Daptone Colonialism

While reading Saki Knafo’s “Soul Reviver,” a profile of Gabriel Roth and Daptone Records, I kept finding these amazing moments that struck me as mythologically America.

He and a few other Daptone musicians renovated the company’s headquarters by hand, converting the first floor into a recording studio. Charles Bradley, a local handyman who moonlighted as a James Brown impersonator, helped install the plumbing. Roth worked all hours — tearing down walls, devising money-saving schemes — and when he got home late, he says, his new wife shouted and threw records at him. Life, in Roth’s view, was shaping up to be “pretty dark,” like “a Jewish history lesson” or something out of the well-thumbed pages of one of his Chaim Potok novels.

Then there was this brief aside on race.

So where does Gabriel Roth fit in? Is he a fetishist of black culture? A musicologist in the mold of Alan Lomax? An heir to an old and often rancorous legacy of dealings between white label owners and black musicians? One critic, Siddhartha Mitter, wrote in a review of a Dap-Kings concert for The Boston Globe that “an odor of exploitation” seemed to hover in the nightclub where they played. Later, when I spoke with Mitter, he went even further, suggesting that Roth’s wholesale appropriation of black tradition amounted to an act of “colonialism.”

At first, I really wanted to lash out at Mitter, but then I went ahead and read his bio. Clearly this is a guy who — like Roth — has made sacrifices for his love of jazz music and Afropop, hardly the most lucrative line of work for a sharp young man, and it made me wonder why he lashed out. The right thing to do is to accept that Mitter made a considered judgment, namely that Daptone is an exploitative enterprise. And I don’t know a damn thing apart from the fact that I love their records. Reading Mitter’s remarks did make me want to cool it — to be a little more generous when assessing the work or the lives of other people.

In Knafo’s hands, Roth comes across extremely well.

After describing the series of events that led Roth’s parents to adopt three teenagers, he writes:

When I first learned about Roth’s adolescence, I suspected that there might be some connection between the racial diversity of his household and his interest in soul music. There isn’t, he told me. T. T., his black foster brother, “was a Phil Collins fan.” Roth speaks passionately and thoughtfully about racism and says he keeps an eye on his own prejudices to make sure that they don’t get the better of him, but generally, he considers race an unimportant part of his own narrative. When Sharon Jones finally met T. T., several years after she began working with Gabe, she was stunned. Roth had never bothered to mention that his brother was black.

For whatever reason, I find the fact that T.T. “was a Phil Collins fan” side-splittingly hilarious, this despite the fact that Genesis provided at least some of the soundtrack of my youth. Who can forget the song about how it’s no fun being an illegal alien — a song that undoubtedly had a subtle effect on the roiling immigration debate.

Then there is the passage about Sharon Jones, who comes across as someone who would fit right in with the Salam family.

When I met Jones at the studio, she had the evening to herself, and she wanted to eat crabs. We jumped in her Honda Civic, and she drove us to a Red Lobster off the Belt Parkway, on Brooklyn’s eastern shore. On the way there she talked incessantly, interrupting herself at intervals to mimic, with impressive accuracy, the tinkle of a piano, the hiss of a high-hat and the steady thud of a bass. I checked my seatbelt. Some of the Dap-Kings have a code phrase, “Crazy Time,” for Jones’s frequent explosions of energy. Tour vehicles do not always survive these episodes intact. “There’s been a lot of chair-throwing in our band in the last few years,” Roth told me.

I’m pretty sure I know this Red Lobster, and the fact that Sharon Jones goes there is basically blowing my mind. America starts somewhere in Brooklyn.