Lady Jess is tired.
She’s tired of talking about the violin. She’s tired of advocating for representation in the arts. She’s tired of seeing Black and brown people get killed by police. She’s. Just. So. Damn. Tired.
“Being in this skin in 2021 asks so much of us,” she says.
Lady Jess, who also goes by Jessica, is a freelance violinist, contractor and artistic director for the Urban Playground Orchestra whose mission is to prioritize the music of Black composers and to showcase historically marginalized voices. She attended UNC School of the Arts from 2004-09, developing the skills that would land her gigs with artists like Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder and the Roots. More recently, she served as concertmaster for Judas and the Black Messiah, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture. For the gig, she hand-selected each of the musicians for the orchestra, mostly women and people of color.
But Jess doesn’t really want to talk about all of that. Instead, she wants to talk about the value of her words.
At Triad City Beat, we don’t pay for interviews. We never have and I’m not sure we ever will. Paying for interviews is a huge violation of one of journalism’s most longstanding tenets, right up there with plagiarizing and outing sources. There’s even a name for it: checkbook journalism. Creating a financial relationship between the journalist and source muddies the waters of transparency and honesty. It corrupts the fact-gathering process. And, for some of us, it’s financially untenable.
But Jess, who arrives at our video call dressed up with carefully applied makeup, sees the interview is a kind of transaction between two parties, one in which she feels like she should be compensated for her time and for her words.
As we talk through her childhood in Charlotte and her time living in New York, Jess’ well-rehearsed story of her life begins to fall away. The smooth cadence of her words slows down and her smile turns into a frown.
“Can I be honest with you for a minute?” she asks.
She then divulges how she expected the topic of pay to be breached before our meeting by either myself or the contact at UNCSA through whom I arranged the interview. I told her it had never even crossed my mind.
Therein, Jess says, lies the problem.
“As Black artists, especially Black women, we know our worth,” she says. “Last spring, collectively, we decided to be assertive to the point of being blunt about being paid to share our stories. This is unprecedented, yes. But that is exactly the point. If we don’t advocate for a new standard, who will?”
Since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, Jess says she and her Black colleagues have been reached out to by multiple organizations to share their experiences. But the shallow, empty gestures of “allyship” that she’s continued to see from historically white-owned institutions aren’t going to cut it, she says.
“Black and brown people, especially women and the queer community, have said again and again that the way to show assertive allyship is to avoid the performative and stick to the fiscal,” she says. “Support us by finding ways to compensate us in a space that traditionally does not. Everything else rings false to us.”
And Jess is right to be angry.
Data consistently shows that Black women are paid just 63 cents on the dollar for the same labor compared to white men; the effects of the pandemic have made things worse.
According to findings analyzed by US News & World Report, Black and Latinx women have been hit the hardest in the last year, with unemployment rates for the two groups measuring higher than all other demographics. And these realities make it tough to focus on work, especially when it comes to making music, Jess says.
“Monthly, weekly, when people are being killed by the police and when you think about music and what it takes, the tediousness of it, the writing and the practicing — that combined with people dying from the pandemic — if I’m not using this for an immediate good or for something that can be built for the future for the culture, why am I doing it?” she asks. “It’s challenging me in the best possible way.”
As she continues to express her frustrations, it’s clear that Jess isn’t alone in this exhaustion that stems from living in a world that wasn’t created for her.
In the past year, I’ve had countless conversations with Black creatives about the ways in which institutions like ours can right the wrongs that have been enacted upon historically marginalized people. Some of these conversations have made it to print; many others haven’t.
It’s clear that Black people, particularly Black creatives, are collectively tired. They’re tired of waiting for spaces that welcome and uplift them rather than exploiting them for profit or using them as pawns for diversity quotas. They’re tired of being pigeonholed into creating work that exclusively talks about Black pain because people still aren’t listening. They’re tired of advocating for their worth when the country they live in was founded on the notion of their worthlessness.
So, at Triad City Beat, we’re working to answer some of these questions while sticking to our values in the process.
And Jess says she understands.
“I am passionate about speaking up for things that I believe could change and should be re-examined for the generation that comes after me, as it was done by my older Black colleagues before me,” she says. “I always want to pay it forward.”