In Macon, music softens a racial divide

The three deejays spun R&B and hip-hop, with a focus on oldies, party anthems and black artists gone mainstream -- Michael Jackson, OutKast, Gnarls Barkley.

These were carefully chosen common denominators, songs that black and white club-goers might agree upon in 2008. And, in fact, the two races were here in equal measure on a Friday night, dancing shoulder to shoulder at this upscale club in the heart of the old Confederacy.

The dancers, about 50 of them, were too young to remember April 1968, when angry blacks rioted here after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. They were too young to recall Feb. 18, 1970, when 4,000 whites rallied against desegregation just across the Ocmulgee River. They were too young to remember "Machine Gun" Ronnie Thompson, the white mayor from 1967 to 1975 who threatened that his police would "shoot to kill" rioters on his watch.

To club-goers like Nathan Hicks, the mixed-race dance floor at Club Envy represents a departure from all that.

"You're seeing a very unique time, locally and nationally," said Hicks, 30, a lawyer who is white. "Nationally, you have the introduction of the first serious black candidate for president. Locally, things have been divided for a long time."

But now, he said, Macon has something new: "a generation that doesn't know that racial divide."

Political observers are wondering whether younger voters, unburdened by ancient racial biases and baggage, might make an impact in November's presidential election. In a handful of Southern states, such voters could help Democrat Barack Obama mount a serious challenge to Republican John McCain, potentially canceling out lingering prejudices harmful to a black candidate.

The trio of deejays at Club Envy have been throwing multiracial dance parties like this for a few years around Macon, and they are aware that they have tapped into the forces that have been reshaping racial attitudes -- even in the South.

"It was bound to happen," said Rory Tibbals, 30, who is white. Tibbals, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, calls himself DJ Tagg. "You go to school these days, you're in a mixed class. You go to work, it's integrated."

"I swear," added Dallas Jackson, a black 33-year-old who spins records as DJ Roger Riddle. "Every year, kids get better about race."

But the crew, rounded out by a black rap station personality named Ronald "Dirt Dog" Jackson, also know that Macon has by no means transcended the boundaries of race. The crowds they draw, by local night-life standards, are relatively small. Their black-and-white audiences are exceptions to the rule in Middle Georgia, where clubs tend to be as segregated on Saturday night as churches are the following morning.

Here, the borderlines of race may shift and blur; they can be crossed by a deejay or a dancer. But they still exist, for better or worse, shaping the flow of any given weekend.

Macon, with a population of 97,000, is an old cotton hub about 90 minutes from Atlanta. It's just far enough to feel outside the big city's orbit and part of a deeper South. Decades ago, white flight and suburban malls hollowed Macon's historic core, leaving blocks of empty and underused buildings. Some are still tagged with the ghost logos of long-gone stores.

There are a handful of bars and restaurants, the sprouts of a much-hoped-for urban renewal. Among them, Club Envy was advertising itself Friday night with a beat that echoed into an otherwise quiet expanse of MLK Jr. Boulevard.

Shirod "Slim" Cooley was manning the door. He said he has grown used to the revelers who drive by in their cars, confused by the mix of people they see milling around outside.

"They'll pull up and say, 'What kind of club is this?' " he said. "I'll say, 'Go in there and see.' "

Inside, in the main room, DJ Tagg had the run of the sound system. He bobbed behind a table crowded with LPs, turntables and laptops, his head cocked sideways to brace a set of headphones. The shuffling bass line of "Billie Jean" shook the room.

A small group of women in their 20s -- all black except for one -- danced closely, sipping cocktails and shouting happily in each others' ears.

"One of the reasons these parties are desegregated is because they mix up the music," shouted Cameron Beasley, 23, who was collecting the cover charge. "I mean, who doesn't like 'Billie Jean'?"

Justin Cutway, 32, wandered in. Cutway is white and teaches at an elementary school that is 98% black. Members of the local indie rock band Nomenclature -- an all-white group -- stopped by, slovenly and thrift-store cool. A young black woman named Tarcia Tripp arrived in an elegant dress with a few black friends. Her parents had sent her to a private high school that was nearly all white. This, she said, was the world she was used to, a world she was trying to sustain for her 7-year-old. "I teach him no color," she said.

The three deejays did not start out with a plan to bring the races together. Tagg, the Air Force lieutenant, was a military brat. He discovered hip-hop at age 12, in Japan. "People, especially people in the South, say, 'Hip-hop, that's black culture,' " he said. "But to us, it was just music."

In 2005, he was transferred to Robins Air Force Base, about half an hour from downtown Macon. On MySpace, he connected with Roger Riddle, a Detroit native whose eclectic taste confounded his black Southern friends: They didn't get his fondness for both James Brown and Dolly Parton, his propensity to rave on about, say, Joanna Newsom, an avant-garde harpist, or Fumio Itabashi, a Japanese jazz pianist.

"When I got down here," he said, "it was sort of like, 'All the black people are this way,' and I was like, 'I'm not into what y'all are doin', so I'll go and do my thing.' "

Tagg and Roger Riddle played a few shows together, advertising largely through word of mouth. In January, Tagg went to Iraq for a six-month tour, so Roger Riddle paired up with Dirt Dog, who was feeling constricted by his rap station's tightly focused playlist.

Their experiment unfolded as Macon seemed to be lurching fitfully toward the future. In 1999, the city elected its first black mayor, C. Jack Ellis. His divisive eight years in office were marked by his conversion to Islam and accusations of misused federal funds.

The city -- once home to the Allman Brothers and Otis Redding -- also began to embrace its rich music history, opening a museum and re-branding itself "the Song and Soul of the South." But downtown is still not the vibrant place many would wish. Dirt Dog thinks that a more integrated entertainment scene could spur economic development.

"Downtown doesn't have no sushi. Downtown doesn't have anything. If we started throwing bigger parties, we could have sushi. . . . We could show that this was more than a hick town. This is more than deejaying parties. Business-wise, it's going to open economic opportunities.

"Down south it's real cliquish," Dirt Dog said. "We want to un-clique it."

On Friday night, the cliques are found on the edge of town, on the road that leads to the Air Force base. An all-white crowd was listening to a twangy Nashville act at Whiskey River, a 22,000-square-foot country music hall adorned with portraits of white musicians: Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard.

Owner Ernie Shepherd, 61, a former liquor store operator, took over the place in the 1980s. "When I bought it, it was red -- I mean redneck," he said, "a real hard-ass urban-cowboy nightclub."

The reputation endures, he said, among Macon's blacks. "We cleaned it up," he said, "but the stigma through the years has stuck with us."

Blacks come to the adjoining poker room and comedy club, he said, but not the music hall. Shepherd elaborated: "Some of them will come, but they don't stay long. They don't like the music."

Less than a mile down the road, a young, nearly all-black crowd congregated at Club Money's, where huge airbrushed portraits of black rap stars -- Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls -- loom atop the facade like a hip-hop Mt. Rushmore. Assistant manager Armond Acree, 26, was setting up early Friday for the big night. He grew up on Macon's black south side -- the 'hood, he called it.

When he started getting in trouble with the law as a teen, his father, a sheriff's deputy, encouraged him to enlist in the Air Force. In basic training, Acree said, "I met a white guy who said, 'You're my first black friend.'

"But I couldn't be mad at him, 'cause he was my first white friend."

As an enlisted man, Acree toured the world and met all kinds of people. When he got out, he came right back home -- and right back into a milieu that was nearly all black.

A few hours later, at Club Envy, Dirt Dog faded Slick Rick's old-school favorite "Bedtime Story" into a newer track by Lumidee, a pop-friendly R&B singer of Puerto Rican descent.

A well-dressed black couple danced together close, their motions subtle. A young white girl placed her palms on her bent knees and bounced her backside.

Peter Diehl, the percussionist in the indie rock band, said Macon's old generation was still fighting the Civil War. He hopes the younger ones won't feel so burdened by history.

"We want to turn this town on its end, basically," said Diehl, 24. "It's been a certain way for so long."

Later, club-goer Hester Beal, a 29-year-old social worker, stepped outside for some fresh air. The deejays played "Sweet Dreams," by the Eurythmics. "Ooh," she cooed. "That's my song."

Beal is African American; she too graduated from a mostly white high school. Now she works at a branch of the state family services division with a staff that's all black.

The women there, she said, accuse her of acting too white. They've started calling her "Becky" -- the kind of name, she said, that one might hear around a white Southern sorority.

She said all this without a hint of regret. "I've been dying for a white person at work," she said. "I wish they'd hire one."

She also said you'd never see her across town at Club Money's because "it's too ghetto."