Music in time of oppression

Creative musicians and artists, in their desires for freedom of expression, often respond to totalitarian regimes with suspicion if not contempt. These oppressive states have likewise censored and even persecuted artists unwilling to advance the government propaganda.  Just ask Dmitri Shostakovich (a composer censored and threated by Soviet Union for creating supposedly “pro-Western” music), Victor Jara (a songwriter and folklorist who one of the first people jailed, tortured and assassinated under Pinochet’s coup of Chile), or Fela Kuti (a Nigerian composer and bandleader, who was viciously beaten police and soldiers and saw his home and performance space destroyed).  When unjust governments try to suppress the truth or force everyone to “obey,” few things can be more revolutionary than an artist dissatisfied with easy answers or refusing to be silenced.
Yet, even when things feel less extreme, and the government is seemingly a functioning democracy, it is often far from perfect. Structures of white supremacy, sexism, and entrenched poverty are not dismantled easily. While Trump may have exposed and intensified certain impulses towards fear and hatred, the truth is that regardless of who the president is, U.S. society is filled with profound injustice and plenty of things to resist and try to change.  When so many people in my city are afraid of deportation, being attacked by police, or of losing their home, I sometimes feel like playing the same old “entertaining” songs may not be accomplishing much. I have a profound drive to see the world become a better place. Everyone has to decide for themselves how music can fit into the way God wants them to bring compassion and wholeness to the world. Here are just some of my thoughts about how I, as a musician, can respond.

 Art is always shaped by its context

In an interview, the great singer and pianist Nina Simone said her choice, indeed her duty, “is to reflect the times in which I find myself…. When everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”  Through Simone’s career, she addressed the challenges of being black, a woman, and a person with mental illness in a racist, sexist, and ableist society – sometimes very directly through her lyrics, and at other times simply by creating music with such power that she demanded your attention and respect.

She could never simply be just a pianist or singer making “art for art’s sake,” because her music came out of a particular experience. It could not be separated from her life, her culture, or her narrative.

Likewise, none of us can let go of who we are with what we create.  Music made in a person’s authentic voice will reflect his or her unique experience, perspective, and way of being in the world.   There is plenty of art and music out there that tries so hard to communicate a political or religious vision that it ends up as a mediocre product that leaves the listener feeling hit over the head with an agenda. Yet the most meaningful and powerful statements against injustice are often subtler and more personal.  So if the times we find ourselves living in leave you feeling helpless in how to respond, maybe try creating something meaningful that celebrates who you are and what you struggle against, allowing your story to speak for itself.  Counterintuitively, often, the most personalized experiences do the best job of communicating deep truth for everyone.

Yet, well-done art can transcend its context

No googling allowed. Who is Count Herman Karl von Keyserling, and what did he do? I’m sure there are experts in 18th century German history who might be able to tell us about the accomplishments of this court diplomat to Russia between 1734 and 1766. However, for the most part, this once influential and wealthy person holding a deeply prestigious and powerful position has been largely lost to history.  Both the governments of Russia and Germany have changed profoundly since then (to put it mildly), so I feel like it’s safe to say that very little, if any, of his influence can be felt on the state of the world in 2017.

However, von Keyserling also suffered from what would likely now be called anxiety with a related sleeping disorder. To try to help him calm down enough to go to sleep, Johann Sebastian Bach composed this:

That already transiently beautiful melody is accompanied with 30 variations, that make “The Goldberg Variations” one of the greatest works of music ever composed. Entire library shelves have been filled with theses unpacking all the hidden stokes of genius in the work, and pianist Glenn Gould’s recording of the work is become one of the top selling Classical albums of all time.

Out of a context that could not have been more pedestrian and temporary, Bach created a work of profound excellence that can bring tears and transcendence hundreds of years later. His gesture of truth, beauty, and compassion has outlasted and proven more significant than the acts of the more powerful and privileged.

The ins and outs of politics, and the grappling for power, prestige, and privilege is continually changing.  Too often, politicians on the right and ones on the moderate left simply play games to undo each other, in ways that fail to do anything about improving the lives of those on the margins. And so let us never tire of fighting to change the power structure in any way we can, whether through active resistance, marching, campaigning, or forcing all voices to be heard.  The creation of messages and expressions of truth and beauty are not simply an afterthought, but are an indispensable part of any struggle for justice.


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