Seeing Myself Reflected: Eva Walker of The Black Tones on Black History Month and Blackness in Rock Music

Black History Month, Interviews

In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Eva Walker of The Black Tones shares her experiences growing up loving rock music but not feeling represented, her encouragement for the future, and the artists who've inspired her.

KEXP: We're celebrating Black History Month at KEXP and I want to also acknowledged that we should be celebrating that 365 days out of the year. Excellence, beauty, art, health, all of those things. And also at the same time wanting to hold space to celebrate black history too. So I was curious if you could talk about what does Black History Month to you?

Eva Walker:  It's a celebration of the people that came before me and paved the way, of course. There's a lot of black history from different cultures, really. I mean, people like to see black as kind of one thing and there isn't one way to be black and there isn't one black history. And so I feel like it's a month to educate people on all types of black history. And for me, mostly being a musician, I like to focus or look at the musicians that came before me the black musicians that came before me. And that's not just for the month of February, I mean obviously. But it's nice to be able to show other people that, because usually in February – although I wasn't able to do it this year – usually in February I put on a – I can't say the name on the air – but a POC concert and I'll hang up on the wall Black History facts every day in February and part of that concert is for them to see POC artists in the community but also to read fun facts about Black History Month that don't even relate to music, so it's a whole awesome celebration. I love the month. I love the whole year of black history.

I know the Northwest African American Museum was really focusing on black future and black health and black wellness and art. And I went to the Black Joy Party this last Saturday and they had music and drinks, but they also had massages. You'd go and get a free massage and kind of go back to that idea that we need to take care of ourselves as well as people of color and within specifically within the black community and African-American community. What is where you're going look like? what do you want black future to look like?

What I want my black future to look like is inspiring as many youth as I can that look like me and my brother, especially in the rock and roll world. When I was younger, there wasn't a lot of there wasn't any rock n roll people I thought that looked like me especially in the 90s. There's nothing wrong with being white, wearing flannel, like "Good for you! It's all good." And I love Nirvana and I love Alice in Chains and whatever but I didn't see myself in the rock scene. And so therefore I thought that when someone would say, "Oh my god you're so white for liking rock n roll." I thought that was true for a long time and then I was conflicted and I was sort of angry and I'm like "I don't want to be white and I'm not trying to be white. I just really like this music." And then I saw Jimi Hendrix and I was like, "Wait! Black people do play guitar!" [laughs] And on top of that, learning more and more and more, that, ok, The Rolling Stones got their song from are their name from a Muddy Waters song. Led zeppelin paid homage and thanks Robert Johnson for the influence that was in their music and the White Stripes were highly influenced by Son House. So learning all that I was like, "Oh, well the history of rock n roll is very black and I'm not 'white' for liking this genre." And I mean that quote, "You're so white." That came from black people in the community and I came from white people in the community because a lot of people the genre has been so whitewashed that everyone thought it was a white thing, including myself. And so what I want that future to look like is more kids to see me and my band to see me and my band and see themselves reflected because we're an all black band. And so for the future, I want them to see themselves.

I feel like this is a really important and interesting time when it comes like representation. Black Panther just came out and then you look at the Winter Olympics and the Jamaican women's bobsled team and their press conference, we're talking a lot about representation. The presidential portraits that were released of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and having those done for first time ever by a black artists and being able to see that you can be the president or the first lady. You can be a famous painter...

A doctor. A judge. I saw the movie Marshall, it was incredible. A lawyer. You can be in a rock n roll band and be black as hell. And so the reason I answer that my future of black is because there is so many different types of black that I can't selfishly base just my own black history off of what I want to future look like, because it's such a broad... I mean black is a lot of things. So I can speak about what my future for myself of black what I want to look like and what I want to contribute to just a small part of the black history and black future.

People of color are not monolithic. Everybody looks like something different. And I think usually when people talk about people of color or communities of color, they're always grouped – they're not individualized. So speaking of representation, who were those artists for you that were really influential that did look like you when you were growing up?

It started with Jimi Hendrix and growing up, again, there wasn't... I mean my first rock hero, and she didn't look like me, but she was a girl. My first rock hero was Alanis Morissette and that was already amazing because I was like, "Woah, she's a girl doing it!" But it started with Jimi Hendrix when I got to high school. My family, we listened to a lot of like swing music and jazz music and stuff and I really liked Billie Holiday a lot too. But specifically focusing on rock n roll, it just wasn't there until I saw Jimi Hendrix. And there wasn't a lot of rock n roll playing at my house. There was just a lot of there was a lot of jazz. When my sister introduced me to other PC artists like Selena, I got really into Selena. My sister taught me how to sing and I sang Erykah Badu and that was my introduction to her. And I really liked the odder Macy Gray kind of weirdos like Kelis. But again, you can I guess you could say it's Afro punk, but I guess strictly like rock n roll, I mean that was all Jimi Hendrix. Someone shredding on guitar. And I didn't get hip to Sister Rosetta Tharpe until only a few years ago. So as a kid, I honestly can say I did not see a lot of black girls playing guitar.

What about those young black girls now who are playing guitar. Maybe they're like, "Being a lawyerm being a doctor, being in a bobsled team sounds cool, but what I really want to do is go around and play rock n roll." What would you say to them?

Please do it [laughs]. And the beauty of the Internet that I've been able to connect and see so many black women shredding and it's beautiful. So I would say do it, because the more representation the better you know. And if it's something you really want to do, follow your heart. Because I can't imagine doing anything else. I've had zillions and zillions of dreams. I used to want to be an astronaut. I used to want to be a wrestler. I used to want to be – oh my goodness, this is going to sound weird – a trained assassin [laughs]. I've had some wicked dreams, but the only thing that stayed consistent was music. I was always interested in making music, I heard it in everything. And so if you have that passion or if it's followed you your whole life and that's what you want to do, just think of it this way: you have to be the one on your deathbed and so you're the only one that has to face the reflection of your life and what you regret and what you don't regret. So no one else is going to experience that but you. So if your dream right now is to pick up a guitar and shred – pick up a guitar and shred and don't think about what anyone else thinks or what anyone is telling you what you're supposed to be doing. Because in the end when it's you reflecting on your thoughts and reflecting on your life, you're the only one that has to face that and deal with that. And if you're like, "Man I wish I would have played guitar the last 80 years I was alive but I decided to be a doctor because everyone else said I should be a doctor . Everybody said to stay in the safe zone and black girls don't play rock n roll." Like, nope! Because I guarantee you at the end of your life, you're gonna be like, "Man I really wish I didn't care what everyone else thought all this time."

Why do you think that music matters?

I've never met anyone that said they hate music. Music, it's broad. There's so much you can do with it. There's so many different sounds and vibrations. I feel like it was how we communicated before we started speaking and even the way we speak and the tones we use and the volumes we use is all music. Like us talking right now is music. Maybe it's kind of hard to find the key right now, but I guarantee you someone could probably find a YouTube video and mimic me talking on the bass right now – what they've done with like a bunch of other videos. And so we use it every day rather that's our heartbeat, it's like a metronome, in a way. And I just feel like music – at least the expression of music – it's freeing. I feel very free and that could mean something to someone else. I mean it's important to me because it makes me feel good and there's nothing else – besides my family, of course – that I can think of that makes me feel this way. And all of this is vibration and it's super powerful. It's got a lot of power. It'll change the world! It can change the world for the better. It could change the world for the worse. It's very powerful. It's very very powerful. There's spiritual music that helped people get through some of the worst moments in history like slavery and genocide. I mean it's been that hug that's always been there when you needed it through the worst moments in history. Music's a common denominator.

Is there anything else that you want to say in celebration of music and Black History Month?

I just want to say to all the bands out there with black artists, keep it going. People in my own community have inspired me and I thank all of them for doing their thing and – can I shout out a band? My favorite band actually right now is the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio and their guitar player Jimmy James is a huge inspiration on my guitar playing. There was a song we recorded with Jack Endino and that song is actually based off of a lick Jimmy James does in a DL03 song called "Concussion." I wrote the entire song based on a Jimmy James lick [laughs]. My fellow peers and black artists, they're inspiring me all the time and especially right now the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio is a huge inspiration.

For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.

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