I recently tweeted this ancient Chinese proverb along with a link to my new album Protest Songs (Are Dead). A friend and supporter retweeted the quote and later e-mailed me some questions regarding Protest Songs and my approach to art. Perhaps the album has piqued her interest primarily because she is currently taking a class about Arts for Social Change. She's asked me some great questions that I'd like to share along with my answers. Her questions/comments are italicized.
First of all, this is not only a question of race. People with white skin have certainly been the dominant group for centuries. But let's keep in mind that poor whites, white women, white homosexuals, etc have ALSO been oppressed, particularly in this country. So this is really a question of privilege - something that I have in spades. Check out this entry from my living-on-a-shoestring blog, it speaks more to this question.
The material for my songs comes from being passionately involved in the lives and stories of my subjects. Granted, the characters in Canta... and Why Lie are not actual people. They are possible people, the coalescence of a number of possible (probable) circumstances. The character in Why Lie - let's call him Joe - is a homeless beggar on a subway train, alcoholic, and war veteran coping with PTSD. He decides to bear his heart, to tell his audience how he truly feels as he's begging on a subway train. There are thousands of Joes in the US; I hope to draw attention to their story as the US pushes on in war after war after war. We claim to honor those who risk their lives to "secure our freedom", but leave them to fend for themselves after their service with little support to battle through PTSD, loneliness, alcoholism, potential poverty & homelessness, conflict resolution, police harassment, etc. I have met and befriended many such people. And the truth is - there is a man named Joe. The song wasn't originally about him and I wrote it long before I knew he was a vet anyway. But I find it a remarkable fact that the song turned out to paint a fairly accurate portrait of my friend Joe. And I'd never set myself to the task.
It just goes to show how prevalent his story is, a travesty that must be confronted. As a friend to the homeless and outspoken advocate for their right to life, liberty, peace, dignity, and honor, I don't see the harm in pointing out their plight. I feel that I've earned that right. I even started a blog about documenting the stories of homeless people! This would undoubtedly drive your classmates up the wall, lol. But I am looking for more contributors, maybe some of them would be interested. Here is an excerpt from the About page..
This blog is a collection of memoirs, written about and dedicated to the homeless. The writers are all people who have held near and dear in their hearts, at the forefront of their social consciousness, the plight of the poor in their midst. They have taken the time to ask the names, learn the stories, walk in fellowship, serve a meal, be taught and humbled - and ultimately to give back by being themselves a voice for the voiceless, to tell the stories of those to whom precious few would listen.
As for Canta and Pax Americana..
My parents immigrated here from Cuba after the revolution. Life gave them lemons, so with education and hard work they made lemonade. My folks are poster children for the fabled "American Dream". So I grew up with the benefits of being born to legal immigrants and citizens of the US in a (ethnically) hispanic but (racially) white middle-class home.
However, I also spent a year volunteering in central Florida, working with migrant workers and their families (mostly Mexican and Haitian). I tutored the children of illegal immigrants, some of whose parents had been deported. That year I attended the SOAWatch vigil in Columbus, GA for the first time and have been involved in their campaign to close down the school ever since. These experiences have inspired me to speak out against neo-liberalism, globalization, free trade agreements, and exploitation of "third-world" labor in Pax Americana. And, in Canta.., to tell the possible story of a Mexican so-called-illegal immigrant in the US.
Am I co-opting and exploiting these stories? I certainly don't see it as such!
But will people perceive it that way? Some will, some won't.. just as some people say I'm "just a hipster" and that's the reason I live the way that I do. But I'm not going to base my existential and artistic choices on other peoples' perceptions of who I am, who I ought to be, and/or what I should really be/write about. Ultimately, I don't take my cues from them, I take my cues from God.
"I do think it is appropriate in certain contexts for people to be a bridge between the ideology/experience he/she was raised with and the negative impacts it has on other human lives around the globe. I think being a peacemaker can mean being at the margins between the two and trying to be a bridge in that place. I also believe the arts are a way for us to process experience, and so when you see the pain of homelessness and unjust immigration policy, it makes sense that an artistic expression of your feelings is going to rise up. And we are clearly called in Proverbs to be a voice for the voiceless. I also think the guy in my class made a valid point too, though. At some point, isn't the purpose of being a voice for the voiceless to restore the oppressed to speak their own voice?"
Yes. I affirm everything in this paragraph! To answer your final question more thoroughly, I do believe that God will one day move me into a life of justice and education work with the poor, homeless, immigrants, etc so that I can help "restore the oppressed to speak their own voice". I'm already seeing it happen here in NYC but I doubt it will come to full fruition before I move to Chicago. In the mean time God has called me to express my own voice and unleash my own artistic urges through song, performance art, busking, and activism. I won't ignore God's call and will pray instead that people will have ears to hear. If they don't, then I will simply wipe the dust from my feet (Luke 10:10-11).
I've set about my own business, doing what I can according to God's leading. Some people spend too much energy being anti- rather than finding their own work to be about. They find that their time and effort is better spent cursing the perceived darkness of the work and efforts of Others rather than honoring the dim candles we've lit. Nevertheless I know that God will honor my faithfulness, my light, and I need not worry too much about the discouragement or darkness of others. I'll simply honor their lights as I hope that they'll one day do the same.