Brian Jackson: “I hate that ‘Winter in America’ is still so goddamned relevant”

Brian Jackson must be the quintessential unsung hero. An inventive and groundbreaking musician, he is one of the handful of people responsible for the trademark soul-funk-jazz blend of the ’70s, creating the soundtrack of an era and paving the way for the hip-hop revolution. Yet, despite the fact that he shared credit with his musical alter ego, Gil Scott-Heron, his name appearing on a series of now-classic albums, he still remains relatively unknown. Today, decades after his partnership with the brilliant prophet ended (a bitter tale that deserves its own narration), Brian Jackson remains a passionate musician, a wise mentor and an outspoken civil rights advocate. All this will be in display when he comes to Hobart for a couple of special performances at MONA FOMA.

What are you going to present at MOFO?

The theme is ‘Songs of Protest’. We’re taking a look at some of the songs around the ’70s that spoke for the spirit of resistance in the US. Along with Dr. Andrew Legg and the 100-piece Southern Gospel Choir, I will be performing some of my favorite songs from the Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson catalog as well as the music of Nina Simone, which will be sung by the lovely Ms Maria Lurighi. But we’ve always believed that protest music doesn’t have to be a sad and depressing affair; we celebrate unity among those of us who share like ideas and vibrations.

Music is a healing force for those of us battered by the harsh realities of inequality and oppression all over the world.

So when you come, expect to dance and smile, expect to clap your hands, expect to share some warm vibrations and most of all expect to have a good time!

Nothing sums up the current political situation better than Winter in America; how does it feel to be a prophet?

It didn’t take a prophet to figure out where we were headed in the US in the ’70s. The erosion of liberty began with the very first Native American who was killed by European ‘explorers.’ Indentured servitude followed, then slavery, to the fight against savage treatment of poor workers during the Industrial Age to a system of debt and poverty that encircles the globe.

In the US we can see the shrinking of the middle class to the point that soon there will only be two classes – and there’s a 99% chance that you won’t be in the one that is doing well.

The rich have always made decisions that were in their own best interests, and clearly nothing has changed. It was obvious from the time we became aware as teens that opportunities for progressive reform were becoming more and more distant without a concerted and determined effort to educate and resist. We saw nothing of the kind happening on the scale that it needed to be. We witnessed the decline of that effort as the government started to push back against the efforts of those who dared to speak out. It was obvious to us that those with the power were going to take steps to ensure that they would never again have to deal with the kind of movement that they saw forming in the sixties and seventies. We simply said that in some of our songs in different ways. ‘Winter in America’ was one of them. I hate that it’s still so goddamned relevant.

Looking back at the body of work you created with Gil Scott-Heron in the ’70s, what is the prevailing sentiment? Do you ever feel burdened by this legacy ?

It would have been a burden to be silent. In New York there are posters that have been plastered all over public spaces since 9-11 that say, “If you see something, say something,” warning Americans to speak up if they see anything suspicious, like packages with no owners or people acting suspiciously, whatever that behavior would look like – especially in New York City! But the first time I saw this sign I thought, “Exactly!” Saying something about what we saw was what we tried to do with our music all along. There were dangers to our freedom then – even more frightening than terrorism today and we felt that it was our obligation (there’s that word again) to say something about it.

What do you miss the most from that time?

I miss the sense of creative comradeship among folks of like mind. I miss the leaders, the thinkers who were so strong and influential to our thinking. I miss the guidance that many of the elders felt it their duty to provide and I miss the respect that we had for those elders and for tradition. I miss the idealism – the feeling that there was still something we could do to effect a positive change. Too many of us feel there’s a zero percent chance to effect change, so why do anything. That kind of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. True, there might be little chance of change, but doing nothing assures a 100% chance that nothing will change.

How did you find your voice as an artist?

Finding your voice as an artist almost always involves emulation until one feels comfortable enough to forget about everything you’ve learned and everyone you were influenced by and trust your instincts. I don’t know when it happened, but one day I realized that I wasn’t thinking about anything most of the time I played. When I listened to recordings I’d done, I still heard the influences, but I was clearly not emulating anymore.

What has been the greatest challenge youve had to face in your career?

When Gil and I parted ways, I had to find a way to step out of the shadows and be a frontman. I was a shy teenager. Music was my way to amplify my thoughts and feelings. So when I became a professional, I was always happy silently leading the bands I led and deftly staying out of the limelight. When I had no one else to front for me, I had to find a way to get out there and front the band myself. To my surprise, when I did that, someone emerged that I had always known but never seen. That someone was not shy or afraid to step into the spotlight. I found that it’s who I really am, so I adopted that person and I’m sure that people who have known through the transformation sometimes wish that teenager who didn’t talk much would return for at least a few minutes and give them a break!

What advice do you give to young artists trying to find their place in the musical ecosystem?

There are no rules. In the music business, there never have been. In the old days powerful people tried to make us believe there were rules that we had to follow but they never did. It’s wide open now. You do what works for you. Nobody’s gonna give you anything. Don’t waste your time waiting to be discovered by anyone. Discover yourself, your own abilities. Learn to do as much as you can yourself. Even if you enlist someone at some point to help you along the way, you’ll at least know something about what they’re doing. Learn how to promote yourself and continue to improve your craft. People used to get into music in hopes of getting rich. If you still have some dream about that happening, get over it. Youre more likely to win the lottery.

There’s only one reason left to get into music: because you love it; because you can’t do anything else even though it’s against your better judgement. It is possible to make a living from music though. Learn those ways, but have something else you can make money doing. That thing will also help fund the investment it will require to grow your music career.

…and you won’t have to take shit from anybody.

If you could meet your teenage self, what would you tell him?

I’d probably tell him most of what I said above. I’d add: Don’t give up. Keep doing music as much as you can, any way you can and for as long as you can. But I did that anyway instinctively. In retrospect, I guess I’ve pretty much done what I would have advised me.

What is your main source of inspiration?

I draw inspiration from the great musicians, poets and visionaries from the past and the present from whom I have been fortunate enough to learn. I follow a tradition of spoken word and music that goes all the way back to West Africa. Because of their profound influence on what I do, I am not only indebted to them, but obligated to carry on that tradition.

What is jazz to you?

I never liked the word, honestly. Believe it or not, it originates from the word ‘jism’ that gives it a sexual connotation in complete condescending disregard of the hard work and study required by musicians in order to become proficient at it. I was introduced to jazz by my parents, who played records continually in our home. Jazz is part of my growth experience, and at the time was linked to the burgeoning civil rights movement and protest, which I understood when I got older. I was born during the beginnings of bebop, which defied all the current musical rules. True innovation. It was American art at its best. Some might argue that it has been its first true art form. I might argue that myself, in fact.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

I haven’t written it yet. I’ll let you know when I do.

Brian Jackson and the Southern Gospel Choir will perform at MONA on Saturday 20 January. He’ll be doing a personal show on Sunday 21 January.