Gary Clark Jr’s This Land is the Texas bluesman’s third studio album and without a doubt his best. Seventeen tracks where he cleverly and successfully fuses a number of styles from rock, R&B, hip-hop and soul, with a dash of reggae on Feeling Like a Million, and punk on Gotta Get Something. In bringing the blues bang up to date, he seems to be living up to his reply a while back when asked, “What do you want to be?” and he said, “Snoop Dogg meets John Lee Hooker.” Clark is never too far from his blues roots in the album, though, with the Robert Johnson fuelled Dirty Dishes Blues, and the album’s general underpinning. It’s exhilarating stuff, each song something of a revelation on first encounter and then hugely enjoyable on subsequent listens. Pink Cadillac, where Clark channels his inner Prince, is a sophisticated, full production pop number and The Guitar Man is a thorough-going toe-tapper, with an echo of eighties R&B.
Musically, it sounds fresh and alive, driven, though not dominated by, Clark’s always outstanding guitar work and his sweet vocals. Lyrically most of the songs ruminate on themes like marriage, fatherhood, life on the road and success. But importantly Clark hasn’t held back from making some rather direct political and social points on some of the songs, particularly What About Us, Feed the Babies and the title track.
He kicks off the album with This Land, a powerful, blues-soaked howl of protest about racism in the United States. The song was prompted by Clark’s own encounter with a neighbour is Texas who wondered how Clark could possibly own such a large plot of land. Clark says he’s “right in the middle of Trump country,” with a neighbour who “can’t wait to call the police on me.” It’s shocking in today’s world to hear the chorus of ‘N—- run, n—- run, Go back where you come from, We don’t want, we don’t want your kind,” the edginess matched by the furious music and the Hendrix-esque guitar work. Clark’s expletive-laced anger cries out “I’m America’s son, This is where I came from.”
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that more than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today. More than 40% say the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is scepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites, More than 80% of black adults say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today. (check out our interview with Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell about the album Songs of Our Native Daughters which is entirely about slavery and its on-going legacy).
The evidence indicates that black people are treated less fairly than whites in hiring, pay and promotions; when applying for a loan or mortgage; in stores or restaurants; when voting in elections; and when seeking medical treatment. That’s even without discussing the problem of interaction with police forces.
A recent New York Times article cited research that shows the United States tolerates a widening chasm between the very rich few and the many with low incomes. And that the burden of poverty falls heaviest on African-Americans and other people of colour. The median white family has more than 40 times the wealth of the median African-American family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family. And things are getting worse, not better: the proportion of black families with zero or negative wealth rose by 8.5% to 37% between 1983 and 2016.
In her article, Courtney Martin asks why people of colour do not have more money. The answer she and others give is what she calls the country’s original sins: colonization and slavery. There’s a strong case that closing the racial wealth gap is about addressing these historic injustices monetarily – check out Trevor Noah’s segment on “The Daily Show” – but as Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Philanthropy says, “We have to be willing to examine the dark realities of what led us to this imbalance in the first place.”
The Pew Research said that most Americans (65%) say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president. A recent Vox article tracks Trumps history of racist controversies from the 1970s onward concludes that “At the very least, Trump has a history of playing into people’s racism to bolster himself.” Hence Clark’s reference to “Trump country” in This Land. He told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I think it’s only right at this point in time, if you have a microphone louder than others, to speak out about that anger…I haven’t been through s*** compared to my people. But if I can do anything with my opportunity, and say thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King for sacrificing your life so that I can have a microphone … that’s the least I can do.”
It’s certainly a powerful statement of protest, heightened by the video accompanying the song, featuring images of nooses, fire and Confederate flags. Terrific album and a challenging title track.