What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Archie Shepp
First of all, you have to have a political perspective. For the most part, I find most African American musicians are too apolitical. They’re either too ignorant or too scared to make any political comments. It’s helped me that I went to college. I’ve been trained in social science, political science. When I was in New York, I was against the war in Vietnam, I was for the liberation of Cuba. I have my problems with Castro now, but at the time I supported him.
As a child, I was raised in an atmosphere of political concern. My grandmother didn’t have a great deal of formal education, but she read papers and discussed the problems of racism with me as a boy in Florida. Even though my father was just a worker, he was concerned with political issues also. He and his friends used to discuss political matters. When I was in third grade in a ghetto in Philadelphia, I had to write a paper on any subject. I wrote about discrimination against black people in the US, and the teacher couldn’t believe that I could do that at that age. It was in my home and my ambience.
There’s a quote in a poem I wrote for Fire Music—”We play, but we’re not always dumb.” I think any serious artist—and I feel myself part of a long line of serious artists, Stravinsky, Ellington, Roach, Dvorak—feels the same way. We’re all connected; we’re all one. I’m concerned about my world—I’m concerned with the Africans in Rwanda, and I’m concerned with what happens in Ireland. Any artist should be. I’ve seen the suffering of my people, the murder of Palestinians in the Middle East, the murder of Iraqis. Look at America today. There are more and more homeless, and George Bush wants $87 billion for Iraq. You don’t have to be a musician to be sensitive to these things. Politics is about people. I don’t think that it’s unusual that I am committed to this. As an artist, I feel obliged to do this, it is part of my destiny to do this.
Finally, I don’t see myself as a jazz composer; I’m a musician. I don’t view my music as jazz, but as African American music. I can include all idioms that have been created—rap, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae. It’s all American music. If you’re listening with your ears, if you’re listening intelligently, it’s all challenging—blues, jazz, everything. It all tells a very painful story in a beautiful way. Music doesn’t change things, but in my own small way, it makes a statement. I hope to achieve change, because we need to change this world. To make it possible for all people to go to expensive nightclubs and listen to this music called jazz, to go out to the ballet and the symphony. When I was a kid, you could buy a sax in a pawnshop for 15 or 20 dollars. Today a Selmer costs five thousand. What ghetto child can become the next Dexter Gordon? I’m fighting for the cultural traditions of my people, so that there can be another Charlie Parker. Within that chrysalis, there’s room for anything—rap and hip-hop included—but not on the basis of oppression.