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Your local backstage pass to Northeast Ohio’s music scene. Get to know the talented musicians and community influencers in our backyard.

Shuffle: Justin Tibbs Starts a Dialogue About Race with His '#BlackInAmerica' Performance

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Ashton Blake
Akron saxophonist Justin Tibbs has written a song about what it's like to be Black in America, which he's performed mostly in front of white audiences.

In 2018, singer-songwriter Angie Haze led a performance with her theatrical ensemble, The Angie Haze Project, at the Akron Civic Theatre.

Haze approached her saxophone player, Justin Tibbs, in front of an audience of primarily white attendees with the question, “Will you play for us the way it feels to be a Black man in America today?”

Tibbs took the stage with an emotionally powerful solo performance. He used pedals to loop sounds that gradually got louder and louder to evoke the chaos of what he was feeling. The performance prompted the concertgoers to share how moved they were by the performance.

In 2020, a critical election year full of unrest and uprising, the racially focused piece of music feels more relevant than ever. Tibbs said he hopes listeners think differently after experiencing the spoken word elements and chaotic, layered horn playing in the piece.

“I would hope they have a different perspective on things I experience and things people experience who look like me,” Tibbs said.

"There are some people in this world that look at me and consider me uneducated, or a threat, or just not a good person."

Getting his ‘feet wet’ in the Akron music scene
Tibbs was born and raised in Akron and began playing music when he was 5 years old. His cousin, also a saxophone player, inspired him to pick up the instrument.

He attended private school in eighth grade, but there were no advanced music classes for him to take there. He later enrolled in Firestone High School’s Visual and Performing Arts program, graduating in 2006.

Tibbs continued his music education by earning a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Saxophone Studies, as well as Mass Media Communications Radio & TV and Public Relations, at The University of Akron.

Before starting college, Tibbs said he began feeling “burnt out” on music. He decided to take a break from playing. A friend convinced him to see Angie Haze perform and convinced Tibbs to bring his saxophone to the show. Haze is recognized for her raw emotional lyrics, dynamic instrumentation, and often collaborative concerts. During this particular performance, Haze pulled Tibbs on stage.

“It was amazing, and now she’s like a family member to me,” Tibbs said. “After meeting her, I took a two-year hiatus, and no one knew what happened to me.”

He said he spent this time holed up in a practice room at The University of Akron with a newfound sense of inspiration.

Tibbs connected with local musicians Ryan Humbert and Jared Lees, who pulled him out of solitary saxophone practice and invited him to collaborate. He said he started to get his “feet wet” by playing out with bands and artists that span a range of musical genres, from Americana to funk fusion.

Tibbs is an active member of Acid Cats, https://youtu.be/B3WhM8npLyk" target="_blank">J.T.’s Electrik Blackout and The Angie Haze Project and has been featured as the saxophonist on albums by Chromadrive, The Tracey Thompson Quintet, Jared Lees Trio, Drunken Sunday, Dan Socha and Bad Daddy Daves.

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Credit Amanda Rabinowitz / WKSU
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WKSU
Justin Tibbs' "BlackInAmerica" piece combines spoken-word poetry and evocative horns that are looped with pedals.

Turning his story into song
Tibbs has worked closely with Haze after initially being invited to play with her on stage. He appears on Haze’s albums “The Treasure Box Concert - Live at Kent State Stark” and all four volumes of “May My Stories Be Worn Like My Coats.”

The Angie Haze Project, a 10-piece ensemble, released its first EP in 2012. Haze united the diverse group of players to bring different cultures, religions and experiences to her eclectic musical storytelling.

Tibbs said after a rehearsal with the group in 2018, Haze asked him about his life and wanted to know more about his perspective as a Black artist. He wrote down some of his experiences and presented them as a poem. After hearing his answers, Haze asked if Tibbs would turn them into a song.

“It took me a while to figure out how to put this into words and music,” Tibbs said.

Haze invited Tibbs to perform this original piece at their upcoming show at the Akron Civic Theatre once it was ready. The song would eventually become “https://youtu.be/Az2VsnfvU1E" target="_blank">#BlackInAmerica.”

Experiencing prejudice as a Black musician
Tibbs said he was hesitant to work on and perform the piece at first.

“I’d never had written anything, to that extent, about my experiences with racial injustice or anything of that matter,” Tibbs said.

The piece is a powerful retelling of Tibbs’ observations, thoughts and commentary on the times he has experienced unfair treatment based on the color of his skin.

“There are some people in this world that look at me and consider me uneducated, or a threat, or just not a good person,” Tibbs said.

One example, he said, was being profiled by a cop at a gig he performed. He was practicing his saxophone in a space where the event’s performers were setting up.

“I had my horn in my hand and my case and my bag. This area is closed off from everybody else, except for, like, talent,” Tibbs said.

He said after playing for about 15-20 minutes, he made his way back to this area.

“As I’m getting closer to the tent, this officer comes up to me and was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Tibbs said.

He told the officer he was supposed to be there, and he wouldn’t be allowed in the parking lot if he wasn’t.

“As I’m talking to him, another cruiser comes up behind me, and the guy was like, ‘Are you with the band?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” Tibbs said.

The cop waved off the other officer but told Tibbs they got a phone call that there was a guy playing saxophone in a parking lot.

“And I just thought it was really strange because the other guys in the group did the same thing,” Tibbs said. “They never got approached or anything. But I got approached. Even at an event I’m supposed to be at, I get the police called on me.”

"I should be able to wear a hoodie out in public with my hood up if I want to, if it's raining out. And I can't do that."

In Tibbs’ song, “#BlackInAmerica,” he wrote, “Always having to watch what I say, what I wear and how I act because I always have a target on my back.”

Tibbs said he does have to worry about how he acts and how he is perceived in public because of the way he looks.

Another line in his piece expresses how other races “desire” his culture, skin, style and hair but “never my life.”

“I can’t wear a hoodie. Like, I should be able to wear a hoodie out in public with my hood up if I want to, if it’s raining out. And I can’t do that,” Tibbs said. “I should be able to go anywhere I want and not have fear.”

Tibbs said he once performed at a wedding, and during the rehearsal, he overheard the pastor tell the bride, “He’s probably going to show up late, high and smelling like weed. He’ll also not [be] properly dressed or clean.”

“When I walked in from the doorway, after hearing him say this about me, I introduced myself as the guy playing this wedding,” Tibbs said. “He was shocked that I wasn’t like anything he described. He was even more shocked the next day because of how punctual I was and how sharp I looked.”

Understanding others through music, conversation
Tibbs said people can educate themselves about the injustice and barriers minorities face by listening and getting their information straight “from the source.”

“Go and talk to students or pros about their experiences in the music world,” Tibbs said. “I’m positive that many minorities have experienced this behavior.”

Performing “#BlackInAmerica” in front of a largely white audience in 2018 brought these experiences and this perspective to the forefront for many who may not have understood fully. Communicating these stories and emotions through music made an impact. But, Tibbs said, people can help bridge the racial divide by having real conversations about experiences they may not personally share.

“I want to say this, if there’s anything you're unsure about, ask,” Tibbs said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking.”

Tibbs said after playing with Haze for about a decade, he knows she is “all about rebelling against racism and injustices of minorities or LGBTQ communities.” She has given him a platform to perform what it’s like to be a Black man in America, he said. But performing is only one side of the conversation.

“I think that we need to just have a dialogue... and be willing to listen and be willing to give and take information. I think that would fix a lot of things that’s going on right now,” Tibbs said.

Tibbs will perform a socially distanced show with his funk-fusion band, Acid Cats, at R. Shea Brewing - Canal Place in Downtown Akron Oct. 7.

Watch a recording of Tibbs performing “#BlackInAmerica” on https://youtu.be/JYWe_Gsm1GQ" target="_blank">YouTube.