Composers: The Most Democratic of Musicians

Film composer legend Ennio Morricone died recently. It is indeed a sad loss of a man who was so prolific and sensitive to the emotions in a staggering variety of films, from Spaghetti Westerns to dramas and everything in between. This highlights an important issue, for many people say they dislike classical music (meaning: anything played by an orchestra) but I could bet my bank account that everyone would have their favorite music from a movie. I think that film is “where it’s at” in terms of accessible modern classical music, for a lot of what gets put out by composers, especially in academia, is not accessible at all. Of all the different types of musicians that exist, I have always felt that composers are the most democratic of the classical musicians.

I see two reasons for why people dislike classical music or dislike 20th/21st century classical music. Just as with a lot of modern art which is heavily conceptual, many modern compositions require the listener to read and read in order to understand the piece when really it should be something pleasurable and visceral, right-brained and not left. I believe the other part of the problem with people disliking classical music is due to atonality, for I feel tonality is something so innate–we like a tune we can sing, we like a “sound narrative” that carries through the piece, harmonies we can follow, anything that doesn’t sound like putting a cat on a piano. While it’s fine and fun once in a while, an interesting experiment, a heavy emphasis on atonality ultimately alienates listeners. I realize that statement is very controversial.

However, I should caution readers that just as in literature, non-typical tonality can be quite interesting and enjoyable, and what we define as tonality does not have to be limited to something hummable or as predictable as a Mozartian or Verdian melody. Richard Strauss pushes the limits of tonality with seemingly unresolvable harmonies, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Philip Glass’s use of repetitive units (his so-called “minimalist” style, a label which he would chafe at) build and morph into phrases that carry the listener on ethereal auditory journeys; anyone who says they don’t like his music should reconsider after listening to his cello concerto. Bela Bartok’s works often include influences of Hungarian Romani music and the musics of folk cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. African-American composers (who don’t get enough exposure, sadly) such as Florence Price, incorporated the music of her heritage and church, and there is no piano-playing kid who did not play the toe-tapping ragtime of Scott Joplin. Chinese-born MacArthur genius Bright Sheng’s influences could take up a whole post, and he is a wonderful example of someone who has created bridges not only between Asia and the West, but multiple cultures.

In my experience, composers are incredibly humble, open to every genre of music and able to process so many things in their heads. A musicologist might look condescendingly at hip-hop, a flamenco singer might find Indonesian gamelan music “repetitive,” and a Carnatic musician might not be able to stomach the glorious cacophony of Led Zeppelin. An opera singer might try to mimic the quarter tones of an Arabic muezzin and fail. But a composer would be willing to listen to all cultures and genres of music openly, even when the melodic and harmonic systems are radically different. A composer’s ear must be open, ready to listen without judgment. Her or his brain must process sounds as best as s/he can, given the limitations of the tradition that s/he is raised in, the patterns of sound, the instrumentation.

The best Western classical composers are the ones that harness the power of tone color or timbre, who are masters at knowing which instruments produce which sounds for the best effects. Frenchman Maurice Ravel is a composer all composition students study for his genius in this area: one need only listen to a few minutes of “La Valse” to be convinced of this. Gustav Mahler, with his extra-large orchestras, also knew how to command the orchestra, how to use the instruments and be a model for orchestration. There are composers who we can also admire for specifics within the orchestra, such as Dvorak and his lyrical use of strings and Sibelius and his powerful brass. In modern times, a fabulous example is John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” which is not conventional in terms of its harmonic or melodic structure and more (sorry for the incorrect label again) minimalist. But Adams’s piece spins out and takes it much further, and takes us on an auditory journey of colors that do not fail to give listeners goosebumps–it is one of my top three desert island pieces. Therefore, it is imperative that a composer be open to all kinds of sounds and to increase her or his palette in order to create rich orchestration.

Most composers (and many classical musicians) enjoy listening to many genres of music. Some of them may not even listen to much in the genre in which they compose–John Adams, in an interview, has said he doesn’t listen to much opera. Whether or not s/he realizes it, a composer is subconsciously observing influences all the time. What is unique, however, is that this “orchestral sound mixer” will translate what s/he has heard into something uniquely her/his own. Of course this raises the issue of cultural appropriation, something for which I think there is no easy answer. In this day and age, there is much less the issue of bad borrowing and stereotyping the way there was in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries (think the horrid Orientalism of Turandot), and we truly live in a global, multicultural era where people can click a button and listen to something from the other side of the world. I argue that it is a composer’s right to borrow different sounds, because sound itself is the most democratic medium that exists. We cannot see it, touch it, but we can hear it and feel it. It belongs to nobody and it belongs to everybody. Composers are merely the channel or vehicle through which sound comes, gets put on paper, and played in an orchestra or ensemble. In a pandemic world where gross human equality is being highlighted at staggering levels, let’s rejoice in something that is ultimately truly egalitarian.

Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal “I was born yelling,” but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.

Why Prejudice Continues, Despite Good Intentions

None of us are perfect as human beings. No matter how much we try, we unintentionally will all end up upsetting someone, knowing someone, excluding someone, hurting someone. And, unfortunately, we will all be on the receiving end of those negative behaviors, inevitably. When these things happen systematically, as so many in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to point out, the offended parties will naturally speak out. We can even see this on personal level in groups we belong to, when one person is somehow not treated well. And the offenders who truly care listen, and genuinely wish to do well. But why do some problems still get perpetuated?

I believe there is one key psychological/sociological process behind this: people are operating from a place of abstraction rather than personal experience. And when the reality hits, it is NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard.

It is easy for someone for someone to say they oppose the mistreatment of others, that they are pained (and genuinely so) to hear of someone being treated badly. Someone who is actively involved, for example, in a human rights group that protests against the abuses of an indigenous tribe might find it uncomfortable and not want to listen when a friend tells them they were abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. It is easy for people to talk about what they hear on the news about people’s lives being affected by the pandemic, but when someone in a group talks about how their own career status is at peril, they change the subject or do not respond. Recently, I was talking with an open-minded American friend who has friends of different backgrounds, and is widely traveled. However, when I told her that a European friend had suggested I move to her country, but my hesitation was the growing racism I could face there (implying I could be mistaken for a South Asian laborer), she was not able to respond.

I believe a truly psychologically healthy, Zen-like solution to this is to allow ourselves to feel discomfort that comes up. By this, I am not implying that we should torture ourselves or voluntarily be unhappy–this is a very unconstructive way of dealing with problems, and I truly believe that joy, laughter, and happiness are what will move us ahead. However, we cannot deny the difficulties that happen to those around us. Only in accepting the fact that we are uncomfortable, that things are not abstractions but realities that happen to our loved ones and those we know, can we see the reality of a problem and take constructive action to move forward. We have to accept that in hearing about these unpleasant things, sometimes we might feel powerless and not know what to say. Perhaps guilt is what is underlying people’s unwillingness to respond.

But simply taking the time to accept people’s individual experiences can go a long way. A more constructive response would be to offer empathy, a willingness to listen, and compassion. And we should feel gratitude for the good things we do have rather than embarrassment or shame. Sometimes there may be a limit to how much we can hear or handle, especially during this pandemic, and we may have to set limits on what we hear from others on a personal level or in the news. We have to offer ourselves compassion as well.

These are not easy things to do. I am by no means perfect in practicing this, nor is anyone. But understanding people’s experiences firsthand, on an individual level, just might be a first step to making larger changes. A professor of international education in developing countries at Columbia University’s Teachers College told us something so simple and yet profound when thinking about how we look at societal ills: “They’re people, not problems.”

The Importance of Holidays

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, my favorite holiday. There is something so egalitarian about this holiday, one that embraces everybody, has no religious basis, is informal, and simply about the joy of getting together and celebrating. I was quite crushed when I learned that there would be no fireworks displays, given the risk of crowds during the pandemic and the rise in cases where I live. Fortunately, much to my surreptitious delight, a number of individuals took it upon themselves to launch spectacular professional-caliber firework displays, and dozens of people were able to watch from the comfort of their cars. My training as an anthropologist always leads me to reflect on the particular rituals and institutions we have as human beings. What is a holiday?

A holiday is a day unlike the others, not an ordinary day. It has a special significance, a weighted meaning. It can commemorate, signify, or mark no particular event at all, other than to remind us that we need to take the day off. Some holidays are religious in nature–think Christmas or Eid al-Fitr. Some are political, such as Cinco de Mayo or even days like July 4th (which is officially Independence Day, marking our independence from the British). There are bank holidays in Britain, summer holidays in France that extend multiple weeks, or name days days in Orthodox countries where a person’s saint after whom they were named is celebrated. A holiday might commemorate a historical event, and might be local, regional, or national.

There are special foods we associate with particular holidays. Once a year, you might make a particular dumpling, a bread, or sweet. These foods may have a significance, representing something or someone, like the sugar skulls or bones on the pan de muerto on the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

Particular activities are associated with holidays, such as carrying a deity in a procession around the town or into the sea, throwing tomatoes, wearing costumes and begging for candy. We look forward to these things for weeks or months.

Also, think about particular decorations used for holidays. Living in the West, it is inevitable that Christmas comes to mind; not only do people decorate their houses, but also communities put up decorations as well. On the birth of Lord Krishna on Janmashtami, women in South India make little footprints from rice flour which show the baby’s arrival in the house. There is something exciting to people about particular objects and embellishments that we use and ways in which we adorn our dwellings for a holiday.

There might also be special songs, special prayers, special things to say on a holiday, special clothing, and special ways of behaving. In a sense, one might argue that the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, is a sort of weekly holiday commemorate the week and take a day of rest and spiritual reflection, prayers are sung, bread is broken, and work is not to be done.

Some people refuse to celebrate holidays. They dislike them, find them pointless, think they are just like any old day. But I argue that we need special days that are not like other days, to mark the passage of time and transitions in our lives. What would life be but monotony if we did not have holidays? We need days that remind us of our humanity, of our deep-rooted need to celebrate why we are alive.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?

The Right to be Free? Or the Right to be Safe?

Twice when I’ve gone to the grocery store, there is someone in front of me in line–a man–who refuses to wear his mask until he enters the store. I live in a region of the country that is a hotbed of Covid-19, and in my county now, the curve is still rising slightly and not yet flattened. My county requires by law that people wear a mask when they are anywhere in public, with the exception of when they are walking outdoors if there is adequate social distancing. I cannot comprehend why these individuals refuse to do that, even when I politely remind them that it is the law, and why Trader Joe’s takes a cavalier attitude to enforcing it outside. Even inside the store, I have seen women wearing a mask covering only their mouths, not their noses. Needless to say, it makes me livid.

The American ethos is all about freedom, a misguided notion of freedom at all costs. Conservatives and lawless right wing renegades react violently to any discussion of regulation of social behavior. Most of them probably have no idea that in most other parts of the world, people are more highly regulated and in the industrialized West, they are no less free than we are. These foolish, emotion-driven people jump to conclusions with their black-and-white thinking, assuming America will become a Stalinist regime if anyone does anything to curb their liberty. Just look at some of the incidents in the past couple of months: protesters storming the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan and other capitals, kids flocking to Florida beaches for spring break, people flaunting authority and holding parties.

But how about the right to be safe? Why do we never discuss this in America? I would argue that it is due to two things: the lack of a collective mentality/extreme individualism, and because less “aggressive” human rights or more “feminine” and well-being values are not supported in our country. Consider the following:

-During our Covid-19 pandemic/crisis, many governments have not taken strict enough measures for fear of retaliation by their constituents. Yes, there are economic concerns which are very grave. But the longer term dangers to our economy will be a pandemic that continues and/or surges. Also, many politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever or are poorly informed. Granted, a number of restrictions could indeed slowly be lifted if people were very diligent and responsible, good about obeying the laws. But I would even go so far as to argue that even during shelter in place, many people have not observed the rules. This kind of arrogant, short-sighted flaunting of the laws can be seen on both right and the left. Some of the educated wealthy people on the left law think does not apply to them, that they are educated and they know better. This is sheer arrogance and entitlement and a disservice to society as a whole.
-Our lack of gun control. Go ahead, cite the Second Amendment about the right to bear arms. Cite the fact that there is violence and we need to defend ourselves, our families, our spouses, our children. Tell me that you are a responsible gun owner, and that you only use your guns for hunting, in which case I would accept your argument as legitimate, though I personally condemn hunting as an animal-loving vegetarian.
But look at the statistics about gun violence in America, And consider the fact that we actually have MORE GUNS THAN PEOPLE in America. Our gun ownership far surpasses that of any other country, including countries that are three times larger than us: India and China. Why should I be concerned for my life just because you are an individual who lives in foolish fear and feels the need to bear arms? How do I know that, if I honk at you when you cut me off on the freeway, you aren’t going to shoot me? Why should I and millions of other educators and students have to read a plaque on the wall of our institutions that give us instructions on what to do if there is an active shooter, along with taking shelter for tornadoes? How many more innocent lives–many of them children–need to be taken by an angry, mentally unstable individual who has gotten a hold of assault weapons? As long as we have the NRA, and our shamelessly unethical politicians who are supported by them, we have no hope for gun control. and our daily lives continue to be potentially harmful instead of safe. And the recent protests have shown how a particular group of people has sadly borne the brunt of gun violence.
-Our lack of universal healthcare. Will we become North Korea if we provide some sort of government-sponsored healthcare for everyone? Does anyone enjoy paying thousands of dollars for procedures that are sometimes inflated due to high malpractice insurance? Or like being in debt for years? Or perhaps you prefer not seeing a doctor, though you are suffering from a serious ailment, and perhaps would rather die? As long as we have this mentality in America (that makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world) that we need to have the freedom to choose who provides us healthcare, or whether or not we even must have healthcare, no one can live in safe health and freedom from worry about the exorbitant costs. and this impacts people of low socioeconomic status even harder.
-Our disparate educational system. I find it extremely perverse that the quality of a Public school is contingent upon on the wealth of the neighborhood. The fact that people can even vote on whether or not to give money to schools is beyond my comprehension. I understand their criticisms, that school boards may mismanage or mis-spend funds. that it is the efficacy of the funding, not the amount. These are important points, and I don’t deny that there is systemic mismanagement. But to leave education in the hands of people who have no consensus as to what is important, who hold a very Republican perspective on education that claims that other social institutions are more important is completely foolish. And it costs more us in the end.
Children have a right to quality, safe school environments where they are educated, fed properly, and assessed fairly. Teachers have a right to strong resources, supportive administrations and governments, and a classroom free from violence and misbehavior. The burden on our educators is too overwhelming–they must play the role of teacher, social worker, babysitter, psychologist, behavioral expert, parental figure, and more.

Our society favors individualism and freedom to a degree that is near-pathological. Look at countries where there is a high degree of social welfare and government assistance and regulation such as Iceland, Germany, France, South Korea, New Zealand. Even our culturally-similar neighbor, Canada. In none of those countries would you say people lack freedom, that they don’t have the right to protest, that they don’t have free speech, religion–any basic human rights we expect in the developed world. And they all have prosperous economies. We have got to put an end to our fear-based mentality in our culture that says, “If I can’t have everything be 100% free and how I want it, then we are all trapped in a totalitarian regime.” And then we must create social policies and laws with common sense. People overseas often regard Americans as “the teenagers of the world,” people who can’t bear to have any rules and will act out if any are imposed. And just like a parent might tell a teenager, I would conclude by saying, “Let’s leave a good impression of ourselves on other people and learn how to behave properly.”

Black Bookstores Matter

If there is something that’s been on your reading list for a while you’ve been excited to read, won’t you consider purchasing it from a small local African-American bookshop in Ypsilanti, MI, a city that is already vulnerable? Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center:

https://www.blackstonebookstore.com

They also have a Go Fund Me page:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/SupportBlackStone

 There are so few Black bookstores in the country,  let’s make sure they stay alive!

 Thank you so much!

Sonja

Black Lives Don’t Matter Enough

There was supposed to be a different post today, but I feel compelled to write on recent events. I do not in any way consider myself an authority on the current situation; I can only bring an awareness to what I see and perceive as a writer.

Like so many of you, I feel absolutely horrified and saddened beyond belief with the killing of George Floyd. We don’t need *yet another* incident of police brutality. Imagine, for those of us who are not black, if we hear a rattle at the door and suspect a thief, we call the police, feeling safe and trusting enough to do so. Imagine if you are a black person, especially a man, and you did the same thing–you might get arrested for being in your own home, or even killed.

Look at the intersection of trust and race. I belong to a minority group that is considered the “most successful” group in the United States: we have CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, and a handful of nationally-known entertainers–not to mention your garden variety of doctors, scientists, and IT professionals! Though I have indeed experienced racism and discrimination (in one case so badly that I had to leave a graduate program, but then eventually so did three other white students in my cohort), I can generally trust that the institutions in American society are going to work to help me. While people may have trouble pronouncing my name, my name and my type of American accent are likely not going to prevent me from being able to rent an apartment. If I go up to a police officer and say that I saw an abandoned, full backpack or suitcase next to a building, they will take me seriously and investigate it.

But imagine if this is not the case. Imagine you cannot trust the institutions in your society to support you. Imagine that there are people who still hold subtle prejudices against your ethnic group, or, more innocently, who may be a bit dismissive of your concerns. Sure, they might not use the N-word, nor would they condone the KKK or white supremacist protesters holding a noose. Yet they might say that “you’re complaining too much,” or “all lives matter.” But just because someone is tired of hearing something, or finds certain things repetitive does not mean the problem is over. Just because you as an individual have absolutely no discrimination against black people and treat them as equals–which is an admirable and necessary thing–does not mean that discrimination against black people does not exist. Just because individuals do not discriminate does not mean that institutions do not.

I do empathize and understand where these people are coming from. I also agree that they often see too much violence and a need for more personal responsibility in the communities they criticize. I do not, personally, agree with the horrifying violence that has been going on in response. Violence only escalates negative situations and accomplishes very little other than destruction. I read a Detroit Free Press article about protests in Detroit that turned violent, and many of the violent individuals were actually white protesters from the suburbs. These are not helpful allies.

From a Buddhist point of view, one could say that the policemen who commit these horrific acts of violence against black people are not at peace with themselves. They lack empathy, they have serious issues with anger, and they have likely not been exposed to positive figures in the black community. They are often repeatedly thrown in situations where their own lives feel threatened, and the people who are threatening them are of an entirely different race and cultural background they are not comfortable with. They overreact to situations which require law enforcement, but not violence (George Floyd was using a counterfeit $20 bill, which was indeed an illegal act, but minor). I am aware that there have been programs with mindfulness training on police forces, but when the fire of anger is stoked, when there are biochemical forces at work, when racist feelings are hardwired into the reptilian brain, and lethal weapons are involved, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

We hear so frequently about black criminals, and yet we laud people like Julian Assange (who is no honorable freedom fighter but really an asocial criminal mastermind), law-dismissing Mark Zuckerberg (always in glossy magazine articles entitled something like “Thirty Billionaires Under 30”), and asshole-in-chief Jeff Bezos who doesn’t pay his corporate taxes. Why aren’t these people equally condemned? Why is white-collar so soft and under the radar? Why is being a sociopath in a suit or a hoodie acceptable?

We need to teach people, from the time they are very young, about differences. We need to expose children to others of all backgrounds. This is a huge challenge in the United States where we have such demographic variety and enormous distances. We need to hold our media accountable to the images and stories they feature, especially when it relates to certain ethnic groups. We need to socialize men–and women–so that they learn how to deal with anger in constructive ways (domestic violence cuts across all classes and backgrounds). Gun control is an urgent necessity, though the majority of us are powerless next to the gun lobby. We also need to study philosophy and understand why we have laws, study sociology and understand why and how we need to regulate human behavior.

Most of all, we really need to encourage everyone to develop empathy, to see beyond our own little narrow selves, and to really listen to what other people have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable.