Redlining: The Economics of Musical Training
Chicago is a segregated city. That isn't a new observation. It has been the mainstay of critics and those fighting for social, economic change in the city. The city is chopped and divided across geographical and racial lines. If you're white you more than likely live in the relatively more affluent north side of town, and if you're a person of colour you likely live south of The Loop on the southside. This isn't a self-imposed isolationist policy on the part of African Americans as some more controversial media outlets would suggest, but rather the repercussions of specific governmental and economic policies that go back over a century.
"Redlining is the practice of arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor. While discriminatory practices existed in the banking and insurance industries well before the 1930s, the New Deal's Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) instituted a redlining policy by developing color-coded maps of American cities that used racial criteria to categorize lending and insurance risks. New, affluent, racially homogeneous housing areas received green lines while black and poor white neighborhoods were often circumscribed by red lines denoting their undesirability. Banks and insurers soon adopted the HOLC's maps and practices to guide lending and underwriting decisions." (Hunt, 2005).
AJ+ has recently released a series of short videos that explore the racial disparities in Chicago, the first of which is particularly pertinent to this discussion. It gives a quick overview of the policies that allowed redlining to occur, their motivations, and the echoes of the system that are still being felt today in the city's geographical makeup. As discussed in the piece this segregation is so understood and commonplace it isn't often reappraised by those living within such a system. White flight, redlining, deliberate refusal to accept integration, and endemic racism certainly wasn't restricted to Chicago, but for our purposes these policies have distinctly musical ramifications in Chicago, in addition to the myriad problems and issues that arose across the USA in cities with similar issues. (N.B. the AJ+ video is part of a series which can be viewed here)
The first time I came across redlining during this project was during my interview with Vince Lawrence. During a discussion of the religious qualities of house music and where musicians trained Vince offered this as a potential explanation:
Vince Lawrence proposes a socio-economic origin for house’s ideology, stemming from the original musical base of gospel and Christian rhetoric, rather than merely as a transmuted quality of disco's musical tropes (influenced somewhat by gospel music). The practice of redlining in Lawrence’s proffered narrative impacted most notably on the Black population of Chicago, following the geographical divides drawn along racial lines bisecting the city. Lawrence suggests that churches took up the mantle of musical education for young Black individuals in the city due to budgetary limitation enforced on Black area schools by redlining. It would stand to reason that this musical religious education informed the composition and performance of house music, allowing Christian rhetoric to bleed across the boundary into a ‘secular’ music. House’s ideology may in fact be a repercussion of racially-motivated economic sanctions in Chicago, dating back a century.
School funding in the USA, as reiterated in the AJ+ video, is somewhat tied to catchment and local area taxation. Professor Gregory Squires from George Washington University in DC (a researcher with an interest in redlining) told me "certainly to the extent that redlining undercuts local property values, and therefore property taxes and funding for public services like education, musical education would be adversely affected". It's unsurprising that arts and extra curricular provision are the first things on the chopping block when funding is scarce. And poorer economic neighbourhoods would certainly garner less taxation for schools. Even though redlining wasn't in action in the 1970s onwards, the die was already cast for African American students living in the southside. Lower economic status and a cycle of failing education meant that those neighbourhoods remained areas of socio-economic deprivation, thus arts provision was unlikely to be offered by all but a few schools*.
Vince Lawrence suggested that music tuition was therefore only really available for young Black people in the Church, rather than schools. This is something echoed by Jamie Principle when we spoke (although this was not included in the interview snippets on the FoH blog). Even in one of the earliest articles on house music, the NME's "The DJ's They Couldn't Hang" from 1986 we see evidence of vocalists being trained in the church (in this instance under T.L Barrett). Principle was certainly trained in the church, as was Lawrence, and many of the big vocalists that would come to the fore; Darryl Pandy, Jocelyn Brown, Martha Wash, Robert Owens, and Ricky Dillard. However, there was no official Church or city directive or policy that guided churches to pick up the mantle of musical education for Chicago's Black youngsters. Finding any evidence beyond that revealed in interviews here is proving to be an impossibility.
This has some interesting consequences for this project. It poses questions as to the actual quality of religiosity in house music. Is it simply habitual? Was it vocalists and musicians using language and techniques they already had in the artistic arsenal to articulate themselves because of their church training? Is the religious quality of the music not as intentional as I had original believed? Or, is the religious nature of the music incredibly sincerely spiritual? I don't believe there is a hard and fast rule that can be applied here. Jamie Principle stands as stark opposition to the notion of it being truly sincerely religious; his subversion of religious language and dialectics certainly comes from a different place.
I believe that, on balance, you can only consider each piece and each artist as separate, with their own aims, rules, standards, and experiences. Why wouldn't you?! But it does offer a different perspective as to just where the spiritual nature of house music springs from. Racially motivated sanctions have bled through time to create the situation where individuals creating an entirely new genre did so in part thanks to the failure of the education system and the support of religious organisations. Thank God they did.
*Addendum: Schools would actually come to play a huge part in the rise of house music's popularity, but that's a story for another time. Watch this space.