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Going Down the Rabbit Hole with Wes Watkins

Aug 25, 2020

By Mossy Ross

Photo: Bohemian Foundation

Wes Watkins has seen it all. From living on the streets and sleeping on trains, to touring the world with bands like Air Dubai or Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats; Wes has earned his stripes as an authority on life experience. So I thought it would be more insightful to use his own words to introduce our interview, by sharing what he wrote on Bandcamp to release his latest EP:

“I share this rushed album in hope that it reaches you in a place of good health, curiosity, and motivation.

I do not think that I, by any means, have all the answers.

I do believe that if we were more diligent in our pursuit of the actuality of our country’s history we would find our generation more prepared to underpin the greater good in the days to come.

I believe that we have been subject to the bigoted representation of an individual’s worth by our racist country and most are unaware that they are even effected by the indoctrination.

I believe that we all have our own bias and true change starts with an individual.

I believe that when that individual can truly hold themselves accountable for their daily actions, words, or thoughts; then they can begin to truly hold their community accountable as well.

I believe when that community can truly hold themselves accountable for their daily actions, words, or thoughts; then they can begin to truly hold their communities accountable.

And the fight grows and goes on.

So I share this album to make, at least, the beginning of the painful process of unveiling the true chronicles of our country a little more sufferable.

I have included some very basic, Wikipedia, links to get everyone started on their voyage.

Stay healthy, Stay empowered, Stay informed, Stay curious.”

In keeping with Wes’s advice to stay curious and research, you can click on the bold faced words to learn more about the people, places, and political and historical events he references. You can click on each one, and go down a rabbit hole of enlightenment. According to Wes, information is our biggest ally in the fight towards a more equitable society. Here’s a chance to arm ourselves with knowledge.

Mossy: Are you originally from Denver?

WW: Yeah, believe it or not.

Mossy: Why is that unbelievable?

WW: Well, because Denver is super segregated. Aurora’s a pretty integrated city. But I think being black and from Denver, not just, like, living in Denver, is kind of like being black and from Seattle.  

Mossy: Gotcha. So what was growing up in Denver like? I’m guessing, based on the sound of your new album, that you grew up going to church.

WW: Yeah, I grew up in the church. My parents were like, “You are not listening to mainstream music.” So I could listen to oldies, and I was in the church, and I started playing trumpet when I was twelve. I was playing keys and singing before then. And then when I was seventeen, my parents got a messy divorce, and I ended up homeless. And I like to say I’d been playing trumpet, at that point, for six years. But when I really started playing trumpet, was when I was homeless. I used to meet all these old cats who were like, “Ah, you don’t know what you’re doin.’ Do this, do this.” And then when a buddy got back from college, all of a sudden I was in one band, and then I was in, like, a bajillion bands. And that brings us to here. And now I’m not in any bands. I quit all of that and started my own.

Photo: George Blosser

Mossy: How did you end up homeless from your parents’ divorce?

WW: My mother went to a shelter, and since I was turning eighteen the next week, I couldn’t go with her. And since a restraining order was filed against my father, I couldn’t go with him. I was a minor when the restraining order was filed.

Mossy: How long were you homeless?

WW: Few years. Three years-ish. I think by 2009, I was finally on a lease.

Mossy: Did you ever live in a shelter?

WW: I went to a shelter, but I bailed out of the shelter pretty quickly. Cus shelters are messed up, man. There’s cats who are workin’ the shelter dealing drugs. It’s just another system that is really poorly designed. So it’s not helping these cats who are stuck in these situations at all, really. I would buy a cup of coffee and sit in the coffee shop all night, and then I would buy a round trip ticket on our light rail, and just sleep on the light rail in the morning, and then go and play trumpets on the streets all day.

Mossy: So something I liked about your album besides just the music alone, was what you wrote about it on Bandcamp. History seems to be such a strong focal point for you. It seems like when history is taught in schools, it’s more for reading comprehension. You just read the chapter and answer the questions at the end. There’s rarely any context, or explanation for why things that happened in the past, are still affecting what’s happening now today. You have speech excerpts by James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Nina Simone…these important historical figures. Clearly it’s important to you for people to hear those voices. How do you think knowing history can help end the systemic racism in this country?

WW: Well first off, I’m actually a high school teacher now.

Mossy: Oh shit! What do you teach?

WW: I teach audio production at alternative high schools. But you know, I don’t believe in history. I say that a lot, I talk about history a lot. History’s just weird because whoever wrote the history, that’s what we’re hearing. The winning side gets to write history. What I really believe in is chronicles. Because a chronicle is a factual account of history. There’s no, “We won, so it was like this!” Look, the last civil rights movement was fourteen years long, and it never stopped. I think that now what I find, is what we’re teaching our kids is kind of this weird experience of, “Martin Luther King was like this, glorious god.” And it’s like, no, Martin Luther King was a chauvinist. He was a sex addict and he really struggled. But in the same regard, he did amazing things. If we were doing a better job of just saying, “This is what happened,” and letting people assess for themselves, I think that we could teach empathy. And I think if people were empathetic to how our world is working, then all of a sudden we don’t have racism. Racism exists because people don’t have the empathy. They don’t understand how to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. And I don’t think we can actually put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, but you can try. And that’s empathy. I don’t wanna have sympathy for anybody, I just want everybody to have a little bit of empathy. And I think there’s a reason that you have cats like King and Simone and Fred Hampton, Huey P. (Newton), Muhammad Ali, all these cats…they’ve been sayin’ the same thing. I wrote songs ten years ago that I can go and play at a show, that will still have valid content today. And that’s because nobody got the empathy tip.

Mossy: Yeah, history definitely helps teach empathy. But also critical thinking and curiosity. What you said about Martin Luther King, I mean, in some religious and/or racist communities, every great thing Martin Luther King did, is discredited because he cheated on his wife. And so, you have these pious, religious people saying that anything this man said about treating people like human beings, is completely null and void. Because he had his own issues. I mean, sex addiction is a real psychological problem. It doesn’t discredit everything you do. It just means you need help. It doesn’t mean you’re not a sensitive, intelligent person. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to like a lot of artists. Jackson Pollack or Michael Jackson.

WW: Yeah! I mean, people are still buying Kanye records! (Laughs) Why!? Have you ever heard the name Glenn E. Smiley?

Mossy: No.

WW: Glenn E. Smiley is an interesting character that’s been erased from American history. When they started COINTELPRO, number one on that list was King. Number two on that list was a white man by the name of Glenn E. Smiley. Glenn E. Smiley studied Gandhian ideals. He’s who’s credited for teaching King peaceful protest. And so it’s like a weird thing where it’s like, why don’t we know who Glenn E. Smiley is? Why don’t white people know who Glenn E. Smiley is? Well, our government didn’t want them to know that there was a big, white ally character doing all of that. But Gandhi also… Gandhi was a racist! He hated black people. But still, there’s great things. You have to be able to see through that. Like you said, critical thinking. They don’t want us to critically think. That’s why we don’t get history.

Mossy: How did you hear about Glenn E. Smiley?

WW: Well, because I realized that before the last civil rights movement, a few interesting things happened. The Depression happened, then the New Deal happened, and even if there still was just a giant wage disparity, you could still get a job. People had jobs. You had educated black people who went to school for things like Civics. And we don’t have that now because they worked real hard to make sure we didn’t have that again, because they didn’t want a Black Messiah. And so, I realized, that we’re not prepared. I don’t think our generation is prepared for the civil rights movement, so I just think we should all be researching. I think we should be figuring out what the fight has been thus far. If we know what the fight has been, then we don’t have to keep fighting the same fight. We can say, “No! You said this fight was over for this, this, and this. And now we’re picking up the fight here.” We don’t need to try and redo everything that already happened. It already happened. And there’s been legislation that passed. We gotta put that legislation back in place. So yeah, I just started researching and I just found Glenn E. Smiley on Wikipedia.

Mossy: Yeah, Wikipedia and Snopes are your friends. You mentioned Fred Hampton before. He was shot in his sleep, and now we’re seeing that again just this year with Breanna Taylor. It’s like you said, we keep fighting over the same things. What do you think is the first thing people could do to take a step towards not being racist?

WW: I think it’s not just a first step, I think it’s every step. You have to ask “why?” We have all the options to learn the information. Black people didn’t create race. White people created race. Which is the weirdest thing. When I go down the rabbit hole, what I always get stuck on is, I don’t know why people are afraid. I think that there’s implicit bias towards a situation. I think true change is going to start with the individual dealing with that bias. I deal with my bias. I just retook all the Harvard bias exams. And I got that I had a strong bias towards trans people. And it’s something I talk about pretty publicly. Because I don’t wanna hear stories about racists. I wanna hear stories about reformed racists. So I talk about how I took the Harvard bias exams recently, and I got a strong bias towards trans. And immediately my question was why? Why do I have that? I started to go down the rabbit hole, and I found out why. It’s because I’m a racist. Because I’m pissed off with white people all the time, and when I think about somebody being stuck in a body they don’t feel is theirs, who can afford to change that…it’s not people who look like me, for the most part. And that’s where that bias comes from. So now I have to go back and challenge the other bias it comes from. And I make the steps to become better every day, because I can ask why. I can critically assess that. I think the hardest thing to do is to challenge yourself. It’s easy to say, “Fuck the world, the world is racist.” It is hard to say, “Man, I just crossed the street to get away from that black person. Why did I do that?” So the question, I think, if you wanna fix racism is, “Why are you afraid?” And a lot of people don’t even know they’re afraid, so they are not even there, you know? For a lot of people, it’s like, “Why did I act that way?” first. And then they can say, “Because I was afraid.” And then you can start to dive into why. Just gotta ask why. Actually, I don’t think fixing racism is very hard. (Laughs)

Mossy: I know!

WW: Just be nice! I don’ t know. (Laughs)

Mossy: Or just have a conversation with someone who’s not like you, and find that they’re just a person like anyone else. So do you have any trans friends?

WW: Oh yeah. I’m pretty deep in the activist community here. And that’s the thing. I have friends who took the Harvard bias exams, and found they have a strong bias towards black men. And they’re some of my best friends. And they’re goin’ through asking “why?” Because they didn’t know that. I don’t think that having a bias is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a step. It’s knowledge, it’s history. And as soon as you can understand that that exists, then you can start to address it. I’m pretty immersed in the scene, which is nice. And it’s funny, because I’ve talked to my trans friends about it, and I’m like, “Yeah, I realize where I get frustrated. It’s the race aspect of this.” And they understand where I’m coming from. They’re not stoked, obviously, about what I’m saying. They’re like, “Well this is still bigoted.” And I’m like, “Yes I know.” (Laughs) “I’m trying to deal with it.”

Mossy: That’s an amazing thing to be able to openly talk to people about a bias, but not have it end in some screaming fight. It’s realizing that this is a reality, and I’m not gonna deny what it is, and let’s talk about it and do something about it. It’s like any emotion you have. If you ignore it, it gets worse. When you address it, and give it the attention it needs, it subsides.

WW: Right. And as a teacher, I’m never gonna go up to a student and say, “You did that wrong.” What I’m going to say to the student is, “Maybe we could do this a different way.” And I think it’s easier for me to say, “We are bigoted. And this is where my bigotry lies.” Because then it doesn’t feel like I’m just gettin’ down on people. Even though, a lot of times I say, “We are bigoted,” and what people hear is, “I am bigoted.” And then they get mad. They get defensive, because they feel attacked. But I know I need to deal with all of these biases. Biases towards women, biases toward blacks. When I first took the Harvard bias exam, I got a strong bias towards black men. And so, yeah, we have to know that we have these things that have been indoctrinated into our cultures and, let’s fix it.

Mossy: I know that, as a woman, I’ve been indoctrinated to believe women are weaker and lesser than. So I’ve experienced a weird form of misogyny towards myself or other women, which sort of manifests as shame over what I am. One of my black friends told me one time that he finds black people to be more racist than white people. Which…I mean, I don’t know about that! But when you’re told your whole life that you’re less than, you start to believe it.

WW: Yeah, I have a lot of white friends here. I mean, I’m in Denver. I got a lot of white friends. And it’s something that comes up. I think for a lot of America, that’s part of the divisiveness that has been the control of our country. I did kind of grow up in rough conditions. I mean, I saw my first body when I was twelve years old. If you didn’t grow up immersed in that culture, and you never took the option to seek it out, because you don’t know to do that, then you don’t know. I took my first trip to New Orleans, and I remember getting there and being like, “What the hell is happening?” It was a different experience. It felt like I fit in. I’m, like, not a standard human being anywhere in the world. I go everywhere and I am fetishized and people are like, ”Why do you look so weird?” “Is that a man in a skirt?” I am a straight, cis man. I just don’t think clothes have gender. But in New Orleans, I fit in. And I realized that I had never taken the opportunity to seek out a community like New Orleans. I never thought that seeking out communities like that was an option for me, until I was touring. And so then, after I got some world experience and some perspective, I came back to Denver, and I started doing a better job of cultivating, and seeking that out.

Photo: jameson_us via Drew Botcherby

Mossy: One thing I think that’s been lost, is the art of debate. People will get on social media, and make their snarky comments, or they’ll just post a meme. But there’s no debate. I think being able to debate is something that’s really important. You seem really good at that. What do you think are some of the keys to healthy debate? So that conversations can be an intellectual exercise, rather than some sort of ego maniacal, verbal sparring that gets nowhere and upsets everybody.

WW: I ask “Why?” You know, I think black people are tired. I’ve been holding forums here in Denver. I’ll hit up a bunch of cats, we’ll go to the park, or some of the bars that are open here again. So we’ll go and get the big patio, and we have our own table. And all the beatniks used to hang out at this bar in Denver. “On the Road” was written at this bar. It has a good vibe there, where I know this shit was happening here before. And we sit and we just talk. And I think the big thing is, as your talkin’ to somebody, you know, nobody can tell me what my experience has been like as a black man, except for myself. I think the big thing is you just have to be able to trust that people have had an experience that you can understand. The name of the game is intersection. You have to be able to kind of try and figure out how to understand the emotion that came when this person had this experience.

And as far as online, I don’t think anything’s going to get solved online. I think that the online presence is dopamine addiction. It’s click bait. My black problems are not your click bait. I have seen people who I know from Denver posting beach selfies, and the hashtag is “Black Lives Matter.” What is that about? I don’t think that me engaging that situation online is going to fix anything. I think me trying to invite people like that to a forum of free thinking people, who are trying to just get to the root, might help fix that. We’re gonna talk about the history. We’re gonna try and spread information. When they’re there in that situation, they get held accountable. Because you’re looking somebody in the face. If you’re on the phone, and you don’t like what somebody says, you say “Fuck you,” and you shut off your phone. It’s easy to get away from. If you can’t get away from it, it’s different. It’s the same thing as those people saying, “Black people need to do this, black people need to do that,” but they have never in their lives met a black person. Cus they’re all the way out in, who knows where. Even this hood. You got all these people living out in Cherry Creek, and they don’t know that, before it was a part of Denver, this was the black hood. And then the KKK came in. Maybe it’s changed now, but for a long time, we had the most Klan members per capita in the United States. The grand master used to live in Colorado. Our streets are named after these cats.

Mossy: Is that changing?

WW: Well one of the neighborhoods, it looks like, is going to change. (Laughs)

Mossy: Just one?

WW: Because people don’t have the information. And Denver’s become such a hub too, so there’s so many new people here. And they just don’t know. They don’t know that the street they drive down every day across town, is named after a Klan member. They don’t know that the statue that just got toppled in front of our capital, was the dude who committed the Sand Creek massacre. People just don’t know. So, I think that’s our job. That’s why I encourage people to research. People need to be informed, so that they can understand the “why” of who they are.

Mossy: I think it’s the values of those in power that is most concerning, because they’re so separate from what the values of the majority are. We value health, community, and sustainability over acquiring and hoarding. We all have to want what they have in order to give it value. If we all just said that it was kind of gross and lame to have fifty billion dollars while people are starving in the street, their whole system would fall to the ground. Do you think some of our political leaders are getting scared because the people are getting wise to their dangerous and exploitative value systems?

WW: Yeah, this came up at one of the forums recently. Minority or oppressed communities thrive because of culture. They thrive because they’re a community. But on the other side, when you think about the white male leader, he thrives in comfort. I’ve never in my life had my black buddy pull up to my house and be like, “Look, I got the nicest car on the block.” He might come up and be like, “Yo, you wanna see my car? Let’s go for a ride.” But he’s not gonna be like, “I have the nicest car, I have the nicest house.” But that is what we have taught white men that they have to be. And I think that’s what we taught white culture in a big way. And unfortunately then, we’ve taught black people that their worth lies in being recognized in white culture. So now they’re trying to do it on top of it. I think that the most dangerous thing for our world is to have an individual. They don’t want us to have individuals, so they got us all into the idea of this American Dream. It’s not the American Dream, it’s a rich white man’s dream.

Mossy: It’s true. And now, like you say, that has become the new measure for equality. Equality shouldn’t mean that a woman or a black person or an immigrant has as much stuff as their white rich neighbor. To me, it means that they have the freedom to live their lives within the value systems that are important to them. If that means that they work four hours a day, so they can spend the rest of the day with their families or serving their communities or creating, then that’s their business. But now, you see black people or women who claim to have equal rights, because they have the same job or lifestyle as a white man. But they’re just basically dressing and acting like a white man. Equality is not to be measured by how evenly your life compares to a white man’s, and his acquisitions. It’s about living the life you want to live, whatever that looks like. And not having to struggle to do that.

WW: I was watching that dude Michael Che from Saturday Night Live. And he’s like, “You know what’s weird. Black people didn’t ask for anything extra. Like, the gay community went out and said, ‘We want equal rights.’ Our rights movement was the civil rights movement. We just want ya’ll to be civil!”

Mossy: What do these forums you hold look like? How many people are there? What’s the age, gender, race demographic? How often do you all meet? I would love to know the logistics so I could try to do the same.

WW: Yeah, that’s really my goal, is to encourage other people to start doing the same. I mean, I don’t have the time to fix racism. (Laughs) I think James Baldwin nailed it. All those cats said the exact same thing, “Look, we already tried to fix racism. You guys fix it.” We don’t know how to fix it. We’re not thinking about you any differently because the color of your skin, we’re thinking about you differently because of how you’re treating us. I mean, I teach at alternative high schools, so I have had one white student in four years of teaching now. So it’s easier for me to teach kids like that because I look kind of like them. They can hear me a little easier. If you went to that same school, they’d be like, “What’re you doing?” They wouldn’t be able to release themselves enough. So I was like, we gotta start forums so people can let their flags fly, so we can kind of start to address it. Otherwise, we’re in a dangerous situation. We need to get to a place where people can start to call out their peers. For example, when all the protests started down here, one of the biggest struggles I’ve had is with white women. And liberal white women! I’m lucky I got some good white friends. Cus those cats…we all share our location. If I go downtown for the protests right now, they will be there within fifteen minutes. They will get out of work, they will show up, cus they know I’m down there. So we’re downtown with one of my black friends, and by this point, legislation had been passed in Denver so the cops weren’t being violent in the same way. Now Aurora’s about get to lit on fire. But, Denver had chilled out. And this lady is on the Black Lives Matter side, and she’s screaming at these cops, “You have a tiny dick!” “Your job doesn’t matter!” “Your wife’s gonna leave you!” And all this stuff! I mean, I have a big mouth, but I’m kind. (Laughs)

Mossy: And this was a white woman who was saying this?

WW: Yeah. Holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. And I walk over to her and say, “Ma’am, could I talk to you?” And she says, “Oh sure!” Immediately so nice with me, ya know? And I said, “Hey, I just wanted to ask you if, maybe while I’m walking my buddy home, if you wouldn’t scream at the cops? But either way, maybe we shouldn’t be screaming at the cops. Because we’re just speaking their language. We’re just feeding into the same system, you know?” She called me an Uncle Tom. So I gave her a joint and went, “Here ya go. Have a good night.” If you are holding a Black Lives Matter sign, and then you’re calling me an Uncle Tom, because I’m asking you to stop doing something that’s making me feel unsafe, what are you really doing down here? And I’ve had a lot of experiences like that. So my reaction was, I need the hip white women I know, to be callin’ out white women. Get your people. I’m gettin’ mine. I’m callin’ men out left and right. Unabashedly. The one thing I’m really starting to work on, and I don’t know how to address yet, is black men. Because, look, me and you, we are in an interesting place. We represent the side of the oppressors, and the side of the oppressed. And if that’s the case, that means we have to be really careful about what we’re saying to people, why we’re saying it to them, and when we’re saying it to them. I’ve seen some kind of whack things in these protests, where it’s just black men shutting women down left and right. And I don’t like that. I think unfortunately we kind of have to address it all at the same time. And I don’t think all of us can address everything, but that’s why we’re doing the forums. And they do always change. There’s a crew of about three or four of us who are always around.

Mossy: You’ve mentioned de-escalation. I think de-escalation is a good word. I do think things are being escalated, partly by the pandemic because people have been stuck in their houses and losing their jobs. There are so many factors at play here, and it’s creating a potentially dangerous situation if we don’t work harder at de-escalation. I think that can be accomplished with exactly what you’re doing. Meeting in small groups, not meeting en masse where cops are gonna come and do god knows what. This is how we can get one over on them. This is how we can intellectualize this revolution, instead of turning it into a civil war. Weapons are used when people aren’t thinking enough. This is a way of saying we’re gonna do something different. We’re gonna meet in small groups and talk about how we can get along, even though we’re all different and come from different places.

WW: I agree. I mean, there’s gonna be people who fight with the cops. But this isn’t even about the cops! That’s the weirdest thing to me. Everybody’s like, stuck on the cops. This is so much bigger. But I think it all just starts with uniting our general public, the citizens. Because we’re all in the same place. Unfortunately, the only way that systemic oppression can work is, anybody who shares a quality with me, if you’re an artist, if you’re a teacher, if you’re black, if you’re a woman, if you’re poor…if you share any quality with black culture, you’re going to be oppressed. But maintain hope. And research. We got some time. This isn’t going away overnight.

Listen to Wes’s entire EP and other works at: https://cosmicslim.bandcamp.com/

Follow on IG @theweswatkins

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