Q&A with Canadian double slide guitarist Mike Nagoda - Blues fusion and lines between Jazz, Rock and Funk

"Blues music has always been the music of the marginalized and oppressed. It has always been political. Anyone who says otherwise, that it’s ‘just music’ and there’s no politics involved, is mistaken..."

Mike Nagoda: Slide Outside The Box

Mike Nagoda is an LGBT Blues musician from Toronto, Canada. He began learning the piano at age six, and nearly immediately he struggled with hands that would not respond as he wanted them to because of his Cerebral Palsy. A resourceful teacher helped him overcome his difficulties with the piano, reworking arrangements so that he could comfortably play. The same could not be said for the guitar. Merely holding the guitar was painful, as was forcing his hands into chord shapes. Still, neither he nor his guitar teacher would give up. Upon finding an old lap steel guitar in a pawn shop, Mike purchased his first steel guitar and found it much easier to play with a slide on his hand. However, he was still frustrated. The music in his head could simply not be expressed with a single slide. Mike began hearing about Brian Cober, a local blues musician who had perfected a double slide system which allowed two slides to be used in any style of music, as well as the ability to form complex chords. Mike went down to Toronto's oldest Blues bar, Grossmans Tavern, and saw Brian play. It immediately changed his life and he was so impressed that he eventually approached Brian to teach him this system.

After many hours learning every chord and lick that he could, Mike's perseverance and dedication to his craft finally culminated in the release of Mike's debut album on Ropeadope Records in 2014, Parliament, a concept album about post-apocalyptic Canada. Mike’s second release for Ropeadope, “Outside The Box” (Release Day: January 14, 2022), is a Blues fusion album which blurs the lines between genres and includes influences from Jazz, Rock and Funk. The album will cover many themes from Mike's life, including his love of music and busking, as well as delving into LGBT themes, something not often talked about in Blues music. The album is being co-produced by Mike and Grammy and Juno award winning Toronto producer Chris Birkett, whose credits include working with artists such as Buffy Saint Marie and Sinead O'Connor.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos © by Dan Henderson, Carol Cain & David Goldberg / All Rights Reserved

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think the local Blues and Rock scene here in Toronto has definitely been a huge part of my musical journey (I’m not too sure on how the scene here has affected my views of the world). I got my start being taught on slide guitar/lap steel by a local Bluesman here by the name of Frank Cosentino- Frank taught me my Blues rudiments for seven years. During the time I was taking lessons with Frank- I got started in guitar late in life at the age of nineteen – I heard about Grossman’s Tavern, which is a pretty legendary Blues bar here in Toronto. Everyone’s played at Grossman’s, from Jeff Healey to the Downchild Blues Band. Playing Grossman’s is a rite of passage for every young Blues player in Toronto, and I was no exception.

I was taking piano lessons at the same time I was learning slide guitar and the Blues from Frank- my first instrument was actually classical piano, which my parents got me started on at age six. One of the kids at the music school had a lesson right before me with my teacher, and so his Dad and I would always chat before my lesson. At some point, he mentioned Grossman’s to me, and that someone named Brian Cober ran a Blues jam there on Sunday nights. He also mentioned that Brian played with two slides and could do a whole bunch of crazy stuff on slide guitar.

“Two slides?!” I thought, “How does that work??”. I had no idea what it looked or sounded like. The next week the kid’s Dad brought me a copy of The Nationals’ (Brian’s band) first record, Blue Howl. I put the CD in to my CD Player later that night, and all of a sudden, this otherworldly sound, Brian’s Double Slide Guitar, came out of my earphones, and I was blown away! It must have sounded like it came from Mars! I just had to see Brian play, I had to see what Double Slide Guitar looked like! I begged my Dad to take me to the jam on Sunday nights, I’d never been to a Blues bar or any bar for that matter, in my life. Finally, my Dad agreed. What happened next changed my entire life. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Brian play Double Slide Guitar with the Nationals, with the two slides on one hand, the big steel on his middle finger, and the smaller slide on his thumb, which covers three strings. I just sat there and watched how he used the two slides to form all sorts of chords I couldn’t get with one slide- the minor chords especially were a huge revelation to me, because I was in an open major tuning, Open E, which it turned out was the same tuning Brian used when I asked him later!

This, I knew, was it. This was my way forward as a guitar player- Frank and I had been struggling to find a way to play songs, get chords for me, and finally, this was it! I must have sat the entire night just watching Brian play in awe, and when he took a solo, he just did the most amazing things with that thumb slide, it blew my mind. It was a complete game changer in terms of how I conceived of guitar: the closest comparison I can make is that Brian was the Jimi Hendrix of slide guitar. He completely revolutionized the instrument, the sound, the way it was played, the place it had in the band- going from a support instrument to a lead instrument – and just basically, he threw the rule book out on lap steel and slide and made his own and in the process, created an entirely new system and instrument.

When I saw Brian play, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: be a musician, and play the Blues or any other style of music I wanted to, I knew I could do it with the Double Slide Guitar! Later that night, Brian and I jammed for the first time. I wasn’t very good, but Brian was just so happy that someone was interested in lap steel and what he was doing, so he invited me back. I came back a few weeks later, and kept coming back every Sunday I could to Grossman’s for the next twelve years. Eventually, I asked Brian to teach me Double Slide Guitar, and Frank Cosentino and I knew it was time for me to move on to Brian for lessons. Brian only gave me three formal lessons ever- the majority of my mentoring was on stage with him at the Jam. I swear, I learned more on that stage with Brian every Sunday night than in all my years of formal music training. If I was too loud, he’d give me some tough love, on stage, in front of everybody! If wasn’t palm muting properly with my right hand (a must for lap steel players!), he’d give me even more tough love on stage! You had to watch Brian like a hawk- he’d call out chord changes with either his voice or hand signals, and if you missed it, too bad! It was really like being thrown in the deep end, and I quickly learned how to swim! Without Brian Cober and Grossman’s, I wouldn’t have my career in music today- Grossman’s, Brian and Double Slide have really been a large part of my journey in music up to this point.  I miss Brian every day since he passed in 2016- not only did he become my mentor and friend, but he became like a second Dad to me. He was family, and I owe him everything. He gave the world such an incredible gift to the world with Double Slide Guitar, I just wish it was more well known, but I guess that’s part of my job now that I’m keeping Double Slide Guitar alive!

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My sound is definitely my own- everyone who’s heard me play says they can tell it’s me, which is the highest compliment for any guitar player! It tend to have a heavier, overdriven, more aggressive tone in my playing style. The influence from Rock music is definitely there: growing up I listened to progressive and hard rock from the 70s before I got into Blues. Players like David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, or Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple and Rainbow, were big early influences in my playing. Probably my biggest early influence on slide was Robert Randolph: that really overdriven tone and aggressive, wide vibrato he has is something I still carry to this day. I’d definitely say my tone and attitude is more on the Rock side of things- my phrasing though, in addition to learning from Brian, came from players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King- Frank Cosentino, my first teacher, is a huge disciple of SRV and Albert King, and so those two players, as well as people like BB King and Buddy Guy (especially the way Buddy bends his notes!), have become a big part of my sound on the Double Slide Guitar.

Brian’s sounds and influences were different than mine: he was more coming from the world of Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, guys like that, and he tended to have a darker, warmer tone. But the cool thing was, he loved the fact that I sounded completely different from him. Even though I played Double Slide, same as him, you could always tell the two of us apart, and he kept encouraging me to develop my own sound, and to not sound like him at all! He didn’t want me to be a copycat, he wanted me to be me, and I can’t tell you how incredibly freeing and supportive that was for me at such a young age, where there was pressure from outside to sound like other people!

I’d also say because I play with a flat pick, and not my fingers like so many other slide players, that this is a big reason why my sound is brighter, and more aggressive. I could never figure out how to play with your fingers, my disability of Cerebral Palsy wouldn’t let me, my hands would cramp way too much, and I didn’t know you were “supposed” to play lap steel with your fingers. By the time I found out that playing with a flat pick was considered unorthodox and frowned upon, it was too late, and I’d already found my own way! In terms of my songbook, almost every Blues Standard I know I learned from hearing Brian play it at Grossman’s, so I learned his versions on Double Slide! My repertoire, and I admit I focus on mostly original material with my band (The Spectrum Blues Band), if I do covers, it’s stuff from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, BB King- mostly Blues from the 30s, 40s, 50s. If I’m playing solo, I’ll also thrown in a few classic Rock tunes in the mix from Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and even Judas Priest tunes done Blues style, because I also love heavy metal!

Which I guess brings me to my musical philosophy. I guess if I could sum it up, it’d be this: the Blues is the roots, and the roots are in everything, so learn to play everything! I’ve never been a so called “pure” Blues player- my own music is pretty cross genre. On my new record, Outside The Box, I’m mixing Blues with everything from Country to Jazz to Rock to Metal to even Rap music! To my ears, the Blues has found its way into every form of popular music imaginable, including Top 40 music and Rap music- if you listen, it’s there! I’m not so much concerned with being pegged into this genre or that. Any genre I play will always have a Bluesy feel- the Blues will always be at the heart and centre of what I play, even if it’s something like Heavy Metal!  

To me what matters is not to be concerned with getting trapped in this genre of music or that- what matters to me is “Is the music good?” and more importantly, “Am I enjoying playing it?”. At the end of the day, as long as I love what I’m playing and the Blues is somewhere in it, that’s what counts.                        (Photo: Mike Nagoda & Brian Cober)

What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I’ve always been a storyteller. At the end of the day, I just love creating stories. Sometimes they’re fictional, but they always have a message. With my first record, Parliament, I imagined a post apocalyptic future for Canada, the country where I live, a tale of science fiction. People thought I was crazy, some got really upset at me because the front cover had artwork of the bombed out Parliament building. I had one guy come up to me after the record came out, and he got very upset at me, saying, “Why are you talking about bombing Parliament?! I love my country!” I explained to him that I was not literally advocating the bombing of Parliament- that the record was science fiction, and a warning about what happens when governments abuse their authority and seize power, but also about when revolutionaries seize power and create chaos and pain themselves. I don’t think people really understood the more nuanced critique of Right and Left wing authoritarianism that I was making on Parliament- they took me too literally. I feel many people couldn’t understand that the message of the record was pro-freedom, anti-authoritarian, and also anti-fascist and anti-oppression towards all sides of the political divide, and not just focusing on one side or another. Too many just saw a bombed out Parliament- not too many asked what it meant, which I think is more important. Even if it got really misunderstood, I’m still incredibly proud of that record, it took guts to make it, and I love it!

With my new record, Outside The Box, I’m still focusing on anti-oppression, pro freedom themes, and I’m still telling stories, but this time the story is largely my own, with a couple of exceptions. I don’t make any secret of the fact that I’m one of the few openly Queer male artists in the Blues scene today. There’s not many of us out there: including myself, there’s also Earl Thomas, who was the first openly Gay Black man in the modern Blues scene, Sean Carney, Jason Ricci (who’s Bisexual/Queer, same as me), Watermelon Slim, and most recently, Little Herbert. My point is, Queer men have not really had the chance to tell our stories in the Blues: whether its stories of the men we’ve loved, or the oppression, discrimination and bigotry we’ve faced along the way for it. Being out and Queer and male is incredibly rare in the Blues scene. In making this record, in telling my story, I wanted to open up space for other queer men to come out and start telling their own stories, proudly, explicitly. In the past, stories of love among Queer men in the Blues have been hidden- using neutral terms like ‘us’, ‘they/them’, ‘baby’. Very few of us guys who are out and play Blues have explicitly talked about him, loving my guy, my man, and talking about our struggles, joys and loves so openly.

Well, I decided when I came out six years ago that I wasn’t going to be closeted anymore, especially in my music! If I was going to sing, I was going to sing about loving men, openly, proudly, honestly, and hopefully start to create change and allow more men in the Blues scene to do the same! If Outside The Box has a message, its this: its never too late to come out and be yourself, no matter the consequence, because the consequence is always worth the joy and freedom that comes with being who you really are!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

My fondest memories will always be from the Sunday Jam at Grossman’s with Brian. There were so many great moments on stage, like the first time I challenged Brian to a Double Slide Guitar duel and we got the call and response going on between us- I was nervous, but it was absolutely magical! Another time, the house amp for the Jam was often this tiny, tinny sounding amp- everybody sounded awful through it. You had to a be really good player to get by with it. Well, Brian was a hard mentor sometimes- he got me playing completely clean, no overdrive, the complete opposite of my usual sound, which I hated. He insisted that if I learned to sound good without any effects, not only would it improve my accuracy and tone, but I would sound even better when I played with overdrive in my tone. And as the years went by, I discovered that of course, he was right! So he’d often bring that horrible little amp out, on purpose, for me to play through, to challenge me to sound good, and boy, did I have to work hard to sound anywhere close to decent through that thing!

One time, I’ll never forget it, he brought the amp out, plugged me into it, stepped up to the mic, looked at the audience, then looked at me and said, “I figure if you’re really good, you can play through this!” I felt so much pressure, but boy, did it force me to play better! One of my favourite memories on stage with Brian was we’d finished a tune, I think this was during one of Grossman’s annual Christmas parties, and we started up the next one- it was Stormy Monday, and I looked back, and this guy with sunglasses and curly hair had just gotten behind the drums and replaced the drummer we’d been jamming with (line ups at the jam would change frequently of course). We jammed, this was early on in my playing journey, and the drummer got out from behind the kit, clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Not bad, kid!” and walked off stage. Brian turns to me and says, “You don’t know who that was, do you?”

I shook my head no and Brian said to me, “You just played with Tom Stephen, Jeff Healey’s (original) drummer!”

My jaw dropped, and I was star struck for the rest of the night! It goes to show you that you never know who’s going to show up on stage at Grossman’s!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think the thing that I miss the most in the music of today is the human element in music, which I call the “looseness” of the feel of the music, and the “realness” of it- musicians making mistakes on records, singers singing slightly out of tune, things like that. The whole humanity of the process of making music, in my opinion, has been lost in the popular music of today. Now look, I know, I’m young, and I know I must be sounding like someone from my parents’ generation right now, but I think it’s true that in popular music- whether it’s Top 40, Rap, or even Rock music, there is an overly polished sound to the production. There’s way too much compression on everything, for my tastes- recordings don’t “breathe” anymore when they’re being suffocated by all that compression! We don’t need to have autotune on every vocal, I mean if you want to use it as an effect, great, but does every singer really need to be autotuned? Do we really need to be quantizing everything so that everything sounds perfectly in time all the time?

I think we’ve forgotten that imperfection is what makes us human, and it’s what makes the older music so special- because it’s real, and it’s vulnerable, and that is sadly missing in so much of today’s popular music, no matter what the genre is. At the same time, in pursuing “perfection” in music, it’s lead to enormous gains in the world of young musicians, and here I’m taking about Gen Z, the generation after mine. The striving for perfection in popular music, and especially the influence of quantization in music production today, has lead young players to really up their game in terms of their speed, accuracy, timing and overall chops. In the technique department, any of these young players could easily out play me!

What I’d really like to see for the future of music with younger musicians coming up today is for them to rediscover the older music, and learn about the “looseness” of the feel, the humanity of it, that it’s okay to make mistakes- we don’t have to be perfect all the time! And maybe that’s the lesson of the Blues as an art form and musical genre- Blues music is all about shifting in and out between complete precision and total looseness, learning to navigate the “in between” spaces in music, whether that’s in the timing or in the inflection of notes that give us that Bluesy sound we all know and love. Blues, to me, is one of the hardest genres of music to play, because it appears simple, and in fact isn’t, because it’s all about that thing that every great musician strives for: balance. And balance is so very hard to achieve, in both life and music, but when you find it, is it ever worth it!

So, my hope for the young musicians coming up today, in rediscovering Blues and older genres of music, is they bring that looseness, that humanity, that balance back into their music, and marry it with their amazing chops, timing, and precision that I can only dream of having! I think the older and younger generations of musicians have valuable lessons we can teach each other, and if we’d sit down and talk, listen and learn from each other, I think the music world, and modern popular music, would be in such a wonderful place.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could, I’d really change the inequality and in-equability in terms of how little musicians are paid for their art. Spotify and the other streaming services are paying us less than pennies for our art, which we’ve spent thousands of dollars to make! It’s disheartening, and I really consider it akin to how workers were so badly paid in the 1800s before there were Unions to make sure they got a fair wage.  Art in general has become devalued, and especially music. If I could, I’d make it so that royalties and revenue are shared equitably and fairly among artists, and with total transparency. What Spotify and the rest are doing is exploitation and oppression, and it needs to end, now. Also, there are so many barriers to access for marginalized artists, especially young Black and Indigenous artists in North America where I am. If I could, I’d make it so that new, young artists from marginalized communities, people with new and different voices from the ones we’re so commonly used to hearing, would be able to share the same big stages as much as the big, more well established artists, even more so since Blues music is Black and Indigenous music and these artists should be front and centre! I’d make it so that information needed to further people’s careers was publicly accessible, and transparent, and not so secret. Music should be accessible to all people, especially young and new artists, and not just a select few.

What touched you from the sound of lap steel and double slide guitar? What are the secrets of slide?

I think it was that the sound was just so very different, really. Slide has this very vocal quality to it- the early steel and slide players were trying to mimic the human voice, and it certainly carries through on the instrument today. There’s a world of difference between the vocal vibrato that a slide or steel gives you versus the vibrato you get from creating vibrato with your fingers on the strings. BB King famously took his signature vibrato from early slide and steel players- that’s why his guitar “sings” to the listener!

If slide guitar is such a different sound, then Double Slide Guitar is even more unique! I really can’t describe it, you have to hear it for yourself- I’d recommend everyone go on Youtube and check out videos of my mentor Brian Cober playing and they’ll hear what I mean- that thumb slide really changes your approach to how you play the instrument and the types of sounds and things you can do on it. Really, anything becomes possible, and it completely frees up the player in terms of their imagination- there are no limits. You can play in any key you want, all without re-tuning. You can even imitate other tunings and make it sound like you’re in Open C6, for instance, when really you’re in Open E, if you really know what you’re doing. Brian’s invention really gave the slide guitar and lap steel so much more flexibility, fluidity, and possibility. Suddenly, you can do anything, and that’s remarkable! Brian was an absolute musical Genius, and the world should really know more about him and his incredible invention!

Slide guitar and especially Double Slide Guitar, is definitely one of the hardest instruments to play, period. It holds so many secrets, I’m certain Brian never found all of them, but he found many of them for sure! Part of the joy in carrying on his legacy is discovering new secrets on the instrument, and taking it to entirely new places. And whoever I pass the legacy on to will no doubt discover things I could never think of- that’s the real beauty of making music and inheriting and musical tradition and legacy. For instance, I’m now getting into Jazz a bit and learning Standards, but also learning how to voice lead on the instrument- connecting chord shapes together that are relatively close by on the neck for both ease of movement and to also create a leading melody with the chords – this is really exciting to me, because at the time he passed away, my understanding from Brian was he was starting to get into this himself. The really amazing thing is in forging my own path, I can see both the similarities and also the differences in how Brian and I approach the instrument, and how each of us have crafted our own style and way of playing on the same instrument. Brian loved the fact that I was doing my own thing, like I said before. He was always thrilled when I’d come to him and say “Look what I found!” and he’d always say one of the best parts of mentoring me was that I’d come up with new and different stuff that he’d never think of!

I’d say if one wants to uncover the secrets of Double Slide, the two things you need in terms of technique, along with infinite amounts of patience and perseverance, is a good ear for intonation- intonation with one slide on a fretless instrument is bad enough, with two slides it becomes quite a challenge, but it’s absolutely worth it – and learning the foundations of solid rhythm guitar playing with your picking hand and your slide hand, and that includes something that I like to call “the double mute” technique found in all lap steel players. Palm muting with the picking hand is only half the equation- your slide hand is also muting the strings behind the slides- these two things together are what allow you to play individual strings, learn accuracy and precision, and play cleanly.  Between this and the ear training involved in mastering intonation with the two slides, the instrument is really quite hard to master- Brian pioneered it himself for over forty years, and would tell me that after forty years of playing that he felt that he was finally getting decent on it!  And people still called him the master of the instrument, I still do, and yet even he knew he’d never truly master it. All music is the great work of building upon the work of those who have come before, and Double Slide Guitar is no exception. I’m just so honoured to be carrying on Brian’s legacy and take it to new and exciting places to pass on to the next generation- no matter the struggles, the journey is always worth it.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is always be yourself, no matter the consequence. I’ve always known I’m different- whether it’s my disability, my sexuality, or even how I play/how I write songs- I’m not your typical Blues guitarist, and that’s great! I knew when I came out six years ago that it was going to cost me- that it would be harder for me to get gigs as an openly Queer and Disabled artist who played guitar in a way that is pretty unorthodox.

I struggled for over a decade to break into the Blues festival circuit in Ontario, the province in Canada where I live. I barely got ‘mainstream’ festival work- it was mostly small Pride festivals here and there. I had at least one venue lie to me, saying that they didn’t do live music, when in fact they did live music seven nights a week- and some of the performers were people I knew! It’s only been in the last year that I’ve finally started to break into the Ontario Blues festival scene.

Which I guess brings me to the second lesson life has taught me- keep persevering, never give up, because in the end you will find the right people to support you, who believe in you and what you do. When you find those people, those are the folks you want in your corner. Hang on tight, treat them well, and give back as much love or more as they’ve shown you. Love and mutual respect is the key to not only going far in your career, but surviving and thriving in the long term. And the most important person to show love and respect to is yourself- if you’ve got issues, do your work, your own inner healing, and it will go a long way in supporting a career in music, or anything for that matter.

So yeah, if I had to sum it up I’d say this: be yourself, no matter the cost, when the going gets tough, keep going and knock on those doors that are closed to you- and if they won’t open, no matter what you or the people who are helping you do – leave them, and find the ones that will open for you. Love and respect and heal yourself, and spread that love and respect and healing to those around you who love and support you and are in your corner. Lastly, as I said before, don’t be so concerned with other people’s ideas of what ‘success’ looks like, that’s an illusion - that’s something you have to figure out for yourself, on your own terms. If you play by your own terms, respect yourself and your boundaries, you’ll be so much happier in the end.

‘Success’ may not look like what the big names have, and as long as whatever you do brings you joy, happiness and peace and spreads out to others, that is the greatest amount of success anyone can have, far greater than touring all over the world and being monetarily ‘rich’. At the end of the day, your inner happiness, joy and peace is what counts the most- do what amplifies that, and avoid anything that will crush it.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Blues music has always been the music of the marginalized and oppressed. It has always been political. Anyone who says otherwise, that it’s ‘just music’ and there’s no politics involved, is mistaken...

The Blues started as a way for Black people and communities to tell the stories of their oppression, suffering and lived experience, and also to find hope, strength and solidarity with each other in a world that brought and continues to bring horrible injustice upon them. It is vitally important to remember that Blues music is Black music and part of Black culture, and with that comes the history of suffering and oppression that continues to this day. To erase that is one of the greatest forms of racism, in my opinion, and completely unacceptable. I’m not Black, and I wouldn’t even begin to presume and know what Black people and artists go through, I can’t. I’m a white, male Blues artist. I may be Queer, I may be Disabled, and I do go through my own kind of oppression as a result, and it’s very different from what Black and Indigenous people go through. It’s not the same thing- I am still treated far better.  That has to change- by that I mean, race and skin colour should not determine how people treat you, whether they treat you horribly because of your race and skin, or treat you well because of your race and skin. It’s two sides of the same coin, and that coin is called White Supremacy. White Supremacy must end- to keep perpetuating it is one of the greatest injustices there is.

When I play Blues music as a white, male artist, I’m doing so from both a place of benefiting from oppression via White, Male Supremacy and also being oppressed by things like Homophobia, Biphobia and Ableism (oppression against Disabled people). Recognizing that both these things are true, that benefiting from oppression and being oppressed can intersect, is the first socio-cultural implication for me when I play Blues music. The second is that I am a guest in this music. I do not belong to Black culture. That I am here at all playing this music is because I have been invited and encouraged to play it by Black people in my community. It is an invitation to share in someone else’s culture, and so I have to treat it with great respect. I’ve thought long and hard about how to do that, and my place in the wider socio-cultural and political implications in Blues music. What does it mean for me as a white, male artist to play Black music in a world and society where Black people are continually oppressed by white people, in a world and society where I benefit from that oppression, that racism?

Again, the benefiting from racism and oppression isn’t my fault, I can’t do anything about being born white and male. I can, however, use my platform as a white, male artist to call out this oppression, either through my music, or just by talking to people about it, making people aware of it, and hopefully make a change in the system, no matter how small it is. I think this is part of what it means for me to play the Blues with respect for the people and culture it comes from. It’s not just keeping the memories of the great Black Blues artists of the past alive, it’s also remembering the context in which they wrote that music, how they suffered because of racism, and realizing that if I am playing the Blues, it’s my responsibility to help end the oppression and suffering that in part causes Black artists to make Blues music. It means amplifying their voices and to figure out how I can help bring an end to their suffering and oppression, because I benefit from it, in whatever way I can.

The other part in this is making space for the people in my own communities, Disabled people and Queer men that I represent, who are oppressed and marginalized. When I play my songs, my original material, it is the Blues of white Disabled people and Queer men- it’s very different from the Blues of Black and Indigenous people, and that’s okay. Our suffering and oppression is different. The other way I feel I can honour and respect the tradition of Black and Indigenous Blues music that I am a guest in, in addition to keeping the memories, art and historical context of Black and Indigenous artists alive, is to talk about my own lived experience, my own suffering, my own oppression, my own hardships, my joy, my pain and those of the people in my communities. I think this is the best way I can honour the Spirit of the Blues, in a way that is authentic and honest to me.

It goes back to the lesson of being yourself- not being something you’re not. If I’m going to play the Blues, I do so from my own lived experience, speaking on my own hardships, while doing my part to end the racism and oppression that caused the Blues to appear in the first place that is still alive today- it’s not something that’s in the past. If I can make space for queer and disabled people through my music, and say, “Come out! Be yourself!” and inspire other marginalized communities to take up the Blues and start telling their own stories, in their own way, singing and playing their own Blues, then I think that would be great. If in the future, various marginalized communities can find solidarity with each other through the Blues, I think that would be wonderful: to support each other, while fighting for a better world through telling our own stories, through this wonderful music we all know and love. If I’ve helped contribute to that, no matter how small my contribution is, then I think I’ve done my best, and that’s all that matters. To be part of that is an honour and a privilege, and I’m just glad I’m here to do my part and help make the world a better place through my music and bring awareness. When I go, I’ll have done so on my own terms, and I’ll have done it fighting for what’s right, fair and equitable. I don’t think I can ask for much more than that.

Mike Nagoda - Home

Photos © by Dan Henderson, Carol Cain & David Goldberg / All Rights Reserved

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