Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama talk extensively about issues of race in the first two episodes of their joint Spotify podcast, “Renegades: Born in the USA,” both released this week. The two discuss the racism the former president experienced growing up in Hawaii, Springsteen’s on- and off-stage relationships with Clarence Clemons, and how little has changed since the rocker released the song “41 Shots (American Skin)” two decades ago… along with nods to the films “Do the Right Thing” and “Get Out.”
Early in episode 2, “American Skin: Race in the United States,” Obama brings up the subject of the E Street Band being racially integrated — although he didn’t know just how diverse the lineup was in the early days, with three white members and three Black ones, before the group got streamlined to the point that Clemons became the sole Black face in the band.
“I didn’t know that, you know, you got a half Black, half white band,” says Obama. “I didn’t know that because look, I hate to date you, brother, but ‘Born to Run,’ I was still…”
“You were a child,” laughs Springsteen.
Not quite; he was in high school. But, Obama points out, ” I knew the Average White Band was all white… Those are some Scottish guys. And those guys can jam, by the way.” (“Yes, they could,” Springsteen agrees of the “Cut the Cake” crew.)
A considerable amount of time is devoted to Clemons, with Obama noting that the moments Springsteen shared on the road each night with his late, celebrated sax player were “like a buddy movie on stage.” The ex-prez wonders how intentional their interracial charisma was designed to be.
“It both happened naturally and we contrived (it) together at some point, you know, Clarence and I,” Springsteen says. “There was a moment when I say, ‘Hey C, you know, tomorrow night when I go to the front of the stage and I play this, come on up with me and play it next to me.’ And we took those steps the next night.”
Looking at the broader picture, the rocker says, “There was an idealism in our partnership where I always felt our audience looked at us and saw the America that they wanted… wanted to see and wanted to believe in. And this became the biggest story I ever told. I’ve never written a song that told a bigger story than Clarence and I standing next to each other on any of the 1,001 nights that we played. He lent his power to my story, like I said, the story that we told together, which… was about the distance between the American Dream and the American reality.”
Picking up on Springsteen’s aside that Clemons was about eight years older than he was, Obama says, “Look, here’s an older Black man that’s been hustling out there for a long time… He’s gotta hook up with a young white teen…”
“A little skinny white kid, you know?” agrees Springsteen.
“Who is less experienced than him. Now, it works out beautifully for the both of you… But there’s also complications, right, to that whole relationship? And I don’t know if you guys ever talked about it.”
“He had to give a little more than I had to give in the sense that once our keyboardist and drummer left… he was the only Black man in the room a lot of the time. He had to swim in white culture for most of his work life.” Springsteen goes on to reminisce about how, on the Amnesty International tour in the late 1980s, they did a gig on the Ivory Coast and played to an all-Black crowd, at which point Clemons came over and whispered on stage, “Well, now you know how it feels.”
In talking about the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, Springsteen quotes James Baldwin, which leads Obama to finally quote Jordan Peele.
The former president says that latent racism, “depending on the community you’re in, how far near the surface it is, is not always clear. And I think a lot of Black folks always talk about how what’s hardest is not dealing with a Klansman. That you know. That you can figure out. You are prepared and you are geared up. What cuts is people who you know aren’t bad people, and the fact that that card is still in their pocket and that at some unexpected moment it might be played is heartbreaking. Because that’s where you realize, ‘Oh, this is a deep, big piece of business’ and it’s not a matter or not using racial epitaphs and it’s not just a matter of, you know, voting for Barack Obama. That’s why that movie… Did you see the movie ’Get Out’?”
“I did,” says Springsteen, laughing at what he knows is coming.
“So when the father who turns out to be crazy starts saying, ‘Man, I’d vote for Obama a third time!’ — I mean that’s part of the point that that line is making,” says the man who figured into that punchline.
The two figures speak about activism, and how it can be all right if it goes beyond their own expectations of decorum in politics.
Obama says that “as long as protests and activism doesn’t veer into violence, my general latitude is, I want and expect young people to push those boundaries and to to test and try the patience of their parents and their grandparents… I remind young activists that I meet with, I said, ‘Look, if you want my advice about how you can get a law passed or get enough votes to put in power people, I can give you some practical advice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that should be your goal. Sometimes your goal may just be to…”
“Stir shit up,” Springsteen suggests with a laugh.
“Stir shit up,” Obama agrees. “And open up new possibilities… Even though I was convinced that reparations was a non-starter during my presidency. I understand the argument of people I respect, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, yhat we should talk about it anyway. if for no other reason to educate the country about a past that too often isn’t taught… and let’s face it, we’d rather forget.”
They address the protests on the far other end of the scale — as Springsteen puts it, “the marching with the polo shirts with your tiki torches. I thought that that was kind of over, you know?”
“Yeah, you thought we weren’t debating Nazism anymore?” laughs Obama. “You thought that was settled back in ‘45.”
Obama introduces a “lightning round” in the conversation: protest songs. Springsteen first brings up “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, followed by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen.” Obama’s picks are Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” Sam Cookie’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (“Boom. To the top of the list,” agrees Springsteen) and, “although people don’t think of it as a protest song,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
And then there is one of Springsteen’s own: “41 Shots,” about the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, cut down by 19 hits to the body from 41 shots fired for reaching for his wallet. “This incident occurs and I start to think about it and I go, ‘OK, skin. Skin is destiny.’ It’s like, what a privilege it is to forget that you live in a particular body.”
“Did you get any kind of reaction after you wrote that?” Obama asks.
“There was some booing,” Springsteen admits. “We took a lot of heat from the police… for several years after that. There were some police officers giving us the New Jersey state bird, which I always felt was a result of not listening to it, really. You know?… If you listen to it, it never felt fundamentally controversial. It wasn’t a diatribe. It wasn’t a finger-pointing song particularly, you know? It just tried to tally up the human cost in what we all pay for in blood of those kinds of killings and murders that go on day after day. I mean this song is 20 years old. This song is 20 years old.”
Back on the subject of Clemons, Springsteen tells a story of hanging out with Clemons in the neighborhood, pre-stardom, and seeing some of the sax player’s supposed friends call him the N-word to his face, which the musician admits he was too flummoxed to respond to at the time.
Obama relates a similar story, recounted in his first memoir, about having one of his basketball playing friends direct the C-word racial epithet at him.
“Now first of all, ain’t no c—s in Hawaii, right?” laughs Obama. “It’s one of those things that where he might not even known what a coon was. What he knew was, “I can hurt you by saying this.’ … And I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose and we were in the locker room.” (“Well done,” interjects Springsteen.) “And suddenly blood is pouring down. And it was just reactive… And he said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And I explained to him – I said, ‘Don’t you ever call me something like that… But the point is that what it comes down to is… an assertion of status over the other. right?
“The claim is made that ‘No matter what I am… I may be poor. I may be ignorant. I may be mean. I may be ugly. I may not like myself. I may be unhappy. But you know what I’m not? I’m not you.‘ And that basic psychology that then gets institutionalized is used to justify dehumanizing somebody, taking advantage of ‘em, cheating ‘em, stealing from ‘em, killing ‘em, raping ‘em… And in some cases it’s as simple as, you know, ‘I’m scared I’m insignificant and not important. And this thing is the thing that’s going to give me some importance.'”
Says Springsteen, addressing Obama, “When I first saw you, you spoke to a broad sense of American hopefulness. And there was something in Clarence’s presence of that quality, and it’s what made our band so powerful when we came to your town at night. We addressed all these issues. We didn’t speak necessarily directly about them… But that partnership was just real, you know? I was at (Clemons’) bedside when he took his last breath and… he was such a strong figure for me.”
“You miss him. You loved him,” says Obama.
“It was 45 years of your life you don’t… it’s never something that comes again. You know? Forty-five years. And the only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn’t matter. We lived together. We traveled throughout the United States, and we were probably as close as two people could be. Yet at the same time, I always had to recognize there was a part of Clarence that I wasn’t ever really going to exactly know… It was a relationship unlike any other that I’ve ever had in my life.”
In episode 1, the two discuss the commonalities in their personalities despite their disparate career paths — and the difficulty sometimes in distinguishing altruism from ego.
“The same issues that you struggle with have been issues I’ve struggled with,” says the former president. “The same joys and doubts. You know, it turns out there’s a lot of overlap… In the same way that a musician is looking for a way to channel and work through pain, demons, personal question, you know, that was certainly true for me in terms of getting into public life.”
“But you’ve gotta have two things going, which is very difficult,” says Springsteen. “One, you’ve got to have the egotism to believe that…”
“The megalomania,” corrects Obama.
“The megalomania,” agrees Springsteen, “OK, to believe that you have a voice, and a point of view that is worth being heard by the whole world… On one hand you need that type of megalomania, and yet on the other hand… for it to be true… for it to have the kind of impact that you’ve had… you’ve got to have the tremendous empathy for other people.”
“It’s a hard trick to pull off.,” says Obama. “You start off with ego, but then at some point you empty out and become a vessel for the hopes and dreams and stories…”
“At your best, yeah,” Springsteen says.
“Renegades: Born in the USA” is an eight-episode podcast, and the second original one to be produced for Spotify under the company’s exclusive deal with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground.