What price are you willing to pay for equality? What are you willing to give up to destroy systemic racism? What are you willing to do to change the status quo? For award winning and critically acclaimed Austin, TX blues musician Jackie Venson the answer to those questions is clearly, whatever it takes.
Last month that took the form of Venson giving up a $1,500 paycheck (during a pandemic no less) and the opportunity to headline Austin City Limits’ premier summer concert series Blues on the Green. In a twitter post that day Venson explained that the event had a history of not being committed to diversity, and that without an all black lineup she was unwilling to participate.
Interestingly enough, Venson saw it as an easy choice.
“I mean, it was like, I didn’t have a choice so it wasn’t anything. I knew it was gonna be a little bit of a risk but I also know that I have my own platform and, really, I haven’t needed these people for years. So it wasn’t scary, but it was sad that I had to do it.”
Of course Venson has always found a way to amplify her own voice. Whether that be through her signature sound that blends her vocals and lead guitar together to create an unique, otherworldly tone, or through her aggressive use of social media and streaming platforms even pre-pandemic.
“I first thought that the internet was gonna be my ticket when I was getting ready to go on stage at this awesome gig. Everybody that wanted to hear me was there and lots of movers and shakers and the time slot was switched at the last minute. By the time my slot came around they were all gone and I was like ‘I don’t have any pull or power right now.’ I was looking at the crowd and feeling like they were the tape measure and thinking ‘I wish I was the tape measure.’ This was like seven years ago.”
That independence from traditional gatekeepers in the music industry has served her well throughout her career. Cue up 2020 and a global pandemic canceling live music as we know it combined with the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and Venson has put herself in a unique position to both be profitable and make her voice heard over the din.
And the voice she is using, is leaving no doubt as to where she stands.
Explaining her decision to not merely turn down the Blues on the Green gig, but to go public taking an established institution to task for their current and past hiring practices, Venson explains:
“It’s not enough to be not-racist, you have to be anti-racist. So the not-racist thing to do would be to turn it down and say nothing, but being anti-racist means you have to actively work to defy racism. It’s not enough to quietly not participate anymore. You have to call it out loudly.
“It’s not enough to quietly not participate anymore. You have to call it out loudly.”
“Just going home and talking to your partner about it isn’t anti-racist. Anti-racist is looking white people in the eye and saying ‘We need to fix this. I am not going to be a part of the structure that this promotes.’”
A few days after Venson announced she would not be playing Blues on the Green, Kevin Russell of Shinyribs, one of the other bands set to perform, announced that they were pulling out of the concert as well, in solidarity with Jackie Venson.
Of course, all of this so far ignores the fact that despite Venson’s business savvy and vulnerable confidence, the main reason that she is so difficult to ignore is not because she knows how to use social media, but because she is an inimitable and transcendent musician. The only black female musician to be named the Austin Guitarist of the Year (2018) Venson has been shredding the blues since she first picked up a guitar from a pawn shop on a cold winter day at Berklee.
But Venson is far more than a blues guitarist. She is a musical genius and an innovator at the highest level. After her long-time bass player left to tour with Kanye West she began to debut a new live show, one that featured only herself and her longtime drummer Rodney Hyder. She started playing with clip-launch, adding keys and synth, and then, voila covid gives birth to an intense recreation of her previous songs, Jackie The Robot Vol 1.
And while perhaps, looking back on her catalogue one could have guessed that she would continue to be even more self-sufficient and genre-bending going forward, I doubt even the best music critic could have expected this.
It is a tour-de-force of in-your-face creativity, green at times, but only so you know that it’s still growing, and it takes a wrecking ball to the idea of any kind of gender in music.
The first time I heard it was shortly after the most intense BLM protests here in Asheville. Throat still sore from tear gas, bruises from the pepper balls still on my chest, and one of the most beautiful souls I have met in a long time, a beautiful soul I met protesting, Ayden, laying in my bed beside me. I had noticed earlier that Jackie had a new album out, and we had a little bit of ketamine, so, as you would expect we decided to head to my bedroom and see what a mix of those two things would do to us.
About halfway through our fourth time listening to it in a row we finally began to find words. Words like non-binary. Words like brave. To be honest, I half expected it to represent a coming out for Jackie.
Jackie chuckles when I mention this to her on the phone. “I identify as a straight woman in case anybody cares,” she states, “but I want to say that I am with the movement. Not just BLM, but THE MOVEMENT. You don’t deserve to be treated differently or worse because of any reason. The reason I am with it is, BLM, it is a time in the timeline where black lives have been ignored. Truly, ‘all lives’ can’t matter until ‘black lives’ matter, but, moving forward once we figure out BLM then we can say All Lives Matter…
“After we put this one fire out we will have learned how to fight fires, and maybe even prevent fires. That is my interpretation of Black Lives Matter – it means we need to learn and this is how we learn. So that being said, if this record, Jackie The Robot, goes on to represent EVERYBODY, if it goes on to be an anthem for non-binary people I’m not gonna try to stop it… if that is what this ends up being and meaning that is beautiful, and I hope it is a warrior tool for them to be able to demand equity and equality for themselves as well.”
“I hope it is a warrior tool for them to be able to demand equity and equality for themselves as well.”
As I am listening to Jackie speak it occurs to me that this is exactly what I should be doing, listening to her. And while I don’t know exactly how Jackie Venson sees herself I know this – if we are to move forward we need strong, black, warriors to lead us – and that is what Jackie Venson has emerged as.
But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the rest of the bands booked for Blues on the Green, who all decided, one-by-one, that Venson was a leader worth following. Before Austin City Limits could even see what was happening they found themselves with one of the biggest stages in the country and not a single musician willing to play on it.
Venson had demanded a lineup of all black musicians, but why? This is where it is getting sticky for a large swath of white middle America these days. They are beginning to wake up to the idea of equality, but they can’t understand the need for the pendulum swing. Call it what you will – divestment, reparations, basic fucking fairness – their knee-jerk reaction is to claim that all past accounts are closed, and there is nothing owed on any previous debts. But this once again is the difference between being not-racist and anti-racist. Venson explains it this way:
“The Divest movement is what I am for, because the only logical step is to be anti-racist and, if we can all agree that the system is built in aggression and racism and agree that there is an inherent problem and the only way to fix something inherently wrong is to rebuild it. The foundation of the beliefs is rooted in the aggression. If the foundation of a building has a terrible crack in it are you gonna leave it or tear the entire building down and redo the foundation?.. We can’t keep putting bandaids on broken legs.
“It’s insane and madness to watch as a black person. To watch people talk about doing little things, patching the floor but not addressing the issue. You change your flag but why are the officers that killed Breonna Taylor still free? You pushed down a statue – why are the officers who killed Breonna Taylor still free? You are gonna have a conversation about taking 80 million away from police officers I don’t care, STILL FREE. I don’t care what flags you take down, what statues you tear down – it is so deeply offensive to watch people do these stupid things and not care about the bigger problem.
“I don’t care what flags you take down, what statues you tear down – it is so deeply offensive to watch people do these stupid things and not care about the bigger problem.”
“I see people smile at me, and when they tell me what I am adding to their lives I don’t believe them, because simultaneously they don’t support divestment from the police. How can you say you care about me and not work toward the greater good.”
Sometimes, it really just takes one person to make a stand. Eventually Joe Langer and Austin City Limits would issue an apology (of sorts) to the greater BIPOC community in Austin and Jackie Venson specifically. But not until Venson’s fiance and tour manager Louie Carr continued to expose the racist and dismissive statements from their correspondence. They would ask Venson to curate the next event, with an all black lineup, an absolute burner of a show that you can and should watch. (HERE)
Don’t get it twisted though. Jackie understands better than most that unless the systems that support racism are dismantled, none of this will mean anything in the long run.
“I could have been that guy, I could have been George Floyd with a knee on my neck and you wouldn’t care all the same, cause you didn’t care this time. You would find some cognitive dissonance to tell you that I deserved it and you would move on and it wouldn’t change and the people that killed me wouldn’t be brought to justice and it wouldn’t matter.
“Imagine how it’s gonna feel when you see another guy with a knee on his neck, and imagine seeing it again and again then watching your friends get upset and then forget. That’s what happens when you are just not-racist. It goes back to normal then there is another George Floyd, after twenty that haven’t been filmed. Then imagine the entire structure, all the black people go back to their redlined neighborhoods and everything goes right back to normal. That is what happens if you don’t learn to be anti-racist. If you do that, then the next time it happens you need to feel like it’s your fault.”
Caleb Calhoun is an author, poet, and journalist who makes his home in Asheville, NC. You can follow him at on facebook and email him at Caleb.Calhoun@gmail.com