Gary Clark Jr. wrote “This Land” after his neighbor refused to believe he owned his home. It was a breaking point in a lifetime of racism in Texas and a referendum on Trump’s America. And while sane leaders now reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the song’s message endures in life after Trump.
Gary Clark Jr. is Austin’s prodigal son. Many musicians come to Austin, only a few come out of Austin. A tried and true Austonian, Clark grew up near the infamous 6th Street where music pours out onto the street like the aroma from a fragrance shop. The Grammy Award-winning, generational talent picked up the guitar at 12 and was gigging by 13.
But for Clark, representing Austin has come at a cost. “I grew up Black in Texas, it’s kinda fucked up.” He told Rolling Stone in 2019. The racism Clark has endured throughout his life reached a boiling point when his neighbor questioned why he was his was on his own land. “There’s no way you can live here? Who lives here?” Accosted Clark’s neighbor. “I live here. I own this house.” Clark responded in regards to the 50-acre property he purchased in the Texas Hill Country after achieving success. “And maybe it wasn’t racial, but in my mind, I was thinking that and I’m tired of thinking that way.” As a white person, I can only imagine.
Clark translated this experience and emotion into the title track for his 2019 album “This Land.” If there was any question as to if you want to embed emotion into your music, it must come from a place of real emotion, one listen to “This Land” will put that to rest.
The song opens with a dark, fuzzy synth line that sounds like a cross between an alarm and a war cry. It immediately puts the listener on alert as if to foreshadow a looming threat. A feeling that is far too pervasive for African Americans. Bombastic, aggressive drums follow, and then comes Clark’s charged vocals, which are spoken rather than sung almost in a hip-hop style. And this man wastes no time telling his truth:
Paranoid and pissed off
Now that I got the money
Fifty acres and a model A’
Right in the middle of Trump country
I told you, “There goes a neighborhood”
Now Mister Williams ain’t so funny
I see you looking out your window
Can’t wait to call the police on me
Well I know you think I’m up to somethin’
I’m just eating, now we’re still hungry
And this is mine now, legit
I ain’t leavin’ and you can’t take it from me
I remember when you used to tell me
‘N**** run, n**** run
Go back where you come from
N**** run, n**** run
Go back where you come from
We don’t want, we don’t want your kind
We think you’s a dog born
Fuck you, I’m America’s son
This is where I come from
So much for coded language or subtle metaphor. Clark remarks on “This Land Is My Land” in the next part of the song when he repeats the phrase “this land is mine.” The forceful, repetitive nature of this section feels like the personification of Clark hammering down a fence around his property. When Guthrie wrote his iconic ballad in 1940 you have to wonder if ever imagined Clark’s updated message would be needed in 2019?
With every generation, Austin produces a music legend. Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Spoon in the early 2000s, Clark, and today the magnetic Black Pumas. I am so happy that our recent music heroes are of color, but saddened racism follows their success and that with their platform comes a responsibility to combat it. “My people have been through a lot. And I haven’t been through shit compared to them. So if I can do anything with my opportunity and the work that they put in, the least I can do is say thank you for your sacrifice,” reflects Clark.
In addition to the trying interaction with his neighbor, Clark says “This Land” was inspired by the political climate of the time. “It was November 2017, everyone knows what that was like. There were all these things in the news, and shootings going on with police.” Of course, Clark is speaking to the events in Charlottesville, Dallas, El Paso, and the murders of Jordan Edwards, Aaron Bailey, and other unarmed African Americans.
Sadly, as we sit here in early 2021, in month 11 of the pandemic, these heinous acts seem distant as we’re still healing from the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, Rayshard Brooks, and just two weeks ago the storming of the capital.
“This Land” is meant to be a referendum on Trump’s America. Now with sane leadership, the first African American VP, and the most diverse cabinet in American history, I wish I could say “This Land” speaks to the past. Almost as if listening to it was like going to an old plantation in Georgia, a reminder of a darker time. However with 74 MILLION Americans voting for Donald Trump in the 2020 election, tragically, the heart of racism beats strong in this country.
As for what to take away from “This Land,” I will speak directly to white America: Keep this song on rotation. Keep watching the powerful music video directed by Austin’s Savanah Leaf. Keep thinking about privilege, continually strive to be actively anti-racist. Privilege is not having to think about racism day in and day out, responsibility is doing just that.