Life is a dangerous proposition. At any moment in time, any number of unfortunate things can cut us down and end us in an instant. This unpleasant reality is something we human beings would like to distract ourselves from. That is perfectly reasonable (who wants to think about that?). But the uncertainty of our lives is a truth. Ultimately, there is not one aspect of our lives that we can be certain of; this is the conflict that lies at the essence of humanity. It is why we bother fighting for our food. Our ancestors learned this the hard way while trying to stay alive in the desert. Our DNA carries in it a coded fear that our wants are not promised. At a biological level we are constantly worried that the next meal could be our last. This is why we really fight. Uncertainty is a crisis for us. It’s scary. It’s dangerous. It requires faith. Life… is a conflict zone.
I am a musician.* For the most part I understand that my opinions may never impact policy. Even if my opinions were heard by the world at large, chances are sheer popularity would taint my credibility. The paradox of popularity is that pointing out serious issues tends to be sacrificed in the pursuit of reaching the masses. Very few musical artists escape this stigma (yes, Bono happens to be one of them). For the most part in the music business, this is what we are told when we try to sell our songs: “Don’t go over peoples’ heads. Everybody just wants to have a good time.” In the words of the incredible Mary J. Blige, “Don’t bring no hateration, to the dancerie.” If my goal to is reach as many people as Blige does, this is advice I might want to take. And don’t get it twisted: it is my goal.
So, by virtue of the fact that I actually consider myself a Pop Artist, some people would recommend that I don’t answer the question put forth by this roundtable. They might suggest that I play dumb or mute, or pretend that I was on tour or in the studio, or too busy being fabulous to answer. Maybe I should answer the question in slang, or tweet it so that the response is less than 140 characters. Some would advise me not to alienate fans by appearing to actually have an opinion about this. I might not want to sound too smart. Or too much like a smart ass. Many people would say there is a formula for pop music success, and it does not involve saying anything that rocks the boat. There are some that would suggest I should say nothing and simply, to quote the Dixie Chicks, “Shut up and sing.”
But here is the thing: I love this question and I can't shut up about it. I’ll take it step further and say that asking “what is the role of the musician in a conflict zone?” gets at the heart of why I am a Musician. I think I should care about conflict zones on this planet. It’s a good thing that I believe my audience is not flattered by playing down my concern for the world, or the fact that I have deep respect for their intelligence. So out of respect for them, I will not maintain the illusion that I am drinking Crystal champagne in the back of a limousine that I have turned into a traveling nightclub. Why should anyone care to answer this question? I think we are all responsible for making a difference on this planet. Even though, for the most part, I can assume that my lights are going to stay on tonight, that I am going to have a decent meal for dinner and a roof over my head, somewhere in the world babies are dying, politicians are lying, and the planet is undoubtedly burning. And sitting in the land of milk and honey, doing nothing about that, seems like a ridiculous, arrogant, and obnoxious thing to do in the face of this sobering reality.
I feel compelled to say or do something about the quality of life on this planet if I can, in any small way, and somehow I think that would make my life worthwhile. I have a fantasy that I can somehow connect my real concerns about affecting life on this planet for the better to music that makes people want to dance and revel in a celebration of life. I concede that this experiment might be highly deluded. Yet, for some reason, I believe that in a moment of awareness of the space where all human beings are connected by the same threads of concern for the fragility of life, with all of its uncertainty, there is a sublime opportunity to celebrate the gift of life itself. In those moments, we are free from fear and full of boundless and limitless possibility. I may never change the world, but in the words of the brilliant rapper Tupac Shakur, maybe "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
I’m going to give it my best shot. I hope I get it right. If I wanted to guarantee that I would affect policy, I would have become a politician or lawyer. I chose music and music chose me. I consider it a blessing. I believe a musician’s role in a conflict zone is to spark our brains with sounds that somehow help us navigate the tricky terrain of lives that are themselves, a minefield of crisis and conflict. Life itself is the conflict zone. Music has a magical quality of making you aware of the dangers of life in one moment, and making you forget how dangerous your life is in the next instant. Music can inspire you to stand up for injustice or remind you to enjoy the beautiful matrix of life connecting us all. Music is our soundtrack to uncertainty; it gives us hope when we have no clue what’s coming next. When you embrace the uncertainty of life, anything becomes possible. And when anything is possible, everything is possible. And when you wake up to that, you just feel alive. In the words of the one the greatest leaders of our time, Bob Marley, “when [music] hits you feel no pain.”
Music is the antidote to conflict. It disarms, it diffuses, it restores. When music is playing in our hearts as we dance with the unknown, we are lifted. I carry these words in my soul: "Music is the weapon. Music is the weapon of the future.”—Fela Anikulapo Kuti. What's better than a weapon that brings us together instead of tearing us apart?
I am not trying to minimize the terror of someone who must daily traverse fields pregnant with landmines, or someone who faces daily anxiety that their child might be snatched in the middle of the night and forced to be a soldier; or compare these realities to the odds of my getting hit by a bus on 42nd Street in New York City. But I think that the fear of not knowing what happens in the next moments of our lives is the one thing we all have in common. We all have to negotiate and try to make sense of the unpredictability of our lives; our happiness is dependent on how gracefully we accept the unknown. I have no cure for these variables, just a song, a beat, and some lyrics that I hope are good enough to engage people in feeling alive. My goals might be ambitious, but they speak to the best contribution I think a musician can make in dealing with conflict. At best, all I can do is inspire a spark in the brain of someone who might actually go out and change things.
I am neither Nelson Mandela nor Ban Ki-moon, but I do care for the world with the same passion, and will always hope that one day I can stand on a platform large enough to start a foundation for AIDS patients in Ethiopia, or raise money for a recent immigrant to the United States who needs a scholarship in Chicago, or feed hungry children in Bangladesh, or build a home for a family in Haiti. Until then, I’m going to make music, share it with you, and hope that we can connect long enough to celebrate this unpredictable life together. What happens after that, well, we’ll just have to see. I’m just going to keep making music and play my role the best way I know how.