Long before throngs of American bohemians and global wanderers began to flood Germany’s capital city, it was known for its explosive creative energy and alluring edge. As far back as the 1920’s, after a devastating defeat in World War I, Weimar Germany opened its arms to modernism. At the time, nothing exemplified the invigorating shift to modernity like American Jazz. The roaring 20’s brought with it an emerging Jazz scene that would forever transform Berlin’s musical landscape. As an insatiable appetite for Jazz tore through Europe, back in the states—many of the pioneers of musical improvisation and modern entertainment were struggling for equality both on and off the stage. As African American performers began to grapple with the bleak state of America’s racial relations, Western Europe became a safe haven for musicians of color seeking to disengage from the painful and oppressive treatment experienced by many. “[Berlin] had a jewel-like sparkle, especially at night…There was music everywhere” exclaimed famous entertainer Josephine Baker. Baker left New York and ultimately settled in Paris where her wages more than doubled and she no longer had to endure the humiliation of entering through a backdoor.
Many musicians of color chose to make graceful exits to European countries where they were welcomed with open arms and held in high esteem. Sadly, this progress was brought to an abrupt end in Germany as the Nazi party quickly rose to power. Fast forward almost 70 years later to the fall of the Berlin Wall; despite the devastation and destruction carried out during WW II, once again Berlin exploded into a glorious symphony of social exploration and thus artistic innovation. History often repeats itself and like many artists of color, I too found myself heeding the call of adventure and creative bliss. Partly to escape the complacency of comfort New York had haphazardly draped over my shoulders, but also to pursue a summer love that blossomed into an enchanting long distance romance.
As I was plunged into a place I had spent many nights fantasizing about, I became painfully aware of my otherness. Once the initial thrill of colorful graffiti and the implications of diversity began to fade—I could feel relentless eyes poking holes through my dark skin leaving me deflated and yearning for New York’s cradle of anonymity. Although I wouldn’t consider Berlin to be an overtly xenophobic city, the overall lack of people of African descent encourages what I experienced as a passive aggressive prejudice. I was frequently on the receiving end of micro-aggressions that sometimes felt even more asinine than overt racism.
Shortly after arriving in Berlin as if sensing my growing trepidation, my partner encouraged me to start performing with his Jazz band and all at once I was thrust into a community of African American musicians who—not unlike those before them—had come to Berlin in search of artistic opportunity. As I descended deeper into Berlin’s diverse music scene I quickly became aware of what a performer friend of mine coined as “an obsession with the black sound”. Every concert of hers I attended left me awestruck. Not only by her overwhelming talent and generosity as a performer, but also the way she left everyone in the audience regardless of race utterly spellbound.
The fetishization of “blackness”—as well as the many traits associated with it—is hardly a new phenomenon, but I found myself wondering if there was something amiss at the root of what on the surface felt like obsessive appreciation. Would all of the people who packed Berlin’s clubs to get a taste of an elusive and soulful elixir treat her with the same respect and appreciation if she was ordering a coffee from them? Or politely asking for directions? During a private dinner, I raised these concerns and her response reminded me that although Germany has a long way to go in the way of diversity, finding common ground through music and other inclusive artistic mediums is a powerful tool. Allowing someone to take you on a journey requires an openness and trust that could very well be the bedrock on which more meaningful and honest conversations about race can manifest.