Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

Marcus Miller: "All progress is difficult, but I have hope."

No stranger to the Jazz in Marciac festival, Marcus Miller has come to take listeners on a deep and personal journey. An interview with Marcus Miller at the 2018 Jazz in Marciac festival.

Ace of bass Marcus Miller's latest albums Afrodeezia (2015) and Laid Black (2018) explore his heritage and black ancestry, the slave routes of Africa, the Caribbean and South America, and more recently the current state of black music in America today. But do these albums have a deeper purpose? We took the time to talk with Marcus Miller at the 2018 Jazz in Marciac festival:

Your latest album Laid Black is an important album in terms of its message: what is the role of this album for you?

Well firstly it's a play on words. Everybody knows "laid back", and Laid Black is a play on that. However, on a deeper level, at the foundation of a lot of American music is black music...yet today we have these extremists in America who, all of a sudden, no longer recognise the contribution that black people have made to our country, even though a lot of black culture and the things that blacks have provided for America are at the foundation of the country: the road is laid with black contributions, and i think that's important to remember.

I hear people ask "What have blacks contributed to this country"? With jazz, we gave America its first identity. Before World War II, America was in many ways a junior version of Europe. Then all of a sudden Duke Ellington showed up with this music that could have only been created in America, with its special mix of people. I think we need to recognise that within the foundation of all these different American musical styles, and the foundation of a lot of America itself, there is a black contribution. So: Laid Black.

Was the album conceived as a message?

Not entirely... If you play the music, it just feels good. But if you want to ask a question or if you want to look deeper, there is a message, it's all there.

Your latest album brings in many different influences including hip hop and trap music. Are these today's contributions?

I did an album called Afrodeezia around four years ago, and at the time i was following the route of my ancestors. I am a spokesperson for UNESCO's Slave Route Project, trying to raise awareness of slavery, in particular for young people who don't really know what happened. I followed the route and jammed with musicians from West and North Africa, from the Caribbean, from South America and then the south of the US, following the history of slavery. Laid Black is a continuation of this idea, where I'm saying "this is where we are today, back home, with the good and the bad. You hear the hip hop, the funk, the R'n'B, all these styles that grew out of this experience that started with the Afrodeezia.

You say "the good and the bad"... is there still some good today, even with the increasingly open and unchecked racism in the United States?

Oh yeah! I have to admit that I thought things were much better in the 70s and 80s, but with the internet and with cellphones, America has had to really face the realities, and it's like lifting up a rock and seeing all this stuff underneath that you didn't know was there [laughs]. Now is the time to straighten these things. I don't think these situations are going to last, but it's going to be difficult. All progress is difficult, but I have hope.

Marcus Miller at the Jazz in Marciac festival
Marcus Miller at the Jazz in Marciac festival © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

You once said that you were born during the rise of Black Power and had no sense of inferiority or pessimism...has that changed over the years as it has been tested?

The first 45 rpm record i ever bought was James Brown's "Say it loud I'm black and i'm proud" This was the beginning of black consciousness, of being proud of who you were, even in America. So I grew up in that era, it was so cool. I had an afro, we had our style, our own movies, it was an incredible time... All America was really intent on trying to eradicate racism, or at least it felt that way. But when you stay around long enough, you realise that people have very short memories, and if one generation doesn't pass this mentality down to the next, it pops back up. So we are in a situation now where it feels like we've gone backwards a little bit, but i think it's just temporary. We have to remind the people.

You recently composed the soundtrack for the film Marshall, released in 2017. Was this an important project for you?

Absolutely. My buddy Reginald Hudling, the director, said he wanted to do a film about Thurgood Marshall. A story about black America and how to fight racism, how to fight the fight. We've always had two sides: Martin [Luther King] and Malcolm [X]. Whereas Malcolm would often say "Screw em, let's fight back", Martin chose to appeal to their better instincts. But there was another guy, Thurgood Marshall, that people don't talk about. His attitude was "Let's fight them with the law. Let's take the American laws that exist and make them apply to everybody". This was his mentality. He wasn't loud about it, he was simply efficient. First he studied the laws and defended blacks who were unfairly accused of crimes simply based on the colour of their skin. Everyday he would go to a different city to defend blacks who were unfairly treated. Then he became a Supreme Court judge, looked at the legal system and said "Hey, if this is the law, then you must apply it equally". He passed some incredible laws, such as the case of Brown vs Board of Education, and laws allowing young blacks to get equal education. People don't know about that particular method of effecting change, but he was very effective at that, so I believed the people need to hear that story too...