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Celebrating Black culture and the blues with Kevin Burt

Kevin Burt performs on stage at xBk for the taping of Juneteenth: The Movement 2022.
Lucius Pham
IPR Studio One
Kevin Burt performs on stage at xBk for the taping of Juneteenth: The Movement 2022.

Kevin Burt embodies the truth and passion associated with the blues. For over three decades, his dynamic voice and distinguished stage presence have established him as one of the genre’s premier performers. He's made many transitions. From starting a family to traveling the nation on tour — Burt’s career has been in constant motion. What hasn't changed is how he feels about celebrating Black culture through music.

“I didn’t realize this was a thing for me 30 years ago. It has evolved through a process of 'I want to do this,' 'I need to do this,' 'I’m going to do this,' — this is all that’s left. I am a very spiritual guy; I believe my higher power has created me in their image. The one thing my higher power has asked me to do is to have faith in them, and if I’m made in their image, I also have to be willing to have faith in myself.”

In addition to making a career as a musician, Burt has received multiple awards including The Cigar Box Guitar and Lee Oskar Harmonica awards from the 2018 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, and Burt was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2019. As he continues building upon his decorated career, he consistently reflects on his evolution as an artist and the significance behind the music that he produces.

Celebrating Black culture on Juneteenth

Juneteenth has been a staple in Burt’s career as he annually performs on the holiday to commemorate the definitive end to slavery within our nation. Although he applauds the national recognition and heightened awareness the holiday has received in recent years, he remains focused on the long-standing history it has previously garnered. In Burt's eyes, Juneteenth is more than just a “Black holiday" — but rather a day in which Black culture should be recognized and celebrated by all races.

“Juneteenth has always been on the books. It has always been celebrated in different places; it is not a new holiday. It is just that we’ve never collectively made the decision to take pride in us and now we encourage the rest of the country to take pride in us because this is truly Independence Day.”

There is a synonymous relationship with Black history and blues as it originated from slave hymns that were used to encode messages of enslaved African Americans. Blues provided Black people with a creative outlet to express their hardships as they, “put it to the masters” in secret. The pain that resided in their lyrics would inspire several generations of artists that would use blues to share their own stories and truth.

Burt’s appreciation for the history and spiritualistic value of blues shines through his music as he often expresses his profound admiration for the artists that came before him. Burt’s biggest influence has been American singer-songwriter Bill Withers who has entranced listeners with his silky-smooth vocals since the late 1960s. Burt values the musical variety of the genre and places emphasis on exploring the different styles of blues. He regularly praises a diverse catalog of artists that possess a unique sound and flavor.

“The beauty of blues is that you must immerse yourself; it’s not just one artist or a couple of artists. I always tell kids blues is like a buffet and if you go to a buffet and all you order is the chicken nuggets, why did you go to the buffet?”

For younger generations looking to break into the genre, Burt has high praise for several artists including Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Eric Gales and Gary Clark Jr. When searching for blues artists, Burt expresses a need for an individual connection that most resonates with the listeners personal blues.

“What influences you? What is going to make you feel good? That’s what you need to be searching for.”

Joshua Harris
Joshua is a student at Drake University and a contributing writer for IPR's music blog.