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Grace Clark searches for a more inclusive bluegrass scene post-pandemic

//Local musician Grace Clark plays guitar outside her apartment complex in Denver on June 9. Photo by Esteban Fernandez |efernandez@msmayhem.com

When Grace Clark sings, there is the occasional twang of bluegrass and the soft serenade of lightly strummed guitar. But there’s also something more intangible. In her new song released March 21, “Busy Bee,” there is the distinct cry of a wearied traveler.

“I’ve been trying hard to learn from my mistakes/sayin’ always sayin’ only ever really sayin’ I can change,” Clark sings. “An old soul like me should understand her ways/Oh, the harder I try, the quicker it fades.” 

As a listener, Clark’s changes have appeared to be effortless. It was in Colorado where she left behind her Michigan operadic training and fell in love with bluegrass. Upon seeing The Freewheel Trio perform as a senior at the University of Denver, she stepped out of the classical world and into the land of fiddles and banjos. From there, her rise in the genre has been nothing short of meteoric. It’s no surprise then that until the pandemic she rarely found a chance to rest and reflect. 

While the bluegrass scene has been welcoming toward her elegiac voice, she finds herself silenced as an Asian American woman in a predominately white space. Clark said she continues to suffer blatant racist remarks and micro-aggressions from both fellow musicians and fans as she’s witnessed her white male counterparts fail to speak up or work to become anti-racist. 

“Until the pandemic, I didn’t feel like I had the right to feel upset with those interactions and I didn’t give myself permission to feel the hurt,” Clark said. “We all spent this past year reflecting, and it became clear very quickly who your people were and who you felt were supportive. Everyone else you let go, in my experience.”

Clark’s conflicting feelings about feeling like an outsider in the bluegrass community aren’t unfounded. The genre is by and far a predominately white space. Harvard Political Review reported that 95% of Bluegrass Radio Network’s listeners in 2020 were white. All 50 musicians on Bluegrass Today’s Top 20 chart were white-presenting.

Furthermore, bluegrass is steeped in the erasure of non-white contributions. Perhaps the most defining instrument of bluegrass is the banjo, whose invention is erroneously attributed to white musicians. But, as lauded banjoist and member of the all-Black female bluegrass band Our Native Daughters, Rhiannon Giddens told Radiolab, the space is not always welcoming to artists of color. 

“I’m the fly in the buttermilk, as they say, at these gatherings, and feeling like I had to ask permission; I didn’t have to ask,” Giddens said in her interview with Radiolab. “But the banjo’s roots are in West Africa. There’s all these West African lute instruments, and it became what we know of as the banjo in the Caribbean, right? The first—the earliest banjo we have that still exists is from Haiti.”

The banjo evolved into its modern form during American enslavement. It was a plantation instrument, played by enslaved people and co-opted by white entertainers in the 1840s when it started appearing in minstrel shows. White performers put on blackface and strummed the banjo in gruesome caricatures of enslaved people. By 1930, only white musicians played the instrument.

It wasn’t this loaded history that convinced Clark that her feelings of being ostracized were valid; it was her reflection in silence. As gigs were canceled and Coloradans stayed safer at home, Clark found the quiet to dig out the roots of the general sense of malaise she had felt towards the scene. 

“Like so many POC in the last however many months, I find myself in this place of being really angry and pretty bitter, which isn’t a great feeling,” Clark said.

Over the last year, the rate of anti-Asian violence has skyrocketed 150% throughout the country. Of these reported assaults, 66% have been verbal, similar to the ones Clark has experienced. While the majority of these incidents are in states with large Asian populations, Colorado and Michigan, where Clark grew up, are far from havens of racial acceptance, especially for adopted children whose parents might not understand their experiences. 

Growing up as an adoptee meant navigating the complex world of intersectionality. There was a lack of language for adoptees to express the way they felt in the 1990s. Many were forced to muddle through their search for identity without signposts.

“I don’t necessarily feel very Asian, and I’m still trying to figure out what being Asian means to me, having grown up culturally white,” Clark said of her personal experience as an adoptee. “I’m obviously not a white person and I’m not given the same kind of privileges or treatment as a white person. It’s this weird middle ground of existing.”

As she got older, the way Clark felt about adoption shifted. She’s still figuring out if she even agrees with adoption. On the one hand, she finds trans-racial adoption problematic: taking a child away from their country and culture and stripping them of their roots. On the other hand, there are a lot of beautiful things that come from adoption, she said. “I would not be having this conversation right now if I wasn’t [adopted].” 

As the country eases into re-opening, Clark is hoping to redefine what the new normal should be for her and her music. She’s asking herself not only who is musically supportive and exciting to work with, but also, who provides a safe space to work in? She’s pinpointing the people who will be an ally, people who will step up and stick up for her in those moments when she feels unsafe. From there, she feels she can pursue music in a way that feels genuine.

Until Clark finds the music at the end of her new path, it is her old tunes on band camp and Spotify that can provide a soundtrack to reckoning. Listeners can also hear her reflect on a year of personal revelations with the sonic power of a mountainous Andra Day at the upcoming July 14 Denver Botanic Gardens’ Evening al Fresco.

“Take me to the noise and the flashy little waves/then fly me to the honey is a busy bee haze,” Clark sings in ‘Busy Bee.’ “You already know when I felt it all along/when I’m scared of the silence and the stillness of your song/and the absence of a voice that always felt wrong.”

 

 

 

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