In 1952, 7-year-old Gladys Knight won the talent contest on The Original Amateur Hour. What happened next has haunted her ever since.
The show’s other winners refused to pose with Knight because of the color of her skin.
“This was the beginning of my awareness,” Knight said on Behind The Music.
Unfortunately, racism and prejudice are two unsightly patches interwoven in America’s tapestry. Both are prevalent in virtually all aspects of society, which made this especially challenging for black musicians — particularly during the Jim Crow era.
Despite having the liberty to perform around the country, prominent black acts during those years were still treated like second-class citizens.
They couldn’t stay in the hotels of the cities they performed in.
They were served rotten food.
They were forced out of town by rioters.
In Southern cities, these performers were obligated to perform twice per tour stop — first for a white audience and then for a black audience. However, when concerts were “integrated” — which technically consisted of white and black attendees sitting on opposite sides of the venue and being sectioned off by ropes — the black performers were told to make eye contact with the black attendees only.
“We were personalities,” Terry Johnson, a former member of The Flamingos, said in Rolling Stone. “To say you can't look at someone who's smiling and applauding for you? It was hard. I'll never forget that.”
In several instances, booking agents weren’t aware of the musicians behind the music.
In 1955, at a Knoxville, Tennessee show, agents replaced rock and roll legend Chuck Berry with a local cover band when they discovered Berry was black.
“It’s a country dance and we had no idea that ‘Maybellene’ (one of Berry’s hit songs), was recorded by a niggra man,” one agent said, according to a Rolling Stone article.
During the rise of black nationalism and the civil rights movement, musicians and cultural leaders alike began to take a stand against the system.
Legendary acts like Ray Charles and the Beatles began to cancel shows at segregated venues.. And more and more musicians began to find a different voice.
Nina Simone started as the archetype of a jazz and blues singer. She rose to fame covering jazz standards, songs from musicals, and torch songs that others wrote and performed, too.
Like Paul Robeson and Billie Holliday before her, she began to find it impossible to separate what was going on outside the studios from her music. As her songs became more focused on the civil rights struggle, Andrew Stroud, her husband and manager at the time — who was black — ridiculed her for that choice.
At times, she struggled with framing something so huge and raw and painful into a single song on a record.
“How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” Simone said in her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You.
“I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
Later in life, she acknowledged that being outspoken may have hurt her career prospects. But she lives on today as an example of how artists can use their platform to capture the public's attention.
Her timeless quote comes up again and again whenever art crosses over from entertainment into protest: “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”
From time to time, racial strife still rears its ugly head.
And artists rise to challenge it and reaffirm our common humanity.
George Clinton, another member of this year's Richmond Jazz Festival line-up, spoke out in the 1980s as a member of Artists United Against Apartheid—alongside Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Cliff and other legends of jazz, rock n'roll, and hip-hop.
Yes, a giant charity album might honestly be the most '80s thing imaginable.
But that doesn't mean it wasn't effective.
Sun City helped build up popular pressure worldwide against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and put the musicians involved directly at odds with then-president Reagan's more openly friendly policy of “constructive engagement.”
The O’Jays, due to their acclaim and following, were one of the first black groups to perform in desegregated arenas nationwide during the 1970s and 1980s.
However, as recently as the 2016 presidential campaign, the multi-platinum group decided to put their foot down on racism.
The Apprentice, Donald Trump’s popular television show, used the O’Jays’ “For The Love of The Money” as its theme song.
Trump tapped into the group’s catalog once more by using “Love Train” during his campaign rallies.
According to group member Eddie Levert, he and his band mates received flak for this due to Trump’s controversial platform. So they responded.
“They got on me about it, [and] said I got enough money from him so now I can kick dirt in his face,” Levert said in a Billboard interview. “I wish him the best, but I don’t think he’s the man to run our country. So when he started using ‘Love Train,’ I called him up and told them, ‘Listen man, I don’t believe in what you’re doing. I’m not with you. I don’t want you to use my voice. I’m not condoning what you’re doing.’”
Just last year, the rioting and violence just up the road in Charlottesville weighed heavily on last year's Jazz Festival performers and fans. Then Common stood and addressed his audience:
“If you hold black people down, if you hold Latino people down, if you hold Muslim people down, if you hold Jewish people down, if you hold poor people down...this country is not going to reach the level it's supposed to reach. When you've got people out there putting hate out because of fear, the only way we can oppose that is to put love out there.”
“Virginia, I'm asking and demanding that you go out and be a part of the change. And you can be a part of the change by standing up for something in your community, standing up for something in your city, standing up for something in your country...we're gonna change this story. We're writing a new story for America.”
Regardless of talent, wealth and status, racism and prejudice are inevitable in black lives. And over the years, music has been a harmonious contrast to racism’s white noise.
But in order for us to continue to progress as a nation, this current generation of black artists must see the privilege and opportunity in performing on stages around the world in front of white, black, brown, Asian, and Arab faces.
Trailblazers like Gladys Knight and the O'Jays—both performing at this year's Richmond Jazz Festival—forced their way into the spotlight during Jim Crow and suffered to give today's stars the platform they enjoy. Pioneers like Nina Simone paid dearly to bring the truth to the world at large. And legends like George Clinton never forgot their responsibility to a higher cause.
Now more than ever, our society needs a release. To laugh, sing, dance, and enjoy itself. But it also needs to speak up and speak out for people who can't speak for themselves.
The artists that came through segregation often sacrificed their pride, dignity, and sometimes their livelihoods to make that possible. And this generation owes them nothing less.
See Gladys Knight, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, and the O’Jays here in Richmond on Saturday, August 11th! Get your tickets today at richmondjazzfestival.com.