Interview: Hubby Jenkins is Reclaiming the Black Roots of American Folk Music

hubby jenkinsHubby Jenkins is a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, NY. Jenkins uses his platform to highlight Black musicians at the roots of American Folk. He speaks and sings about the appropriation of Black musicians, the tradition of minstrel at the core of folk’s popularization, and the culture of anti-Black racism that still exists in the States today.

Much of his subject matter can be heavy for audiences to swallow. Not only is he an incredible old-time banjo player, he’s also got a quick wit. Jenkins is not afraid to make his audiences uncomfortable in the delivery of his message. After a weekend of performing and connecting with old and new folkie pals at the 39th Annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Jenkins headed to Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention. While there, he protested and conducted interviews with The Quiet American— a satirical news source. He’ll be touring again in the fall. For now, he’s enjoying life at home which is a rarity for him as a member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Lotusland spoke with Jenkins about his music, his comedy idols, the banjo as a fad, the Brooklyn Folk scene, his side project related to Black Lives Matter, and his upcoming solo album. Check out our abridged conversation:

Okay, so you were a busker… and it went well and now you’re here!

Started From The Bottom Now We Here. [Laughing] Honestly it sucked a lot sometimes and other times it was totally fine. I learned about busking from getting into the music and then I was like, Oh, could I do that? and I did and I paid rent… I learned a lot about how to perform and attract people’s attention. You’re playing the same 10 catchy songs over and over again, so you’re learning those licks really well. It’s essentially practicing intensely for hours and then getting paid to do it—so I recommend it […]

Can we get a little political?

Bring it!

In a 2015 interview you said, “I miss the political and social responsibility that folk artists in the ‘60s felt and put into their songs.” Do you feel like that’s something you’re doing?

Ahhh. It’s something that I’m trying to get better at. So like when I perform, I do talk about it. When I first got into the music it wasn’t common knowledge that Black people invented the banjo or how many Black people were involved in country music… The mission is very educational. So, now doing that for the past couple of years, people kind of know it better and bla bla bla—after the riots in Baltimore I’ve felt like this thing, like oh man, you’ve got work to do.

The connections that I see in our history I can talk about in between songs and connect [to] these songs. Like, I can play “Parchman Farm and say, ‘well you know what “Parchman Farm’s” about— it’s about the first work farm that came from the Black Laws (Codes) which tried to re-enslave Black people, which then turned into the drug laws which put disproportionately put POC in prisons today…’ So, do I put it in my music? I guess it’s kind of already there and I connect the dots for people. And that’s why [traditional American Folk] is still relevant and still important, and especially in a time where our pop music is totally disinterested in approaching any of those subjects.

Well, I would say there’s some interest.

Yeah, it’s starting to happen now. Since [Beyoncé’s] Formation and Kendrick Lamar’s record, and all that sort of stuff.

Do you think there are any artists in Folk that are talking about this?

[…] The last thing I read was about a banjo player who’s gay and having that in his music and writing and talking about that in the South, which is its own thing. Even with Rhiannon [Giddens] who I play with— she writes songs and gets involved in things. So there are people who are doing it, and I think it’s because the climate in the States is getting so intense that, you know, it’s thick. You have to cut through it. I’d like to get there at some point with my music—writing the ideas, not always talking them. It’s an evolution that’s happening for me. Like right now, I can hear the idea growing in myself. Doing all of these solo shows, it’s moulding itself.

You speak very candidly about folk’s racist history, like minstrel. During your show I kept thinking about how folk festivals are pretty white and couldn’t help but wonder how many people were likely very uncomfortable with you talking about it. Do you get varying responses in different places?

I get different responses. I guess it’s something that I’m learning about as well because I’ve had experiences where I’ve been very angry, and so I don’t give a shit, I don’t care how people feel, and that can turn people off. This is a deep thing, so like I can be angry and turn people off by being candid and explicit about that anger, but at the same time I feel like people shutting that down is a tactic that’s used in the States, right? So if a Black person gets angry, then they can’t be heard—why do you have to be so mad about it? Or they get shot or killed. Or they get unlawfully imprisoned. So, that’s something that bugs me. I go back and forth.

With Carolina Chocolate Drops, we’ve done shows where people have left and I’ve had stuff yelled at me from the audience. So I’ve had to deal with that and that can piss off my bandmates, because they’re just like ‘hey man, we’re trying to fucking have a career here,’ you know? So now that I’m on my own, I don’t mind. I don’t care if people leave or don’t care what I have to say. I do go back and forth between like, wanting to use tactics that I know will get people to hear me—and like, I guess [for specifically] white people to hear me, but there are moments that I really just want to say what I feel. Luckily, I deal a lot with the past, as well, so people aren’t as emotionally invested in me talking for three minutes about the prison system and then when I mention, oh, and that turned into the drug laws, and then suddenly people are like ‘oh. Okay.’ I think there’s something about it that works. I haven’t thought about it too clearly, but something about it works, I guess it’s because it doesn’t come off as a perceived attack.

Heeeeeey white people—

Hey white people, why are you buying stuff at Whole Foods, you assholes? [Laughing] No, no it’s like Here’s what’s up. Here’s why I bought stuff at Whole Foods last week… You know? Some of my influences for performing and banter are standup comedians.

Who? I was actually going to ask if you had done anything comedy-related! You have a very dry sense of humour.

[Laughing] I’m noticing how dry it is more and more. Like, ‘90s Bernie Mac, Bill Hicks, Richard Prior, are big influences. Like those two are very explicit in what they talk about and Prior like created the art. You can hear it with David Chapelle and Paul Mooney‘s stuff, who Prior worked with. When Mooney wrote for Prior and they worked together, it was so sly.

There’s something really powerful about that—Bill Hick’s method is powerful. He doesn’t care about your feelings— this is bigger than that at this point. So trying to find a balance between those two things, I guess is the challenge.

[…]

I’ve kind of being doing this new thing… I’m really into Choose Your Own Adventure books. Recently I’ve been [incorporating] them at shows and it’s been really interesting. So I’ll start the show with just music, put down any instrument and then pick up the Choose Your Own and start reading: Do we go to page 3 or 6? It disarms people but they get engaged and are just listening immediately, and I’m like Okay, now the third thing—slavery, and then it goes into that, and here’s a song about the choice they made.

I like doing it because I enjoy it, but there are people who have seen it who say that there’s something that happens. It helps with the discomfort factor, because you’re jumping around and it’s something that requires a lot of focus. Since I’m reading something, there’s no Oh, he’s doing banter *text text text*, it’s like—they’re in the story and there’s a playfulness to it. It also shows people that I’m not here to attack you, we’re here to be together…

Ah that’s so cool! And, also essentially what you do is make people feel uncomfortable by talking about these things—and good comedy also has the ability to make people feel uncomfortable.

Okay, so. I went to go to a bar with my friend before we went to Winnipeg last week and we rode bikes. We had to go across the street and we jumped off our bikes and a cop car stopped at the red light and then boom—both of them, two sets of eyes right on me. And it was like, ah God this, this. And it drove off and I was like talking to my friend and I was like, you didn’t get that? You didn’t have that feeling I just had. That could have been anything. That could’ve been me in jail, I could have looked like someone… it could have been anything, you know what I mean?

That’s a daily thing for me… for any person of colour. I was talking to some First Nation people here, telling me how they deal with [the police]. That’s the discomfort. It’s not discomfort of ooh, I feel bad about myself, discomfort is like oh—I might die. I might go to jail for no reason and die. I feel like any rational person could be like, You know that’s a little bit bigger than my discomfort right now. And I’ve heard the other side too, with musicians. You have a fan base—you don’t want to piss people off. Everyone wants to cast a wide net with their demographics, and I don’t know… I don’t know if I feel that’s as important.

Ahh, that sounds really tough. I can hear you using satire in your performance when you address those realities—it works really well.

Does it come off as antagonistic?

No, I didn’t think so.

No? Because I’ve had people be offended by what I’ve said, saying I don’t like what you’ve said. White people have it hard too. All lives matter. […]

Part of what I’ve been feeling lately as well is not just talking about [this history and inequity], but [trying to] be about it… And, I can’t knock any musician or artist who puts it all into their work, you know like, please—please do. But there’s some sort of calling that I have to do it. It’s probably because of my communist grandmother [Laughing]. She comes to shows and when I was a kid [she] would take me to Workers World parties and she still is involved with that.

Have you ever thought about writing about this history and your experience beyond lyrics—like writing a paper or giving a talk? Or do you always want it to be in your music.

There are other projects that I’m working on and want to do. I’m writing a Black Lives Matter Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s very slow because I’m a musician. Like that’s part of me going to the [Republican National Convention] and going with my friend’s fake newspaper called The Quiet American, like we’re going to interview a delegate, interview protestors, go to the Westboro Baptist Church and try and talk to some people there, and a party for Black Republicans, a strip club owner, a sex worker, a psychic … and we’re interviewing a bald eagle at the zoo and a retired weather man. Like part of me also likes the other weird side of it—that’s part of my ‘choose your own.’

I’m in charge of the interviews… either with asking the questions or being the engineer and recording them and editing them. We’re going there from July 18 – 23, [2016]… We want to bring the most factual and accurate news about the RNC, but we also just want to be there because we feel like it’s going to powder keg, you know? I think it’s going to be something really big and important and I’d like to be able to say that I was there.

Is there a folk music scene in Brooklyn, and are you a part of it? There have been a couple of younger folk groups (mostly young white guys) who have come to this festival in the last several years.

There are different scenes. There are some people who get into folk music because they identify with some sort of aspect of music from the past, whether it be from pre-war, like I did, or the ‘60s or ‘70s. Those are people I tend to spend more time with and who’s music I enjoy more. I think it comes from a different place because it’s finding something. I don’t know how to explain that better. So my scene is just a bunch of maniacs who run around New York, play old time music, write their own songs, drink too much, smoke too much, curse—the whole thing. And then like, the guys you’re talking about… they can be deceptive. Where they’re very hip to look at and kind of dorky but then it can go either way… Somehow, the banjo became a fad. The mandolin and the banjo became fads. The Taylor Swifts—

– The Lumineers!

Yeah. It became a thing. The Lumineers, I think, stole a lot from Morgan O’kane. Google that guy, he’s another New York guy. When I saw them I saw them I was like No. Morgan O’Kane should be this famous. Actually he may not like that— he’s way better than them. Like, people who got into it… it’s kind of superficial for someone who is more closely connected to the roots of the instruments. So, I have a hard time with it.

Like you stand on a corner in Nashville and you see someone wearing a uniform—the whole thing, or like you come here and see someone and they’ve got their overalls, the handkerchief in the back pocket… And it’s actually a phase that I went through when I first got into the music, you carry around your beat-up copy of Bound For Glory [by Woody Guthrie], roll cigarettes and drink whiskey, or whatever.

And then one day you’re like oh—I just want to play the music, and then there’s more to the music than that. I guess it’s waiting for those people to figure it out, or they’ll never figure that out and they’re doing something else. And for me, I have my own opinion—do whatever you want. Keep it alive. Ahah, I have too many emotions at this point.

Who are some New York artists/musicians you would recommend to check out?

There’s The Downhill Strugglers—they’re an old timey string band trio… and check out Feral Foster, and Eva Selina.

So you have never ‘officially’ released a solo album, but you have one coming out soon?

There are so many ideas that I’ve had for a really long time that are saplings on this [upcoming] record. It’s a chapter that’s closed, which is really nice because as soon as I finished it and sent it to be printed, ideas for another record started coming. It was like, okay—that’s what I needed, that’s what that is. So now I’ll have something to sell and have people playing in their ears at home and get them ready for the next thing I want to do.

Nice chattin’ with you, Hubby. We’re looking forward to your solo album!

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Hubby Jenkins is an American Folk musician from Brooklyn, NY who’s telling it like it is. You can catch up with his work with Carolina Chocolate Drops and check out his coverage of this year’s Republican National Convention with The Quiet Americans here and here. For his upcoming tour dates and the eventual release of his solo album visit hubbyjenkins.com.

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