Advice: Don't talk about 'nigger' bassists while sitting near a black bassist

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Taylor Cisco had been to the Acadia Cafe "dozens" of times before he heard a couple guys throwing around a racial epithet. Star Tribune

Taylor Cisco was a little early for his band's gig. 

Nothing to worry about. Cisco grabbed a drink from the bar at Acadia Cafe, a cozy haven for eclectic music tastes on the University of Minnesota's West Bank.

Then Cisco learned the other members of Tre Aaron, his newly founded country music collective, weren't going to make it. Cisco checked his courage -- all systems go -- and decided he'd play solo.

He was enjoying the first band playing the night of Saturday, December 3, especially their bass player. Cisco also plays the bass, and has been doing so onstage since the mid-1990s, first in Chicago, and, since 2007, all around the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

Somebody else in the crowd liked the bass player too. He found an awful way to try to say this.

"That bass player is better than a nigger in a jazz band," came the voice a few tables behind Cisco's seat.

Cisco had trouble believing what he'd heard. He also wondered if the guy who said it knew he was within earshot of Cisco, who is black, well over 6 foot tall, and "thick," as he puts it. So the musician turned around and tilted up the massive, face-hiding cowboy hat he'd been sporting for his country gigs this fall.

"I wanted to see who the fuck would say that," he says.

Cisco spotted the offender and his companion, both white men who looked to be in their late 20s. Perfect types for the off-campus bar, except for what had come out of the first guy's mouth. Then his buddy replied: "Nah, he's good. But he's not as good as a nigger in a jazz band."

Coming of age in the mid-90s, Cisco's come across a lot of "wigger" white kids, who thought they had enough street cred to throw around the "relcaimed" racial epithet as it's used in rap music. This wasn't that.

"It was definitely a pronounced -er," Cisco says. "And in front of a big crowd of people."

Not one of those people, all of them white, leaned over to give these guys a lesson in which words are unacceptable in polite urban company, circa 2016. But no one said anything. 

Cisco's played gigs throughout small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana, and has generally found himself the one person in the room with skin tone darker than Bud Lite. And because of his "nerdy" hobbies -- Star Trek and comic book movies, to name a couple -- he's often alone there, too.

But it was there, at a concert in the highly integrated West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, that he suddenly felt outnumbered.

"I had an adrenaline rush, and fight-or-flight kicked in," he recalls. "I had a kind of split-second pyschosis. I was nervous, and I didn't know who to trust, because none of my friends had showed up yet. I thought, 'Is this a room full of people comfortable with that kind of language?'"

Confront these fellows as a "black guy in a cowboy hat," Cisco thought, and he might wind up a "statistic" in post-election hate crimes. 

"This was not an episode of Reading Rainbow," Cisco says.

So he bailed, grabbing his guitar and making for the door. He'd been to the Acadia "dozens" of times before and never had a problem. Cisco notes that no Acadia staff were around to hear and respond to the bigotry, and says he'll be back there for more shows.

But that night, he couldn't stick around.

"Using that kind of language is protected speech, and you have the right to hold those kinds of attitudes," says Cisco, whose day job is in online and communications work for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. "I just don' think it should be accepted by the people around you, and that's what it felt like that night."

Cisco, whose past assignments included bass support for Toussaint Morrison and opening for Lucy Michelle, has kept right on booking gigs -- a Saturday night at Gluek's Restaurant and Bar, and a New Year's Eve gig at Spring Street Tavern -- and doesn't expect to have another run-in like this one. What upset him most is that music is supposed to be one of the few areas where races can blend.

"No one says Dessa is a great 'white hip hop artist from Minnesota,'" Cisco says. "It's sad these two guys in the crowd reduced it to skin color. Music is so much more important the skin tone."

Previously in, Advice:

Advice: Don't call a black woman's hair 'an animal that can't be tamed'


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