Garth Brooks, Ferguson, and Getting Free

January 27, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader

I’m writing to share some notes and thoughts on what was represented by country music performer Garth Brooks’ decision to cancel appearances all over mainstream media in the wake of the Grand Jury in Ferguson refusing to indict the cop who murdered Michael Brown, and the wave of protests that erupted. Explaining why on Facebook, Brooks posted: “To spend the day promoting our stuff like nothing was wrong seemed distasteful to me.”

A bit of context for those who don’t follow him: Garth Brooks is by far the best selling country music artist of all time. He is the second best-selling solo albums artist in the United States (ahead of Elvis Presley), and his current tour—his first in over a decade—is phenomenally successful—potentially the largest grossing tour of any musician. The media appearances he canceled were to promote the tour, and his new album, and it's no small deal to skip the Tonight Show when you’ve got a world tour and album dropping.

I’m not breaking any new ground in analyzing popular culture to note that, while there is a range of trends and styles and scenes within country music, it is overwhelming music speaking to, listened to, and performed by—white people. Which provides the context for all the shit that hit the fan when he cancelled these appearances—using the term “civil unrest” to describe the protests (instead of more hostile terms).

Reactions in social media included vicious pro-cop fury aimed at Garth Brooks. No need to repeat any of that hate here, but it was serious and fascist. Then there was anguished disagreement from people who have bought the brainwash about Black people in general and lies and slanders about Michael Brown specifically (“Respectfully, Mr. Brooks, it is not civil unrest. It is rioting, looting and disruption of commerce and travel. Mr. Brown was a strong arm robber, preying on weaker folks and businesses. He attacked a police officer who was lawfully doing his job.”).

And, then there were responses, typified by: “Garth, if everybody listened to and lived by ‘We Shall Be Free’ and ‘People Lovin’ People’ the world would be so much better off. Love ya, brother!”

“People Loving People” is a song Garth Brooks released coinciding with his current world tour. If you search YouTube for “Garth Brooks People Loving People live AMA” you can watch one of the various live versions there. The message and spirit of the song is captured in the lines:

We fear what we don’t understand
And we’ve been scared since time began
All the colors and the cultures circle ‘round us on a spindle
It’s a complicated riddle, the solution is so simple...
It’s people loving people
That’s the enemy of everything’s that’s evil

The other Garth Brooks song the Facebook post refers to, “We Shall Be Free,” was co-written by Garth Brooks in response to the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992 after the police who brutally beat Rodney King within an inch of his life were exonerated by the legal system:

When the last child cries for a crust of bread
When the last man dies for just words that he said
When there’s shelter over the poorest head
We shall be free

When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
When the skies and the oceans are clean again
Then we shall be free

(My favorite version of the song is the cover done by Sam Moore on his album “Overnight Sensation” with Paul Rogers). “We Shall Be Free,” also, interestingly—especially for its time (1992)—includes the line “When we’re free to love anyone we choose....” A call for equality and respect for same-sex relationships. It is only in the last few months that, for the first time, successful male country artists have come out as gay.

* * *

There is a sharp and sharpening polarization in society—a great chasm in public opinion—in the wake of Ferguson. When the oppressed rose up, they provoked people very broadly—and not just Black people—to confront and challenge white supremacy and police brutality. And on the other side of the spectrum, frenzied fascists from “rank and file” NYPD pigs staged protests against the mayor, and white racists rushed to gun stores, egged on by fascist “mainstream” media like Fox News.

In this context, Garth Brooks refused to feed the frenzy of racist hate and took a good stand—one that everyone who knew the whole story understood as being at least in some ways sympathetic to those rising up. Good for him. We should have his back on this.

And here’s a challenge to Garth Brooks, and those who relate to his music: If you believe in a world where nobody goes hungry, where nobody is killed “for just words that he said,” and where “the last thing we notice is the color of skin,” then go where this understanding takes you. Don’t back down, and don’t shy away from coming to grips with what it will take to make that happen, no matter how far out of your comfort zone that takes you. And make a big part of that experience.

* * *

Back in the sixties, I wasn’t the only white suburban youth listening to (not just, but yes) country music, with a poster of Black Panther leader Huey Newton on my wall. Which sheds light on the basis for a revolution, and the work to do to further repolarize broad sections of society right now around a question (the oppression of Black people) that goes to the heart of what this country is all about. And to intensify work for an actual revolution. The more the real revolution becomes a factor on the scene, the more the revolution can set terms in society as a whole, and be a pole of attraction for the best coming forward from all over including what might seem to be surprising places.

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