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.