When listening to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s new album, When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) I purposely skipped track 9, as a matter of practice. “My Name is Oscar” is a tune written by the Oakland native in tribute to Oscar Grant III; an unarmed Black man who was murdered by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The officer shot Grant in his back while he lay in a defenseless face-down position on the train platform in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009. Being a New York native, and living through so much police brutality, it was a song I didn’t want to face. But I did today. I needed to face the song. I’m not sure what compelled me to do this, but I knew that the murder had been documented by several witnesses, and I watched the video while listening to the song. That was a good and a bad idea. A bad idea simply because it was so very hard to watch (I had avoided the unbelievable horror of the footage until now). But a good idea because it put the issue of police brutality in my face in a way I have never dealt with. That’s not to say I had never seen Black men terrorized by the police. Much to the contrary. But I think dealing with Oscar Grant’s death was so important, especially living in a pseudo-post-racial society. In the last three decades, I was able to reflect on the countless racially-inspired murders of Black people, committed by officers paid to serve and protect them. Grant, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Sean Bell, Aiyana Jones and on and on and on and on and on…..
And just last week, The Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association honored the officer who shot and killed Danroy “D.J.” Henry, an unarmed, Black college football player in 2010. The officer was honored for the “dignified and professional manner [he’s] conducted himself throughout his career and this ordeal.”
Killing Black men is dignified and professional in America.
On “My Name is Oscar” drummer Justin Brown (also from Oakland) emits a brilliant and emotionally rousing performance while phrases like “live,” “don’t shoot” and “we are the same” echo in the folds of the solo. When I listened to the song, it reminded me of how jazz has always narrated the human struggle. From John Coltrane, to Max Roach to Branford Marsalis, and now to Mr. Akinmusire, jazz musicians have always been fearless about putting the Black struggle in the face of their audience. This is the most commendable and important work. To make people think differently about the world they live in, and to inspire change, is the best work.
Perhaps because I’ve seen this happen and go unpunished too many times to count. Perhaps because I have a brother named Oscar. Perhaps because I’m raising a Black child in America. Or probably because of all of the above…I must say that “My Name Is Oscar” is one of the most important anthems of our generation. Check out Mr. Akinmusire’s website, and he and his band are not to be missed whenever in your area.
Definitely an important anthem of our generation – agreed! I already saw the video (it was very disturbing), so I was actually impatient to get to “My Name is Oscar”. One of the deepest parts of the dialogue is “Nineteen days…. inauguration!” That’s one of the main things that lingered in my mind when I followed the coverage of this tragic event. Once Obama was elected I had several encounters with those who thought there was now nothing for African Americans to “complain” about or use as an “excuse”. But, events like this put it all in perspective – even though it isn’t productive to look for it, racism is still out there. About the music: well thought out, expressed and executed. A must have in anyone’s collection…
Really insightful, Marcus. You know, I remember feeling the same way. I remember feeling like “wow, what a way to start the new year.” I know it’s naive, but you like to think new year brings new outlooks and you subconsciously expect the best of people. This was just such a harsh, awful way to bring in the new year. I was also weeks away from giving birth, and I just remember how disturbing this was. You made one of the most important points of this discussion in your reply. Oscar Grant’s murder juxtaposing Obama’s election spoke volumes about the human struggle that we are still facing today. Obama’s election has not cured the race problem, and it’s a shame that so many people are so out of touch to even attempt to make that conclusion.
Beautiful Jelly…! I too have been following this case carefully since this horrific incident. It was appalling to me that the officer involved in the shooting, and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, was released early in June for “good behavior”. He served 366 days with no incident in prison, so that supposedly equaled the 731 he was supposed to serve. Really? To add insult to FATAL injury, they throw 1.5 million dollars at the family as if to say “Here.. shut up.” That amount comes nowhere near the cost of taking care of Oscar’s 6 yr old daughter or the therapy she’ll need to help her cope with the loss of her father. It definitely doesn’t replace his parents’ son, his uncle’s nephew, etc.
I guess it’s cool to the powers that be though, because they probably used the same age old formula from the 1800’s. Black Male slave, strong, young, hard worker, proven breeder… $1600. At least they were nice enough to adjust for the cost of living increases. Literally smh!
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