Thoughts on Jazz & Neo-Slavery


Billie Holiday, Downbeat club, New York, c. February 1947 (photographed by William P. Gottlieb)

When I was a younger, I used to have a book that was basically a collection of biographies of all the greatest black jazz musicians and artists. It was filled with stunning black and white pictures of elegantly dressed young black women, and dapper young black men. Pictures of them in their element; happy, fulfilled, killing it. People like Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Nina Simone. I loved looking at the pictures, reading through it, getting to know some of the artists who had inspired people for generations, some I’d heard of, some I hadn’t – I loved being able for the first time (this was before Wikipedia was a thing for me), being able to get some insight into who they were personally.

And I hated it. Yes, I grew to dislike that book as it became for me an encyclopaedia of a predictable cycle of disaster, tragedy and abuse.

Most of the lives of these jazz musicians and artists were riddled with hardship, abuse, manipulation, struggle, drug & alcohol addiction, multiple failed marriages, and their systematic manipulation by the music industry and people they trusted. For me their lives exemplified something I call neo-slavery. What do I mean by neo-slavery? I mean when you are already at a disadvantage, seemingly get the opportunity of a lifetime to rise above it, then you are used, rinsed, poured out like a drink offering till every last piece of you has been bled dry, only to end up with none of what you deserve. Yet the people that supposedly were helping you end up with it all.

Neo-slavery involves deception of the worst kind; the illusion of freedom. Many of these artists signed contracts they had no idea would bind them to being paid scraps for the rest of their lives, because people manipulated and deceived them. People took advantage of these greatly talented individuals’ lack of understanding of the system, gratefulness that any white person was seemingly trying to help them (at a time steeped in racial discrimination and hatred), and their desire to rise above the hard life that most black people of the time fell into due to systemic and racial prejudice. They missed out on royalties that could have changed their lives in an enormous way and the lives of the people they loved, due to the calculated greed of others. They may not have been owned in the traditional context of slavery, they may not have been picking cotton for massa on a plantation, but massa was there collecting all their earnings, pushing them to the edges of their abilities, glorifying them to their faces, and laughing behind closed doors as they collected the endless streams of cheques on cheques and cheques.

Is that not sad? These people attempted to soar on eagle’s wings, and did…only they were in a zoo, and the zookeeper got to keep the proceeds of their spectacular rise and falls as seen by the world. These people gave us some of the best music the world has ever seen, and their payment was often ignominy, loneliness, brokenness and early death. And the same still occurs today.

I used the history of black jazz musicians as it was the example of neo-slavery (as I define it) that struck me the most, but in truth in the 21st century it has evolved somewhat to cross racial and ethnic lines and into entertainment in general. Many people are still selling their souls, their happiness, their sense of self, for an illusion of a grandeur they will never reach, whilst labels and/or managers make the real money and deprive them of due reward for their efforts. But there’s even an added dimension to it; not only are these people sold a dream, they too now sell dreams. They sell a dream of big money, luxury cars, luxury houses, endless women for endless sexual pleasure, an endless supply of clothes, fame, and all that jazz (see what I did there?)…but most of those things they don’t own; it’s all a facade or a marketing ploy to get people to buy into entertainment. And are not the fruits of that perpetual lie starting to show? Again the cycles of drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, broken families, unhappiness, depression, suicide…you name it.

In the past, jazz musicians didn’t need to stunt, that wasn’t their goal, their context – but such is the insidious nature now of neo-slavery, that it is not enough to own the puppets, but the puppet-masters must own the audience too. They own us when we, like a dog that keeps going back to its own vomit, buy into the exalted promises of fame and fortune, live for it, die for it, and sometimes literally kill for it. We empty ourselves of our true worth, and fill the gap with a mirage of success. And so the cycle continues.

I don’t have all the answers in life. I trust God to lead me where the vipers aren’t, and I thank Jesus because He has set me free from craving paths that will lead to brokenness and unhappiness (“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” John 8 v 36 NIV). I merely wrote this because thoughts on jazz and tragedy interrupted my sleep in the early hours of the morning, and I decided to share them.

As I was writing this post, two sets of lyrics came to me. The first kept playing in my head all the way through writing, and embodies a wish I think most of those jazz artists could relate to – an extract from the Lighthouse Family track (I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be) Free:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me

I wish I could say all the things I should say

Say them loud, say them clear

For the whole wide world to hear

The second are lyrics from arguably the queen of Jazz herself, in her own words, owning her own dreams, yearnings and feelings. Even though her life was a testament to the ravages of neo-slavery, she knew how to encourage herself in her dark moments, and whilst striving for something better, declare hope over her life. Introducing Miss Nina Simone:

Birds flying high

You know how I feel

Sun in the sky

You know how I feel

Reeds driftin’ on by

You know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life

For me

And I’m feeling good


Yours truly


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