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Music

Revisit Jimi Hendrix's powerful thoughts on race relations

Jimi Hendrix is one of the most iconic musicians of all time. The man who tore up the guitar-playing rulebook, he helped to bring music and culture into a brighter future, and was iconoclastic to a fault. He did things his way, subverting the established norm and galvanised generations in the process. It’s a testament to his skill that his work remains so mindblowing, even 52 years after his tragic death. 

I don’t say this lightly when I state that there has never been – and will never be – a guitarist as important as Hendrix. It was he who set the stage for other legends such as Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi to take the guitar down a more visceral, aggressive route, and in the process, spawn new genres such as punk and metal. Bar Bob Dylan, no singular man has had such a significant impact on our musical and cultural development. 

However, it wouldn’t be fair to characterise Hendrix as solely a musician. He was a complex character, who some would even call flawed, but the handful of interviews that he gave coupled with first-hand accounts reveal him to have been not just iconoclastic in the musical sense but in every sense. He was a deep thinker who had his own take on the world, owing to his upbringing and the many adventures he had been on even before the time he made it to England in summer 1966. 

One area in which he certainly had a lot to say was race relations. In a collection of rare interviews, thoughts and diaries released in 2013, Hendrix’s ideas on the matter were made loud and clear. 

Hendrix said: “Race isn’t a problem in my world. I don’t look at things in terms of races. I look at things in terms of people. I’m not thinking about black people or white people. I’m thinking about the obsolete and the new. There’s no colour part now, no black and white. The frustrations and riots going on today are all about more personal things. Everybody has wars within themselves, so they form different things, and it comes out as a war against other people. They get justified as they justify others in their attempts to get personal freedom. That’s all it is”.

He continued his deviance from what was the normal way of thinking: “It isn’t that I’m not relating to the Black Panthers. I naturally feel a part of what they’re doing, in certain respects. Somebody has to make a move, and we’re the ones hurting most as far as peace of mind and living are concerned. But I’m not for the aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it. I’m not for guerrilla warfare. Not frustrated things like throwing little cocktail bottles here and there or breaking up a store window. That’s nothing. Especially in your own neighbourhood.”

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For one of the most prominent Black musicians of all time to criticise the belligerence of the Black Panthers’ modus operandi is profound. At a time when Black America was fighting back against the country’s insidious racism with the civil rights movement in full swing, Hendrix provided a different standpoint, a more karmic understanding of what was going on.

I’d argue that the idea of race not being a problem in his world was an opinion that was way ahead of its time, as unfortunately, the argument between the “obsolete and the new” is still raging. The current wage disparity between Black and white artists in the music industry is just one indicator of this.

Hendrix explained: “I don’t feel hate for anybody, because that’s nothing but taking two steps back. You have to relax and wait to go by the psychological feeling. Other people have no legs or no eyesight or have fought in wars. You should feel sorry for them and think what part of their personality they have lost. It’s good when you start adding up universal thoughts. It’s good for that second. If you start thinking negative it switches to bitterness, aggression, hatred. All those are things that we have to wipe away from the face of the earth before we can live in harmony. And the other people have to realise this, too, or else they’re going to be fighting for the rest of their lives”.

The last point, regarding the need to wipe negativity from the face of the earth, confirms why people love Hendrix so much. He just understood how things work. If he could have lived longer, his message undoubtedly would have spread further and had more of a tangible impact. He had the potential to become the voice of a generation, possessing wisdom so far removed from what we usually hear from governments and the media.

Hendrix concluded, in his typically cryptic manner: “I hope at least to give the ones struggling courage through my songs. I experience different things, go through the hang-ups myself, and what I find out I try to pass on to other people through music. There’s this song I’m writing now that’s dedicated to the Black Panthers, not pertaining to race, but to the symbolism of what’s happening today. They should only be a symbol to the establishment’s eyes. It should only be a legendary thing.”

It’s moments like this that make us think ‘what if?’ What would Hendrix have gone on to achieve across the ’70s and beyond should he have lived? 

I’d wager that alongside the cosmic music he talked about he’d also have become one of the most prominent orators in music, showing us a better way to live our lives and how to alleviate our societal ills. The fact that his take on race remains pertinent tells us that there is still a lot of work to do. 

Watch Jimi Hendrix on The Dick Cavett Show below.