Local Music

Revolutionary Musician Gary Clark Jr. on Racism in the Trump Age: "We've Got to Do Better"

Gary Clark Jr. shares the passion and raw talent of his idol, Jimi Hendrix.
Gary Clark Jr. shares the passion and raw talent of his idol, Jimi Hendrix. Photo by Frank Maddocks
There are artists who sing about partying, artists who sing about gangs, and artists who sing about cats.

Then there are those who change the world.

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. hopes to be one of the latter.

Since 2011, Clark has brandished his passions through searing guitar licks and catchy melodies, making a name for himself in the blues scene via emotive techniques reminiscent of his earliest idol.

“When I first heard Jimi Hendrix, it changed my life,” says Clark, who is low-key and soft-spoken. “It changed the way that I heard a guitar being played.”

Building on Hendrix’s techniques, Clark developed his own style and quickly rose through the ranks of rock royalty, playing with greats such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King. He was nominated for two Grammys and in 2013 won the golden gramophone for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home.”

His latest album, This Land, was released February 22, and Clark will kick off the supporting tour in South Florida. He'll play the Fillmore Miami Beach Saturday, March 9.

On This Land, Clark expands his emotionally charged lyrics to address racism, inequality, and his disdain for the Trump administration.

“There was a lot of things happening like Charlottesville, Dakota pipeline, the wall, Colin Kaepernick, cops, and shootings,” Clark says of being inspired by national events while he wrote the album. “Just little things that I’ve dealt with over the years.”

The album’s namesake song taps into the anger and frustration Clark felt after a racially charged verbal attack by a neighbor in his hometown of Austin, Texas.

“It happened in front of my child,” he says of the incident. “These things have happened to me before, and it was no big deal 'cause I can brush it off. But I didn’t want it to be in the psyche of a 3-year-old.”

Clark channeled his feelings into the powerful lyrics and impassioned riffs of songs such as “This Land” and “What About Us," which resonate with fans of all ethnicities who share a collective angst over the current political climate.

“I’m around beautiful, loving people for the most part,” Clark says. “But to be confronted with the situation... it pissed me off because I didn’t ask for this. My kids didn’t ask for this. We’ve got to do better.”

“I wasn’t in the mind space all the time to just be love songs and meadows and unicorns and rainbows.”

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It might be impossible to defeat the evils of the world through pejorative lyrics and a wah-wah pedal, but Clark attempts to do so in a manner that is brutally direct. His words are sharp, but their delivery seems devoid of vitriol.

“The song was my way of just getting it off my chest and squashing this,” Clark says of "This Land." “We’re all human beings, we all deserve a fair shot, and we all want the same things, for the most part. It’s time to just accept people for who they are. Live and let live. Some people make it so complicated, and I don’t know why.”

Many songs from This Land arose from discussions Clark had while working in the studio with his bandmates.

“Just having conversations, as men and fathers, on what we’re doing spending our time away from our families,” he says of the creative process of collaboration. “Is it worth it? What is the alternative? Why is the world the way that it is?”

Deep conversations morphed into poignant compositions that reflect the harsh reality people of all ethnicities sometimes face.

“I wasn’t in the mind space all the time to just be love songs and meadows and unicorns and rainbows,” he says. “I was searching for answers and asking questions and putting my feet on the ground and wondering and curious.”

But Clark isn't always political, and he’s not always playing the blues. He seems to maneuver effortlessly among rock, funk, pop, soul, reggae, jazz, and even folk.

“I play the kind of music that a kid from Austin, Texas, would play if he spent every night walking up and down Sixth Street for 15 years,” Clark says of hanging out in Austin’s music district. “I had access to a lot of musical influences at an early age when my mind was still open and receptive to all these different ideas.”

As open-minded as Clark may be, he admits to not heeding his original calling.

“I really used to want to be a dancer,” he says. “I’ve dreamed of busting out into, like, a Michael Jackson routine sometime onstage, but I’m horrified that it will go terribly bad. So I just keep it to myself.”

But at home with his children, Clark lets loose and sets his inner dancer free. “All the time,” he says of channeling the gloved one. “Me and my kids dance to all the Michael Jackson classics.”

Clark wasn’t busting any moves February 15 when, on his 35th birthday, he appeared for the first time on Saturday Night Live with an affective, politically charged performance.

“I’m sure there’s a few that don’t dig it, but that’s cool,” he says of his growing fame. “I’m fortunate, because I can’t believe all these people are coming out and listening and showing love. That’s crazy.”

Gary Clark Jr. 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 9, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $42.50 to $64.50 at the Fillmore box office, via livenation.com, or by calling 800-745-3000.
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Wendy Rhodes is a lover of rock 'n' roll and all things vegan. She has witnessed a green flash, kissed a live shark, and stood atop an active volcano. She is always open to new story ideas.