Jason Harper of Scattered Trees
The musician and filmmaker on being black in indie rock and the movie he made about that very topic
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As a member of Scattered Trees, Jason Harper is one of very few black artists in Chicago’s indie rock community. Because of this, and in celebration of Black History Month, Harper sat down with his brother and bandmate Baron to film a documentary telling the story of what that means to them and how their identities shape their music. The A.V. Club caught up with Jason Harper to talk about the film, his band, and the dreaded TV On The Radio.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to make the documentary?
Jason Harper: Every year when Black History Month comes along, I look for content from people our age trying to do something unique, and it’s really difficult to find. I have friends doing interesting things in the art world, but no one really broadcasts it or broadcasts that there’s an African-American heritage to what they’re doing. I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about that on film because they happen all the time, but there’s just no evidence of them.
We wanted to talk about what it meant to use playing this type of music with our racial history. It’s a bit strange being black and playing indie music and not hip-hop, R&B, or what you’d traditionally expect from some black guys in their 20s. I mean, we love hip-hop and rap. We’re not prejudiced when it comes to music.
There was honestly a lot that got cut out from the documentary. Baron talked a lot about how a lot of his inspiration for playing music now is to show other black kids that they don’t have to fit in to any pre-defined model of who they need to be or what types of things they need to create or music they need to play. That got cut.
So I think, really, the inspiration was to give a voice to musicians like us who are young and black and making music that’s not expected of us. We want to analyze it, critique it, and figure out what it means exactly. It’s insight into an area of music culture that isn’t really explored. I think that people, also, are sometimes afraid to ask racial questions of people like us who are playing music, because they think we’d be embarrassed or—there’s a whole list of reasons people don’t ask difficult questions.
AVC: Or people get to it in a roundabout way by mentioning you and TV On The Radio in the same breath, even though your music’s not at all similar.
JH: We deliberately didn’t mention TV On The Radio in the documentary because of that. We did talk about Janelle Monáe, but we wanted to mostly recognize the history—like Nina Simone—and Baron has all these black drummers he talks about. It’s about the black history of the music that’s led up to this moment of doing what we’re doing.
AVC: You talk a lot about that in the movie, about how listening to old black artists helps you make this “white” music now.
JH: You know, we’re not making music for a predominantly white audience, but that’s who’s listening to it. There are a bunch of social reasons for that, like people growing up in certain social classes are predisposed to listen to certain types of music. Our musical growth comes from listening not to artists now but to people from 100 years ago.
AVC: Like Leadbelly?
JH: Here’s the thing with Leadbelly. I shot a documentary about him about a year ago where we went down to Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee and tried to retrace his life. He was a murderer, and he got out of jail early because he was playing music in jail for a white governor who liked his songs. He went back to jail eventually, but anyway.
I had a really hard time connecting to that music. It’s pre-folk blues, and I just connected to other music more. I wanted to know more, though, because I knew there was something important there. So, there’s a specific moment at the end of the movie where we found this graveyard on a plantation, and we turned on one of his songs, and all the sudden he was there. After that moment, there was a change in the way I listened to him. I could really hear him, and that type of folk music was never the same to me after that. I fell more in love with Dylan after that. I took this emotive lesson from Leadbelly that I draw from when I’m writing for Scattered Trees. So, yeah, I’m drawing from black artists to make music not listened to by black people.
The vast majority of hip-hop is bought by a white audience, but that doesn’t give any race ownership of the music. I think that’s important to say, because one of the main things that we as young black musicians in this band are under fire for—at least in high school, though it happened in college too—is people saying that because we’re educated and play a certain type of music that’s unexpected, that somehow makes the music white and makes us act white. It’s a complete misnomer, and it’s an easy way for people to try and make sense of what’s happening when we’re doing something completely outside of race. It’s a universal thing. We’re not racializing; we’re doing the opposite.
In the ’50s and ’60s, black musicians were in the heat of the civil rights movement and were making music that was listened to by a lot of whites and that pushed the whole thing forward. People were made popular by white culture—like James Brown was given his podium by white producers—and there were white people behind the curtain. I think there’s still a tension there now because you have these black entertainers, like—is this just another type of blackface, a black guy dancing around on stage as a white audience watches? Do they think it’s a spectacle and not just a purely musical experience? What we took from it, Baron mentions, is that maybe it’s still a spectacle to watch black musicians playing to a predominantly white audience, but what can we do to break down that idea of spectacle and have people listen to music for just what it is?
AVC: So we’re not in post-racial America, is what you’re saying?
JH: Cornell West said, “Race matters, period.” It still matters, but—there’s something I took out of the documentary that might help explain this.
Basically, it’s not 1960. We’re not saying, “I’m black and I’m proud,” but we’re proud of our black heritage. We’re proud differently than the people who came before us, though. We express that pride in a different way. We don’t need to throw a fist in the air in the same solidarity as the people we came from. Now the black community can simply be in a way that’s unique, and we can make art that’s responsible for our history that recognizes that history and pushes that history forward. In practice, that means listening to all these black artists we mentioned who came before us, and reading all the black thinkers who came before us, and taking what they’ve done and doing what only we can do right now in the present. We’re behaving as black only can now. We’re not acting like it’s the ’60s; it’s 2011. How do we push that history forward? What music can we make right now that they couldn’t in the ’60s? What’s the music James Brown couldn’t make? Maybe we can make that music.
AVC: Or maybe you can make a movie about it.
JH: That’s true! It was really fun to get to make. I hope to see other people recording conversations like these, because they’re happening. I hope the movie gets seen by more people and those people make movies about their own history. Polish history, whatever. I hope that this isn’t the end, and that other people watch this and say, “Let me show you what my history is.” I think there’s a hell of a lot to learn from other people having conversations in the same spirit.