Last week Hearts & Plugs founder Dan McCurry posted a picture on Instagram
, a drawing that was meant to promote the label’s residency that night at the Commodore with Hermit’s Victory and Brave Baby but was rejected by many, who flagged the photo as racist. Rather than the names of the bands, the image promoting the show at the historically significant African-American jazz and R&B club read “Kermit’s Victory and Slave Baby” and included an image of a baby with a large nose, ears, and lips and shackles around its legs.
Tyler Bertges of Hermit’s Victory has come forward as person who drew the image to issue an apology, six days after the incident happened. And activists are already organizing talks to address what some are calling "a counter-productive 'Southern comfort' mindset" within the Charleston music community.
Local artist and activist Anjali Naik, a.k.a. Diaspoura, was among the first to call the image out on social media, and the tension in the local music community has only grown ever since as folks demand accountability for the incident. Many, including musicians from the Hearts & Plugs label, have demanded further action — namely for all parties involved to apologize.
McCurry issued a formal apology last week. Both Brave Baby’s Wolfgang Zimmerman and the Commodore also issued statements on social media denouncing the post. “I want to make it completely clear to all that this drawing was not created in or on the premises of The Commodore, that no owner, manager, or employee condones this type of behavior,” the venue published on Facebook. “Whether it be verbal assaults or depictions, the Commodore does not tolerate any of it. We are very proud of the history of our venue, our community, our neighborhood, and the eclectic groups of people and musicians that intermingle here.”
Growing pressure for further action was manifested on Sunday when Hearts & Plugs band E.T. Anderson announced its withdrawal from the label, stating that “We feel awful about what has happened and are embarrassed as members of the organization that perpetrated it. We found out, like most of the rest of the artists on the label, not until after everything had occurred. The image was disgusting, not funny, horribly insensitive, and we were appalled to see it. It was easy for us to condemn this photo and the blatant racism it pictured. What was not easy was that it was posted and drawn by people we consider friends and care about. We have been in constant conversation with many of the artists on the label, trying to figure out how to move forward in a constructive way. After constant promises of an apology from the person who drew it and posted it and no action, we have decided that it is best for now for us to step away from Hearts & Plugs. In saying this, we will continue stay in talks with the artists on the label and the people in the Charleston and Columbia communities regarding how to proceed.”
All the while, plans for all parties involved to take responsibility and move forward constructively have been underway — albeit behind the scenes — since Friday. Local musicians McKenzie Eddy and Elliott Smith (founders of BACE League of Charleston and the Very Hypnotic Soul Band) and Naik, who teaches accountability to kids in the Girls Rock Charleston program, have facilitated an open, honest dialogue with activists, musicians, and the local community. They say their goal is to guide folks through the proper steps to tackle the issues that could have led to the drawing’s existence in the first place. “We don’t intend for this to be what might be considered a typical public forum,” Smith says. “We are aiming for some real talk. While the community response here shouldn’t be sensationalized, it has to be brutally honest about the fact that this isn’t an isolated incident. It represents (at best, even giving all benefit of the doubt) a counter-productive “Southern comfort” mindset — a head-in-the-sand way of thinking — in the local music scene, the Charleston community at large, and the country. That’s something that needs to be frankly discussed and engaged. It has been trivialized or ignored in this culture for too long.”
Smith continues, “In order to accomplish that, we need to include the voices of people who are too often marginalized when it comes to these issues, as well as those who may be in influential positions to help change that marginalization. So please give us about a day here to finish reaching out to those voices. We want to make sure that we are facilitating dialogue that isn’t insular, since that type of thinking is a big part of the problem to begin with.”
Naik, Smith, and Eddy have been working on an accountability process for Hearts & Plugs that involves community building and preventative strategies. “And hopefully it will be the start of a more transparent and socially conscious music scene, “ says Naik. “We practice restorative justice at Girls Rock with our kids, and it’s what we really believe in — that when someone messes up that it’s the responsibility of the community to stand up and fix it, and there’s just no reason to be divisive over issues like this. It’s not just one person’s responsibility. It’s all of the people who have privilege need to step up.”
Naik met with McCurry on Saturday and adds, “A lot of the public response has happened since we brought this to light, and so we kind of talked about that,” she says. “We were both feeling very uncomfortable about it, but after that, I acknowledged to him that this problem was more than just this one incident and I don’t think that we should be focusing on just this one incident. There is definitely a larger problem that we are wanting to address, which is what the incident is symbolizing. It symbolizes white complacency and a lack of accountability structure that we have in arts communities. I don’t think that it’s a one-person issue; I think it’s an issue of privilege and a lack of education and a lot of people wanting to be apolitical about things that are real and happening.”
McCurry says he’s all in. “I’m definitely using this as an opportunity to get everyone on the same page as a community and address these real issues that affect everyone,” he says. “McKenzie, Elliott, and Anjali all have great ideas. We want to get some real talk going and make this a big moment where we all grow together. I’ve been a leader in this community, and I want to continue to be one. I have realized through this situation that we can all be more inclusive and more active in promoting and supporting one another. I think we all have more in common than we realize.”
But McCurry isn’t the only one who’s wants to move forward positively. Bertges, who drew the original image on the chalkboard and texted it to McCurry, has expressed to the City Paper
that he is open to the forum plans Eddy, Smith, and Naik are in the process of formulating.
Bertges issued the following statement:
“When I first heard the drawing had made its way into the public eye, I thought, ‘So what? I didn’t post that. I would never post that, and it’s incredibly stupid that anyone would ever think that was OK to put on social media.’ So, I sat back and watched as my close friend Dan, manager of our record label Hearts & Plugs, issued an apology concerning the image that he had naively plastered on the internet. After realizing his mistake, Dan (truly one of the sweetest and most caring people I know) swiftly issued a public statement voicing regret for his decision. The apology, however, did not seem to be enough. People were still demanding answers. ‘Who drew this racist bullshit? Why is this bastard/coward remaining silent as the musical community that Dan, his ‘friend,’ has spent a decade creating crumbles to the ground? ‘Dammit,’ I thought. ‘I hope I don’t get dragged into this.
“In the age of the internet, I’ve learned nothing stays secret for long. My name was quickly outed as the ‘artist of the chalk drawing.’
I received messages from strangers. There were emails from acquaintances. Texts from friends. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’ some said. ‘If I whisper a racist joke to you, and you decide to yell that joke to a crowded room … then that’s on you.’ ‘Thank you. Exactly,’ I thought. A sigh of relief.
“Harsher messages from unknown senders read, ‘It’s past time. Come forward and own up. Your actions are dragging good, innocent people down with you.’ ‘Shut up. You don’t understand. I didn’t yell it to the crowded room,’ I thought.
“Several days passed by. I figured as quickly as the storm began, it would end. The discussion, however, not only carried on, but grew. As more people voiced their opinions, more venom and hatred spread. Some were accused of being apologists and enablers while others were labeled self-righteous, social justice warriors. People of all races and backgrounds began chiming in. It soon became apparent to me … this thing wasn’t going away.
“One by one, members of the Hearts & Plugs family addressed the public, many announcing their withdrawal from the label. ‘Not my fault,’ I said to myself. ‘Racist joke. Crowded room.’
“I talked on the phone with Dan and heard a sadness in his voice I’d never heard before. One of my best friends who had always been so hopeful and determined when it came to Hearts & Plugs, basically his child, told me he was considering leaving the world of music altogether. “No. We’ll get through this,” I told him, not entirely sure if I believed it myself.
“The more I think about the situation, it’s become clear to me that the ‘crowded room’ I’ve been using to justify my actions doesn’t exist. Drawing a racist picture in the name of twisted humor detracts from the cause of those whose struggle I can’t begin to understand. It derails attempts of progress being made by those who are much more entrenched in this battle than myself. At this point, I can only apologize to those who have been hurt by my decision. Like most, I would never identify myself as a racist person. I like to believe I respect all people equally, regardless of race, background, sexual orientation, etc. But do my actions speak otherwise? This incident has forced me to reflect and ask those hard questions that many of us, especially white people with privilege, need to be asking. I am not going to pretend I know the answers or even the right questions to ask. I will say that I am truly sorry for my insensitivity, and I hope my unawareness will inspire open discourse about what needs to be done to combat racism at its root.
“The purpose of my writing this is to genuinely give you a transparent look into my thought process throughout the entirety of this unfortunate ordeal. I have been reading and listening to everyone’s input, and this is my way of sharing my reasoning with you, as flawed as my thought process may have been. I hope, in some way, my openness aids in mending the rift this has caused between all parties involved. I am very open to hearing from those in the community who have been hurt most due to my senselessness and would love to learn how I can contribute to the very cause I ignorantly undermined.”
The forum will take place at Redux Contemporary Art Center (136 St. Philip St.) at 2 p.m. on Sun. Oct. 2. A detailed plan for the discussion will be announced tomorrow, and this post will be updated as details emerge. Organizers encourage all who want to voice their concerns and participate in the uncomfortable conversations ahead to attend.
Local hip-hop artist Benjamin Starr plans to attend the forum. He, for one, has a lot of questions. “I want to know what do they plan to do to address it, because it’s bleeding into a bigger conversation,” he says. “I try to keep an understanding that this is just music — this is music, and that at the same time it leads into even deeper waters when you start talking about when you have that type of obliviousness. It leads into things that end up being gentrification, education disparities, discriminatory housing — all of these things that affect the city and affect the areas around it. So if we’re serious about a unified community, then you have to be able to have uncomfortable dialogue and you have to be able to hold the fire to people and say, ‘What are you going to do to put action toward it?’ Because we can talk about it all day. What are we going to do to actually change it?”
Naik has called on folks to ask the hard questions, and to be reflective and receptive.
“I think the community deserves to know and people of color deserve to react how they want to react, but the people that have the privilege to confront themselves, people who need to be recognizing their privilege don’t need to be divisive about it,” she says. “They they need to be solution-oriented and ask, ‘How can I help this music scene to get better?’ instead of just feeding and saying, ‘Oh I’m not a racist. I’m not associated with this. I’m not friends with these people.’ I think that the white music scene and the non-black people of color as well need to own up and address everyone’s issues. It’s just the time to do it.”