Speaking on the importance of art in a social struggle, the eminent philosopher Cornel West explains that artists use bits of reality in their work to get people to see reality in a new light. "It's about vision by means of imagination," he opines. "It's about empathy in terms of looking through this world and seeing the possibilities of a new world, a better world, a more decent, a more compassionate world."
Art is inseparable from politics. Successful artists (in this case musicians) that emerge from and transcend conflict (of whatever manifestation) do so by empathizing with the pain and suffering of the downtrodden and the afflicted, and then using these experiences to create a powerful musical piece that uplifts heavy souls and aspires to a better world. The four musicians in this roundtable, still young in their musical careers, embody this spirit of empathy and this practice of re-imagination. Each of them seeks to leverage their emotional ties to challenge the oppressed to overcome their torments and to create better realities. They seek, also, to educate the uncaring or the unaware and to move the complacent into action. Ultimately, these musicians seek to lift the spirits of us all into a better world.
With varying backgrounds, each of the musicians here approaches the question, "what is the role of the musician in a conflict zone?" from differing perspectives and offers unique answers to a vexing issue. While Aaron and Obash discuss issues of conflict emanating from the same general region (the Middle East), the realities of Jerusalem and those of Tehran are distinct. Each conflict demands its own attention, and each demands separate approaches. Both speak eloquently of the exasperation they face in their beloved cities of Jerusalem and Tehran, but to think that the role of the musician in each of those conflict zones is similar would be mistaken.
Omékongo, for his part, in speaking about an American inner-city experience and then about the violence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is able to transcend continents and conflicts, but his message remains the same: music is the best way to give voice to the voiceless and inspire action. While Omékongo sees music as a vehicle to amplify voices, Sheba hopes that her music will help to provide comfort for the less fortunate. Again, two ways of seeing the power of music and song.
Bob Marley, rightly so, is held to be the standard bearer of the role of a musician in a conflict zone. His lyrics are political. His music transcends cultures. Marley even took to the stage for political causes. The words from his powerful anti-war anthem, "War," remain powerful today:
Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
Everywhere is war*
The difficulty I had during this discussion, however, was in coming up with musicians of Marley's stature. Bono is the only one who comes close. There's no trouble in naming artists in previous decades who played the part of active musicians in times of conflict. Simply mentioning 1960s and '70s rock and folk music conjures an entire catalogue of such artists and bands. Today, efforts like Woodstock 2 and Live 8 pale in comparison to the political and social heft that the likes of Woodstock and its associated musicians brought to the socio-political scene of the United States, an effort that had global reverberations.
Where is the next generation of politically engaged musicians? Where are they in the face of unfolding injustice and violence in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uganda, and a myriad of other places around the world? The answer, of course, is that they are in those very places. They simply lack the amplifiers necessary to get their music heard. Hopefully the participants in this roundtable represent a sample of a new, desperately needed vanguard of politically-motivated musicians. Let freedom sing.
*After this roundtable was published, it was brought to my attention that Bob Marley borrowed the words for "War" from a famous speech given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie on October 6, 1963 in front of the United Nations. The speech is profound. You can read the full text here, and listen to the full audio here. As an added twist to this discovery, it turns out that Emperor Selassie was a cousin to Sheba, one of our very own roundtable participants. [S.R. 10/26/10]