s ramshackle juke joint, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, in Louisiana, and was the last twentieth century “folk-blues” artist to be discovered by a folklorist from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., I was told I no longer fit the Grammy’s criteria for blues.

This is not personal. It’s larger than me. It’s about the usurpation of my culture. My new album—which he admitted several times was outstanding but didn’t meet their notions of authenticity— featured my popular anthem “Les Bleus Was Born In Louisiana.” Apparently, a controversial artistic statement in blues circles. Clearly, the Grammy committee saw my music as an iconoclastic threat. Now, in 2018, African Americans can be banished from participating in their own musical culture.

It’s incredulous, the realization that I have been forced out of the blues to make room for Mick Jagger. Yes, that Mick Jagger, the billionaire Englishman, and his Rolling Stones. Indeed, Sir Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones won the 2018 Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy last year for “Blue & Lonesome.” The Rolling Stones, and others like them, have returned to gentrify what’s left of our marginal music industry landscape. Proving, they won’t let us African American blues people have nice things.

It’s cultural appropriation at its most shameless, to have the “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” steal a Grammy nomination away from a more deserving African American blues artist. The 2019 Grammy Awards are continuing a racist trope in my opinion.

In 1964, for their debut album, the Rolling Stones recorded “I’m A King Bee” by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, trailblazing bluesman Slim Harpo. A few years later, in 1968, Mick Jagger, in his first in-depth Rolling Stone magazine interview said, “You could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean what’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m A King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?”

The irony was, Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ new album sounded like their earlier albums, but their early albums were ostensibly rock and roll, not blues. However, we in the African American blues community always knew the appellation “rock and roll” was a veiled segregationist term meaning African American blues created by whites for whites.

In the mid-twentieth-century, rock and roll merchants and musicians seized the most lucrative aspects of the blues music landscape for themselves. They dominated commercial radio play, filled stadiums, and sold millions of records. Meanwhile, they left the African American blues community dive bars, honky-tonks and juke joints, like the one I grew up in, otherwise known as the “chitlin’ circuit.”

Mockingly, the Grammy organization nominated Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the traditional blues category, allowing them to compete with elderly unsung black men and women who, most likely, can’t afford Obamacare, not to mention a pricy Rolling Stone concert ticket.

Indeed, last year’s Blues Grammy Awards was like a Roman vomitorium, where gluttonous billionaire rock stars flew in on their private jets, puked up lavish meals pilfered from the sweat and tears of bluesmen and women, to make room for the chitlins. This travesty reveals rock and roll’s dirty little secret. From its inception, it was a segregated musical sphere developed during the Jim Crow segregation era to usurp billions of dollars and prestige that would have otherwise gone to the African American blues community.

Today, the criteria for the blues is only a few degrees removed from blackface minstrelsy. For those unfamiliar with the hateful history of blackface—like poorly informed former NBC News personality Megyn Kelly—I will point to a dangerous new book published in 2017, “The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville” by Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff. A book which claims blackface performers originated the blues. The inference being, according to the Grammy’s pseudo-criteria, minstrelsy is the tradition I should be perpetuating to be on their ballot as a blues artist. I have written a book to counter such fallacies. I was recently featured on the cover of Living Blues, America’s premier blues magazine, dispelling such outdated racist fairytales and superstitions about my culture. The Grammys have chosen to silence me. But I will not be silenced.

Today, the rock and roll record business is no longer the cash cow it once was. Both, aging rockers, and aspiring rockers covet our cultural space. Seems our humble chitlins are looking mighty good suddenly. What’s more, continued encroachment on the small niche once reserved for the African American blues community is a threat to our livelihood. A Grammy nomination helps the blues artist achieve belated recognition, but more importantly, better-paying gigs. Besides, there is an entirely separate award ceremony called the Latin Grammy Awards, so why can’t the Blues Grammy have an African American cultural bent?

Because I chose to speak up for my community and give voice to the gentrification of our musical and cultural landscape, the powers that be at the Grammys have decided to eliminate me from participating in my own culture. I will not boast about my talent nor my successes, nor my authenticity in this open letter, except to inform the casual observer that throughout my career I have been on the vanguard of blues; my body of work has largely defined the contemporary blues genre.

Moreover, I lobbied the Grammy Awards to create the Contemporary Blues award in the 1990s. I served for nearly a decade—at my own expense—as a member of the Blues Committee in Los Angeles. I resigned a few years ago in protest. There were knowledgeable and influential African Americans on various committees, with whom I had the pleasure of serving such as Randy Jackson and Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father. Many African Americans have worked to protect the integrity of the Grammy process. But when it comes to the blues category, the African American aesthetic is all but ignored.

We blues people don’t have the megaphone to call attention to outdated racist tropes, stereotypes, and appropriation of our music and culture. We need intellectuals and those with strong voices and means—from all cultural backgrounds—to join us. The blues Grammys are in need of an “Oscars So White” reformation.

Finally, the blues Grammy Awards has become a farce. But worst, the blues, America’s greatest musical artform, is no longer welcoming to African American artists like me—the question is, does anyone really care. “First they came for the blues …”

 

  • Akbar Harrison

    Thank you for speaking the truth, brother!!!

  • Denise Brown

    Big fat crock of shit.

  • colchar

    Some of this is valid, other parts are simply wrong.

  • Bill Mathisen

    Instead of bitching about the ‘Stones, why not try to get them on your side, especially Keith??

  • Dreadnaught

    The Blues in the US was all but forgotten until the Brits tracked it down, gave it a twist and brought it back to life.

  • mark

    The problem is when he goes on to complain about the Stones, Mick Jagger has done more for the blues and people tracking down the music of those old blues artists than this guy ever has, and for 20 years longer. I get why he is frustrated but looking at the list of nominee’s, all those albums are more “Traditional Blues” sounding and traditional is part of the category.

    His cultural appropriation rant is a bit silly IMO

    • bugzapper

      The Stones did a lot to expose young white audiences to the blues. They also carried Muddy Waters’ amp up the stairs at Chess Records. So, I’ll give them credit for their early efforts, which included covering everyone from Slim Harpo (Baton Rouge) to Irma Thomas (Ponchatoula). That’d be Louisiana, alright. But I’m not swallowing this latest “blues” album of theirs, let alone all the air play and publicity it’s getting. It’s almost as though they’re parodying their early work. So in that regard Mick’s right…why would I want to listen to him and Keefer doing covers of Slim and Irma 50+ years later?

      As for Chris being bounced from the Blues category: I haven’t heard the CD. I’m sure there’s some validity to his complaint. But let’s not forget that for nearly two decades Chris has been in the forefront of experimental music he calls the blues. Others of us would not call it that. His rant that rock-n-roll was all about whites stealing African American music is mostly b.s.. There’s no question some of it happened. Anyone remember Pat Boone’s cover hits of Fats Domino and Little Richard tunes? I do. (File under “Awful Things You Can’t Unhear.”) Etta James once famously said, “I’d better not die, or Georgia Gibbs won’t have a career anymore.”

      Finally, for F sake, Chris, it’s the Grammys! The people who gave one to Milli Vanilli! The organization that made Christopher Cross a 4-award winner in 1981. Remember Christopher Cross? He won the Album of the Year Grammy, instead of the other nominees: “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel, “The Wall” by Pink Floyd, “Trilogy: Past Present Future” by Frank Sinatra, and “Guilty” by Barbra Streisand. That same year Stephanie Mills took the female R&B Grammy from Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton, Roberta Flack and Diana Ross. There’s a trend here.

      Some people will always be hacks, and that includes voting members of The Recording Academy. If you pin your hopes and dreams to those characters you’re bound to be disappointed. Just go out and play to the people who appreciate you. They’re the ones who count.

  • charley patton

    I listened to Chris Thomas King’s new record. It’s ‘adult contemporary pop’ by any metric other than skin color.

    • Stephanie Programmer

      This is my take as well. The bottom line here Thomas King is offended he got removed while Jagger gets celebrated. There are many problems with blues organizations, programmers and profiteers – people who want to promote blues as anything with feeling – to the mainstream rock audience. Which is erasing what blues was in favor of the rock audience. Thomas King is right on some of these points. However, he exhibits a tone deaf attitude when his record, taken as a body of work is a scattered, mish-mash of genres that I wouldn’t consider on my blues radio program. What are serious issues in the blues world, he makes them serve him as the marginalized artist. Selfishly too, I might add. The bottom line, Hotel Voodoo (yes, I’ve listened to it) is not a blues record per se. It’s a mainstream record that goes from genre to genre. To not acknowledge that his artistic product doesn’t fit well within the blues standard shows a remarkable lack of insight. This is just ‘I’m pissed you booted my record while Jagger gets his ring kissed therefor you are being racist.’ A tone deaf temper tantrum.

  • Jazz Cook

    Some of the points he makes are quite true. Kingfish Ingram, a young African American Bluesman from Mississippi, said he always gets strange looks when people see him. With gentrification so prevalent in this genre, people expect him to be white; he ain’t and dude is a bad mofo! There are still a few OG’s still on the set, but unless we get a few more Ingram’s, Blues will go the way of Rock & Roll, which in case you didn’t know was originally Black slang for having sex.

    • bugzapper

      I’ve seen Kingfish numerous times, from Clarksdale to Portland, OR. Why in the world would people expect him to be white? Because he shreds and so do Kenny Wayne Shepherd and all those English guys? Kingfish shreds because he can, because he’s young and because he’s still getting used to the idea that you don’t need to overplay to make a statement. Muddy Waters could say more by holding one note for eight bars than all the notes Joe Bonamassa can jam into four. Eventually, Ingram will figure that out. But expecting him to be white? What??

      • Jazz Cook

        I don’t do get your point here. That statement was taken from an article on Kingfish doing the Luke Cage soundtrack, and the post is/was about the gentrification of the Blues.

  • Robert Johnson

    To me this is about an age old fight that’s been happening since the 1950s’. Black artists were subjected to segregated and Jim Crow. Now the so-called “Blues Mafia” are the ones deciding what is authentic and what isn’t based on the what they think. The Blues will always be Black music created by Black people whether they play it all the time or not. Just because people pick it up and start making money at it doesn’t give them automatic ownership of it. The only ones who said anything at the time were the Stones because they were surprised that it wasn’t being played on the radio at the time and found out how racially segregated the country was at the time. A lot people don’t know the history of Rock-n-Roll from the 50s’ going forward some have chosen to ignore it but a lot the same things are still there. Which to me is sad.

    • JW Gilmore

      Thank you Mr.Johnson

  • LaMan

    Chris, I’ve known your family since before you were born. Your Dad was the real thing. A couple of things……You are from Baton Rouge. Forget Jagger/Richards/Clapton. They ripped off a lot of black people and their music. Ask Irma Thomas about “Time Is On My Side”. Stay with the real blues. Forget Adele covers. You don’t have her voice. Forget African-American. You are an American. Forget the race card. Get off the plantation. Forget the Grammys. They mean nothing. Play the blues. Blues came from the entire Delta area, including Mississippi. Nothing else matters.