Friday, February 20, 2009

Otis Taylor interviewed by Paul Epstein

Otis Taylor is a study in paradox. He is an immense, imposing man physically, yet he rarely speaks above a whisper. When we had lunch recently to conduct an interview about Black History Month, he had to repeat every single word he said to the waiter. It is common to see people leaning forward trying to understand him. He has a sophisticated understanding of antiques, being a successful dealer for years(specializing in Indian blankets), yet he favors a low brow lifestyle. “I don’t want any ‘salad-mexican food.’ Take me somewhere where they use hamburger meat.” He has a keen understanding of the history of music in all its forms, but he favors a hypnotic, primitive form of roots music that defies the Blues categorization he is tagged with. He has created his own language of music, such as Fela Kuti or John Lee Hooker did, completely unique to himself and answerable only to his own aesthetic desire. In other words, Otis doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks - never has, never will. As a musician, as a citizen, as a human he marches to his own beat. So, as we ate our Mexican food, the paradoxical Black Man with blue eyes answered my questions about Black History Month the way he saw fit.

Paul: How different is being Black in America in 2009 compared to when you, your father or your grandfather were kids?
Otis: Well the good part is we are freer. The bad part is we fear our own people...gangbangers etc.

P: What do you think the current Black legacy on the arts is compared to 50 or 100 years ago?
O: Now you can speak your mind versus 100 years ago when a Black man couldn’t say a fuckin’ thing. The legacy is freedom. This White or Black thing, it’s all’s colorblind. In my case, I just didn’t know any better. I had no fear of failure.
I’m the guy who left the village a thousand years ago. I’m a genetic outliner.

P: Do you have an obligation to tell the story and keep the memories alive?
O: No, it’s just my experience. Hungry people can be White, Black, doesn’t matter. Some of my better songs are about White people.

P: What about the legacy of the Blues?
O: I don’t know much about the Blues, but I’m good at being Black. I’m not a fuckin’ historian, I’m just old. And I’m not bitter, it’s just my reaction to life. I’m outspoken so I piss everybody off. I’ve been able to succeed by being obscure. Like my Banjo album (Recapturing The Banjo - Taylor’s critically lauded traditional Banjo album) I wasn’t disappointed that it got no attention. The critics loved it, but that’s the kiss of death. The movie people are starting to take me seriously. (Taylor refers to some soundtrack work he has been doing).

P: Are you part of the Blues continuum?
O: In my mind yes.

P: Are you the “other” or in your mind are you a part of American mainstream life?
O: I’m always Black. If you’re White and you see me it’s “Oh shit who’s that.”

P: Yet you live in one of the Whitest places on Earth. (Boulder, CO.)
O: I wasn’t getting out of Black culture, I was getting’ out of Dodge, you know what I mean? It was like the Irish got out of Ireland. Money follows money. Black people are tight with their money because they never had nothing, so they are tight with their money. I didn’t leave my experience behind, you take the best things from all cultures through your own filter. My childhood was fucked up. I got outta dodge.

P: Describe what Barack Obama being elected means to you and to all of us.
O: It’s gonna be harder to play the race card. There will be the same amount of racism, it’ll just be harder to call now. Those Republicans are after him. Don’t forget, over 40% of Americans didn’t vote for him. I don’t think being a Democrat or Republican is important. No, I think being a human being is important.

P: Do you envision a time when being Black will be invisible to the eyes of our society?
O: If you’re African you’re invisible. That’s some beatnik shit for you right there man. I live a dual life. When I travel in the South with my light-skinned daughter it’s a scandal; people staring at us, etc. But when I travel with my daughter who is the same shade as me, it’s “oh what a lovely family.” You remember that Star Trek episode with the guys who were half White and half Black? It’s like that. These differences just exist in our society. Look at the Irish, killing each other for years and you can’t even tell the difference between them. Same with Suni and Shia Arabs. Humans seem genetically programmed to hate someone. Make war on someone, that’s Mother Nature’s shit.

P: In spite of all this, you show incredible awareness of being Black.
O: Like I have a choice motherfucker!

And with that we changed subjects to music, touring Europe, antiques, and any other subject that crosses Otis’ mind. He is an unexpected, unique thinker. There are no stereotypes in his world. Everything is just another moment to be dealt with in the now. Unlike so many people I have met, Otis Taylor doesn’t live in a past of injustice or slavery, or in a future of grand success and acceptance. Otis lives right now.

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