It's been over two months since more than 100 members of the music community sat down to address race and privilege in the local scene during a four-hour forum entitled Southern Discomfort. A panel of local musicians and concerned leaders initiated the forum as a response to last fall's racist caricature 'slave baby,' captioned as such to promote a Brave Baby show at the historical R&B nightclub that is now the Commodore. The image was drawn by Hermit's Victory frontman Tyler Bertges and posted on Instagram by Hearts & Plugs' Dan McCurry. Now that 2016 is wrapping up, we spoke with McCurry as well as several of Southern Discomfort's organizers and panelists to discuss where the scene stands now and what they'd like to see happen next.
For one, Hearts & Plugs, once a giant in the local indie-rock scene, is essentially inactive. Several of the bands pulled out of the label, including ET Anderson and SUSTO, in the days following the controversy — some did so quietly and some not-so quietly. One band member, who wants to remain unnamed, outed Berges on personal social media, and that person alleges that their band was subsequently removed from the label's website and other channels. Hearts & Plugs allegedly had no contact with the band prior to doing so, but McCurry says they've been in contact since. "Honestly, it's never been a business; it's never been a 'record label' by the music industry's definition — Hearts & Plugs doesn't own the rights to any of the albums it has released, there have never been any contracts, and therefore no one is bound to Hearts & Plugs," explains McCurry. McCurry did apologize on the label's Facebook page and at the forum. The apology has since disappeared from Facebook, and some, like Khari Lucas (Contour), are standing by to see what other steps he'll make. Lucas wasn't surprised that the apology was removed and was also unconvinced with the forum's version. In Lucas' opinion, "he showed up, gave a half-apology, and didn't contribute anything else to the discussion for the rest of the forum.
"It seems that rather than seeing this as an opportunity to change and use his platform to help make this change, he and the rest of Hearts & Plugs have sort of just sat in a time-out corner of sorts and hung their heads in shame," Lucas adds, noting also that he hopes that 2017 will be a time to watch what changes really occur in the community. "Hopefully the enthusiasm held by everybody involved so far carries forward into the new year."
Though McCurry removed the apology from Facebook, it still lives on the City Paper website — McCurry contacted us when the slave baby controversy first hit to give us the statement. "Removing the apology from Facebook doesn't change the fact that I feel remorseful for my mistake and always will," McCurry says. "I haven't stopped thinking about this — it's become a part of my daily life and has changed the way I see the world. There's no guidebook on what to do when you mess up — I think all a person can do is acknowledge their mistakes, learn from them, listen to others, and perpetually work toward being a better person."
Meanwhile, KJ Kearney, founder of Charleston Sticks Together, released a lapel pin this month depicting the slave baby caricature, with the caption "Never Forget," as a way to keep racial discussions going and try to eliminate the possibility of sweeping the ugliness of the controversy under the rug. The pin debuted this month at Charleston Hype's hip-hop Super Cypher show at the Purple Buffalo, which McCurry attended. "I believe this continued conversation regarding access for all music and arts in Charleston is important," says McCurry, who discussed the pin with Kearney at the Super Cypher. "I respect KJ as a leader in the community who is actively furthering this conversation."
McCurry adds that he looks forward to meeting up more with Kearney, Dave Curry (Black Dave — DJ, emcee, and founder of Charleston Hype), and others in the future. "I realize that the forum was just the start of the conversation, and it is vital to keep it going," he says.
Kearney says that he didn't make the pin to attack Hearts & Plugs or McCurry. "Basically my general feeling of being black and living here is that a lot of times in situations like this, it makes the news cycle for a week and it goes away," Kearney says. "So [McCurry] seemed to understand that, and we're going to meet again in the very near future to build upon what we discussed."
But while the forum was sparked by the slave baby drawing, the topic of inclusiveness, or lack thereof, in the music scene dominated the talk. Members of the hip-hop community, like artists Matt Monday and Benjamin Starr, revealed their struggle to have their art legitimized in a city that has long oppressed hip-hop culture, specifically stressing an often fruitless obstacle course experienced when trying to book a show. Some representatives of venues were present for the forum, like Charles Carmody of the Charleston Music Hall and John Kenney of the Royal American, and have since reached out to the hip-hop community about scheduling future shows (The Music Hall plans to host a new series called Charleston Live next year — the kickoff of which will be hip-hop centric and hosted by Black Dave, featuring emcees Benjamin Starr, Anfernee Robinson, and Walter Brown).
Alex Harris of the Pour House read about the community's concerns in the City Paper and has since booked the ongoing underground hip-hop showcase Elevators. Eclectic Vinyl and Cafe and the Tin Roof commented on the forum's live Facebook feed during the discussion, resulting in recent opportunities for African-American acts to showcase their art. And the Purple Buffalo venue, though brand new, has already hosted multiple hip-hop events put on by Black Dave's Charleston Hype.
But there is still a ways to go. "I think in the time that's passed since the forum, there has definitely been some positive change, and I'm definitely hopeful for things to continue moving forward, but I think overall it's a bit too early to say that I'm satisfied in any way," Lucas admits. "It seems like there are a handful of venues that have responded to this by becoming a bit more open in their own ways — Redux, Music Farm via their new Den series — but it doesn't seem like that's the norm just yet. The local media/press definitely seems to be taking their responsibility seriously as far as not letting this be a forgotten issue, and that's something that makes me feel good about the coming months."
Local curators and blog IllVibeTheTribe has also expressed a degree of hesitant optimism. "There are also some venues who still show resistance to having 'our crowd' in their space," cautions the Tribe, which consists of Sabrina Hyman, Samira Michè, and Asiah Mae. "We feel that the forum was the most honest conversation Charleston has seen about race, granted it was disappointing that more venue owners did not show up, but it was a great start. We would just like to continue to push the envelope and grow the scene so that people won't have such a stereotypical sigh of relief when a large number of black people enter their establishment and they don't have any 'problems.' We just want to party, have a place to express ourselves, and have fun too, just like everyone else."
That the last sentence even had to be said is alarming for many but that's what Southern Discomfort was about — open, uncomfortable, and brutally honest dialogue. "I've had people come up to me and tell me they really appreciated and respected us coming forward and not shying away from the topics we covered at Southern Discomfort. A lot of people don't realize the battles [black artists] go through all the time, and they were inspired to be helpful in any way they could, whether it be attending things, or helping us get into places, which we haven't needed much as of yet," explains Curry, who says he's seen how a sense of community has formed over the past few weeks at Charleston Hype events. "... how everyone is really cool with everyone, how we aren't some gangsta rap caricature where people are out here getting in fights and dying and shit. I think what people think [hip-hop artists] are and what we want to accomplish are two different things. Continuing to eliminate that perception is my thing."
As for Kearney, he'll continue to promote conversational, Charleston-specific pins through his start-up Charleston Sticks Together. He hopes the forum can continue to build, connect, and strengthen the community in the new year in ways that reach beyond the arts scene. "[At the forum], there was a very specific crowd of people who it affected, and now I'd like to see in 2017 if that crowd who was affected can come together and make some changes that would impact the city in general," he says. "Because there are people who don't care about the Commodore, they don't care about hip-hop, they don't care about bands or lapel pins. If we can, let's continue to work together, and like I said, my meeting with Dan was a good step — at least for me — in that direction. And now if we can figure out what are ways that we can impact the general community, I'd feel a lot better about what we did come this time next year."
But for every person who got a chance to speak out at the forum, there were several more who never got their turn. Fitzgerald Wiggins (Benjamin Starr) says that when looking at the big picture, four hours is a finite amount of time considering the magnitude of problems addressed and issues yet to be addressed. "The scope was so huge, but there are still people, large groups of people, who have problems that don't necessarily get heard on a regular basis, because they don't have the access or the platform to speak about the things that affect them," Wiggins says. "I can also say I've been able to talk to people who were or weren't at the forum, who feel like there is progress — but there is more pushing to be done."
Wiggins also explains the importance of giving artists a voice at times like these, noting that art, hip-hop, performance art, photography, design, poetry and more are all forms of expression that have historically helped spark social change. And those platforms, along with truly listening to and connecting with others, can be used to bring the scene where it should have been years ago. "And that's really a labor of love that you have to do," he says.
But, as Wiggins points out, it's not only the responsibility of the city or venues or even the fans to step in and lift the scene up. It's also up to any artists who've been, so far, afforded the privilege of a platform. "There's a lot of work that has to be done in South Carolina and Charleston and beyond, far past Charleston, and as artists we do have a responsibility to tell the truth — what may be our truth but also what may be the truth of other people who otherwise don't have the platform to speak their truth," Wiggins says. "We have a responsibility to shine a light on them. And, especially me as a young black man, you want to live in a perpetual state of evolution, to continue evolving and listening and learning and always questioning yourself on what your understanding of freedom and equality and opportunity is."
Southern Discomfort is now more than a forum that happened one Sunday afternoon. It's a community of concerned locals who can communicate about important upcoming events and issues via the forum's Facebook group, and it's a platform that will usher in more dialogue in the coming year.
Co-organizers like Elliott Smith have met individually with the panelists to discuss how to continue to build on this year's momentum to address the multitude of other issues raised at the forum. As a result, the group decided to, next year, break up the topics into smaller discussions that would be broadcast live on Facebook. "So one group would address one issue from the forum with three or four people and start a broader public conversation. And this will happen regularly, and then the smaller discussions can lead up to another big event forum sometime next year," Smith says. "We have all of these really complex topics of discussion around the general theme of diversity and inclusiveness in the art scene locally, so we want to keep those discussions going, on the one hand, and on the second, we have a willingness to build a stronger and connected and diverse community. The crowd and talent are there; the ingredients are there, so we want to build a framework to support that and cultivate it and sustain it, to build the scene."
Another shoot-off of Southern Discomfort's 2017 agenda includes giving all members of the music community a chance to express what their needs are so that other locals can contribute their strengths, further raising up the art scene. "The idea is that the people who are forming the collective want to host a visioning session, taking ideas from the community about what resources we have, what needs there are, and what we can really do to meet those needs," says Kim Larson, a teacher, musician, and organizer with Girls Rock Charleston.
The initiative hopes to essentially build a resource base of sorts comprising folks who can teach artists how to write press releases, book shows, book tours, and more. "We also want to develop some core values we can hold our community accountable for, so we can promote venues and artists who are living up to those values and working together to do something for the scene," Larson says. "And it's for people to not just share stories, but to go deeper and tell us what you want to see happen, what they can offer, and what other people have to offer and creating structure to make concrete steps."
Dates for the intimate discussions, future forums, and more will be announced in the new year. To join the conversation, go to facebook.com/SouthernDiscomfortChsRealTalk.