Why Jon Batiste Is the Best Response to the Angry Black Man Narrative Right Now

Okay y’all. I’m not going to rehash the Oscar fiasco. We know what it is. We’re all over it already, no matter what you think about it. But last Sunday’s Grammy Awards was the feel-good story we can all get behind. I got familiar with Jon Batiste probably about 2 years ago. I caught an episode of the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and he was the smiling “piano guy” serving as the bandleader/music director since 2015. Last year, I saw an interview of him on The Daily Show and I got a better sense of some of his range, catching a clip of his music video for Freedom and I was impressed. This year, I decided to watch The Grammys, not really expecting too much. Boy was I surprised. I enjoyed a number of performances and Batiste was a main highlight. It was exuberantly ecstatic, electric and had such a sense of lightness and joy that radiated off the screen, featuring vibrantly dressed dancers and singers, channeling multiple decades all at one time. He gave colorful Chuck Berry-Liberace hybrid vibes with a gospel thread. I also saw style influences from the greats like Little Richard, James Brown and Michael Jackson. And if you’ve ever watched The Wiz and Black Panther, the similarities in wardrobe were undeniable. By the end of the night, he took home 5 Grammys, including Album of the Year. His speech was humble, insightful and gracious: “I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor,” he said. “The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it’s almost like it has a radar to find the person when they need it the most. I’d like to thank God. I just put my head down and I work on the craft every day. I love music, I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me, it’s a spiritual practice…”

A couple days later, I looked him up and read up on this accomplished musician. He comes from a gifted and prestigious musical dynasty hailing from the culturally rich New Orleans area. Batiste has a Bachelor and Master of Music in jazz music from Juilliard. As I’ve feasted on his music the past few days, I’ve heard the enormous range of talent. His hit Freedom may be what he’s best known for because of its viral success, but his music and voice vibrates anywhere between classic jazz, New Orleans brass-band style, R&B, soul, funk, blues, hip-hop and gospel. His self-professed Christian faith simmers and often bubbles up from under his music and the response from his audiences are visceral and joyful.

Album cover created by Karla Cordova

During my research, I found an interview he’d done with CBS Sunday Morning this past February and his story became even more profound. At the age of 35, he is living a life that seemingly is hitting all the right notes. But he and his wife are walking through a very challenging time with tremendous grace and courage and it hit me — this is the award moment we should all be talking about. How do we respond in moments of deep pain? What do we radiate in the most visible moments of our lives? Do we seek moments of joy during the struggle?

And what’s our focus when we witness a big-stage moment go sideways? Do we continually fixate on the outliers? Do we dwell on those that lash out in anger and disappoint us, leaving us feeling betrayed and deceived? It’s understandable. Our brains are wired to pay attention to the atypical, the aberrations that confound us. One of my favorite doctors, neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, explains this fascination our minds have for the unusual. But can we take more moments to breathe in the incredible God-given talent that He places in the earth to reflect the best in us? Sunday’s Grammy performance was just a taste of his affect on the audience. An obvious prodigy, he’s already made 13 albums in his mid 30s. Is it possible that our fixation on the worst in us is keeping us from seeing what’s been right in front of our faces for so long? Just like the baddest kid in the class gets all the attention but the student who plugs diligently away and is at the top of his class is sometimes given a shoulder shrug because he/she is expected to do well.

So I submit to you an alternative view in these rapidly changing times. Allow me to divert your attention away for a worthwhile moment that I hope sticks with you when you want to get in your feelings about the current cultural climate. It’s hard to deal with folks who want to blankly label and cancel black and brown folks in the limelight when they behave badly. It’s frustrating when someone steps out of line. Those of us of color often carry a mantle of a whole race on our back, but I push back on the narrative that we’re the “good ones” when we’re perceived to be upright, productive and “civilized” people that don’t fulfill the negative stereotypes played out on TV, movies or the evening news. We’re not exceptions to the rule. We’re humans, made in the image of God, experiencing the same hurts, traumas, dreams, joys and victories as anyone else breathing on this earth, as individual as a fingerprint. We are ironically like Batiste’s most well-known genre: jazz. We are fluid, nuanced, varied, unpredictable, flawed, open to interpretation and controversy, sometimes confounding and breathtakingly beautiful all at the same time. πŸ€ŽπŸ™πŸΎπŸ’™ — THB

To watch Batiste’s dynamic Grammy performance, click here: https://bit.ly/3NQtltQ

To watch the Jon Batiste CBS Sunday morning interview, click here https://cbsn.ws/3ueT4Eq

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