In the wake of the Baltimore riots, I recorded a song to try to make some positive contribution. Prince did the same thing, releasing the song “Baltimore,” and putting on a concert in the city…same idea, just a different scale. At the core of both our efforts is the notion that music holds some sort of power in this world. I often contemplate how what I do is one of the most unimportant things in this world while paradoxically being one of the most important. I’m not a doctor saving lives or curing the sick. I don’t build a house or a computer. I don’t paint a mural or a painting where there’s a physical object left to be viewed. Sure, I can create little videos or recordings, but at the end of the day music is temporal and experiential. It’s my job to create an experience for people. It’s my job to think about and reflect on the world I see, about my own feelings and experiences, and to bare my own humanity raw for others to see themselves. And that’s why it’s so important. That’s why music is so powerful. Music holds the power to move others to dance or to cry, to ecstasy and catharsis.
We sell the power of music short, a byproduct of music becoming ubiquitous in every mall, grocery store, car, cell phone. When you hear music everywhere, it becomes a drone that gets tuned out. We’re inundated with the profundity of lyrics such as “Patty cake, patty cake with no hands. Got me in the club making wedding plans,” and with the musical complexities of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It.” Maybe what we really need to shake is our sense of complacency about music. What happened to all the great protest songs? To the socio-political messages? I think these songs are starting to make a comeback. Musicians are starting to reclaim the power of music. Since the Baltimore riots, I’ve been more observant to where that’s happening.
One of the amazing powers of music is to provide context. We see this in film scores all the time. The music tells us when to feel sad or scared. We hear the long sustained strings slowly building, and feel the anxiety well up in us in a suspense movie. Maybe the swell of brass leads the charge in a historical battle scene. We use music to provide context in our own lives with the song of the summer, or with that break-up song that captures our feeling of lost love from one particular moment of our life. We use it for a work-out mix to get us pumped when our heart is pumping or to keep us going when we are cleaning. Recently, a video went viral on YouTube of a sousaphone player walking alongside a Klu Klux Klan march while providing a comical soundtrack to their march. It totally changes the context of the protest, dissipating the power and anger in it while making it look foolish and, well, comical. The march was an attempt at claiming power and respect, and one man turned it into a farce. That’s the power of music.
Another video that popped up on my radar lately came from a trio in Germany who borrows a homeless man’s bucket to add the percussion to their song while they busk for him. People who had just been walking by start to stop, start paying attention if just for a moment. Isn’t that part of the power of music? To direct attention, to call for people’s eyes and ears and hearts for just a few minutes of their day? I should counter this by saying that world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, spent an afternoon playing in a subway being nearly ignored. It’s hard to get people to stop the routine to truly listen, and it takes more than talent. It’s the event of it, the theatrics and sense of importance. I find that especially important in this visually driven age of video.
Lastly, music can just be divine. I will never forget the experience of singing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, “Ode to Joy,” with the National Symphony Orchestra and several hundred singers. To be in the midst of such a sound was a joy like no other. Search google for “U2 concerts are like church” and a list of blogs and articles come up. And I know that I’ve had more intimate moments of deep connection and peace in moments of music throughout my life.
I’m at a point in my life where I want to be engaged. I want to use my talents and the power that music carries to have an impact. I want to write and sing the protest songs. I want to change the context, change the story. I want to draw attention, to wake people up. And I want people to do it with me. I don’t want to be a lone voice in the wilderness. I don’t know what this looks like yet. Tell me what you think it looks like. Tell me what you will bring to this song. Together we can start a song-riot that shatters hearts, not windows.