Group Inerane in 2007
The sky has darkened. As I write, The United States – the country in which I was born and raised, in the grip of Donald Trump, has taken steps toward the persecution of people from non European ethnic and cultural backgrounds – specifically targeting Mexicans and Muslims, attacked the rights of women, and taken drastic steps to undermine the well being of those in tenuous economic circumstances. We have entered a new era of politically executed bigotry and class war, the explicit character of which has not been seen in the West since the close of the Second World War with the fall of Nazism and other forms of fascism. In the coming days, weeks, months, and years, we are likely to see these attacks expand and intensify. It is up to each of us to fight, resist, and protect those who are threatened – at whatever cost, from this evil grip.
For many, the election of Donald Trump – its actuality, and what it indicates of a larger social and cultural condition, coupled with his extreme actions in the early days of his presidency, has been shocking. It has been a wake up call to what our country has become – to its polarities, and how far out of step it has fallen with the vision of it that so many of us hold. In truth, the social and political circumstances which we are watching unfold are far from black and white, not entirely what they seem, and though more extreme and easier to see, part of a long arc of legacies.
The character of Trump’s actions and objectives have resided on American soil since the first settlers (many of whom where my direct ancestors) stepped ashore. Whatever the mythologies might state, our (so called) democracy is built on theft, genocide, bigotry, division, enslavement (literal and economic), with the suppression or manipulation of its population’s voice and agency – all in the interests of consolidated power and wealth. Though perhaps more easily observed through its long history of foreign policy, at home, ours is a country which has long exploited the fear and hatred of difference as a means to reach the economic aims of those at its helm. What is unique about Trump, is that he is too much a fool, and too poor a politician, to mask these goals. What is different about the era is that a shocking number of Americans no longer need the mask and subterfuge to embrace such beliefs. They welcome the idea that they are better and deserve more than others – rejecting that we are all equal, as our Constitution and laws state. Wrapped in a manipulated idea of democracy, a great many Americans have become (perhaps unknowingly) anti-democratic, electing an anti-democratic president as their leader.
As Americans, we are taught that democracy is our greatest ideal, while rarely challenged to understand exactly what the word means, or how it might be best executed. We are expected to accept that we reside within the best possible version of it (left to our own subjective views of what that might be), while the fact that American democracy has historically functioned as an anti-democratic institution is actively obscured. Lack of public understanding of the terms which govern us, dates to beginnings of our country. The war for American independence, which was sold then, as it is now, as a pursuit of democracy and freedom for all, was in fact instigated by its economic elites who felt they were being over taxed by the English crown. Equality and the rights of citizens were never the goal. It seems shirking taxes has always been a conservative priority. Those who fought that war, dozens of my ancestors among them, were fodder for the accumulation of wealth they would never have access to – giving way to a social hierarchy similar to the one they were attempting to escape. Little has changed in this regard. War has always been about money, not ideals. These same men – our founding fathers, were later given charge of the formation of our government and the structuring of American democracy. After Donald Trump, five of the next six wealthiest presidents were among them – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and James Madison respectively. Far from simple farmers, the scale of the their wealth is still startling. Their agendas continue to serve those like them today.
A window into the foundation of American democracy, and thus its legacies, can be found in the Federalist Papers – published debates around the drafting of the Constitution and establishment of the structures of our government, and Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 – documents from the meetings which gave way to it. Many of these conversations orbited around the distribution of power between the ruling class, and the rest of the population. Particularity Notes of Debates displays a great deal of contempt, fear, and mistrust of the very people who had only recently fought a war on these men’s behalf. James Madison, who is credited as being the primary architect of the Constitution, is among the worst of perpetrators of this sentiment. With many other similar statements, he is famously quoted as asserting that “They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. The “they” he speaks of, are the innovations of a new form of government and its laws. This idea was echoed by many (if not most) of our founding fathers, and laid down the bedrock of our democracy.
The entire history of our country has been marked by a struggle between two visions of democracy. What the body of the population believes (and is led to believe) it to be – that they possess an equal say, rights, and economic access, against what those who hold power believe – that democracy is relative, dangerous, and malleable – best utilized as propaganda, rather than actively pursued or executed. The country’s political architectures have always served the interests of the economic elite – at the expense of the body of its population, relying on misdirection and a lack of understanding to achieve its ends (not to mention voter suppression and gerrymandering). Since its earliest days, there has been a winner and a loser – those who are represented, and those who are not. It only takes a glance at American history, with all its marked disparity along racial and economic lines, to observe these truths. Coupled with an understanding that democracy (as a pure ideal, rather than a contemporary political application) sets out to offer equal voice and participation to all members of a society, a vision of the true character of our own, should not be far to follow.
When addressing the actions of Trump, his cronies, and the Republican party at large, particularly because of the explicit character of their attacks, one of the greatest challenges is pulling back and observing the larger objectives they serve. It’s easy to get caught in their specificity, or assume they operate within a single dimension. Politics is a game of misdirection. This is why most Americans do not understand what democracy is, and thus do fight for a better realization of it – one which works in their interests, and which represents their own voices with those of their fellow citizens. It is why economic inequity is growing at such a startling rate. It is why we do not realize that we directly participate with, and are complicit to, institutional racism and class war. We are told to look one way, or at one aspect of a situation, become distracted and consumed by what we encounter there, and never connect the dots. As we face down the bigotry emerging from the White House, we must recognize, whether a sincere or not, that any form of racism, bigotry, or persecution of difference is a foil. These things are unnatural and fabrications of the Right-Wing. They are lies – tools which employ fear as a means of oppression, misdirection, and the consolidation of money and power. Where ever they are observed, there is always another goal hidden from view. Historically, American democracy has been bent, manipulated, and limited by conservative economic objectives – the consolidation of wealth. America has always been racist – its people and its politics, but those in positions of power were often simply bigots of convenience – thinking themselves superior or more entitled than other members of society. They were not authoritarian by nature, simply greedy and working for themselves and others within their class. Promoting a fear of the “other” is a well tried political strategy. Over the course of American history, it’s regularly shifted to focus on those who threaten economic aims, or must be stripped of humanity in order build public support for war or the appropriation of wealth. Trump is different. Though unquestionably working for the consolidation of wealth on an extreme and sinister scale, he is an explicit racist, xenophobe, and sexist, as well as a fascist authoritarian. His desire is absolute power, and the persecution of difference, whatever the gain or cost. He is perhaps the greatest single threat to democracy that our country has ever witnessed, because he opposes it completely, rather than striking a careful balance with its manipulated form.
Over the last two decades, instigated by first hand experience living in ethnic inner city neighborhoods in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and London, I have observed, and increasingly taken an active role in, the fight against the sources and consequences of political and economically perpetuated institutional racism. In most Western societies, especially in the United States, I have come to understand how deep racism runs, how the vast majority of the members of these societies are complicit to it, and how it serves as a function of economics. In Western capitalist democracies, it is impossible to separate an individual’s economy from their access to political process – the more money you have, the more weight your voice and agency has. The converse is equally true. Racism is a means to distract from this reality, and a means to gather support for its actions – it always begins with those who have been stripped of their humanity by the architectures of power – those whose economy will be harvested first. Though racism is easily observed as anti-democratic – it denies the equality, rights, and value of individuals entitled to them. What is more difficult to observe (and thus fight), is how it seeks to undermine all access to democracy – to transfer power to the smallest possible number of people. Persecution of difference is not the goal, it is a means to an end – authoritarian control.
This is what we face – the defense of democracy on a fundamental level. Most of us can understand that many members of our society have been distracted by promoted fears of the “other”. What is harder to observe, is that while we fight for the right of the persecuted and oppressed, as we must, we equally risk being distracted from the true objective of the Right-Wing – the total dismantlement of democracy, with the aim of authoritarian control and economic supremacy. This is closer to reality than it has ever been in American history. We must watch both fronts, finding new strategies within which to work, combining new ways to fight, with the old.
Democracy is founded on mutual respect for the value of each member of a society. At its core, it is the belief that each individual has equal rights, and an equal value of voice and agency, when participating in decisions which effect the whole. America has never reached this ideal. Despite what it purports, it was not founded with that intention – so much so, that safeguards against the application of Direct Democracy by the population, set up centuries ago, have forced both George W. Bush and Trump upon us, despite the outcome of the popular vote – while gerrymandering continues to play a role in Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. That said, many brave individuals throughout history have fought and achieved great strides in bettering our democracy. They represented the population’s voice, in the constant struggle against powers which attempt to suppress and control it. The Right-Wing, with the rest of the ruling class, has always sought to retain the greatest share (of power, voice, agency, and money) – to undermine true democratic idealism and process. We must continue the legacies of those on the Left who fought before us – who fought for all of us, observing that what is transpiring is part of a long arc – the demand for more democracy and attacks upon it. Like those before us, we can not accept the version of democracy as we have inherited it. As the Right-Wing seeks to undermine it, we must fight for a better version than we have ever known.
For some time, I have been studying sound and music as means to fight racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia, and to protect and promote democracy. Because fear and hatred are mechanisms used to suppress the expression of free will or voice within a population – they deny the mutual respect and understanding that is necessary for democracy to function, their undoing will likely come from the liberation of our voices. Our ears are the path to the heart. They are the entry to understanding and knowledge, both of which activate the condition which allows democracy to grow and flourish – mutual respect and value placed on the voices and agency of others. Bigotry and fear are enabled by division and lack of understanding. They breed when we can not hear each other – when we are divided by borders, geographic distance, or economic and cultural differences – when there is no way for us to know each other – when there is no common ground on which empathy can grow. The question then arises, how do you make something known, and thus undermine the promotion of fear, when their is no organic access between the two polarities?
Not only are sound and music are free from the stigmas of vision – the primary aggregator of perceived difference, but they travel. They carry the spirit of individuals and cultures – easily slipping across the borders and divisions that are placed between us. Over the course of the history of human civilization, not to mention the history of America, the sounds of others have mended differences, promoted understanding, and set into motion great political change. It wasn’t a politician who helped rural farmers of different races understand they shared the same lot, it was folk music. It wasn’t activists who began to unravel Jim Crow and segregation, it was the musicians and fans of Jazz. The list goes on and on, spanning time, continents, cultures, and circumstance. Especially through music, we can find each other, hear each other, understand each other, build empathy, understanding, and respect. While locked in its grooves, differences fade away, we enter common ground, and encounter lessons which teach us to understand how we are similar, and to celebrate how we are not. Anyone can speak through it. Anyone with ears can hear it and discern its meaning. It is democratic at its core.
As my heart has ached over these past days, weeks, and months, as I have watched in horror, I struggled – as so many us of have, to understand how so many people could fall for scapegoating, while policies which will damn them are passed. I have tried to place myself in their shoes – to understand how anyone could so willingly deny the humanity of others – to not see themselves in the faces of the suffering – wondering how they could fail to connect the dots and see the foil. It seemed obvious. If only these people – those who fear and the feared, could know each other – if they could speak on common ground and hear each other, the foothold of the Right-Wing would inevitably dissolve. As I thought about new strategies to fight, I returned to my belief in the democracy of sound – of its ability to travel where our bodies often can’t – to promote respect, empathy, understanding, and exchange – the foundations on which democracy is built. I thought of the kids I had grown up with in rural New England, of their scared racist parents – spewing the same bile that now oozes from the White House, yet rather than hear it, these kids turned up the volume, and within the sounds of hip-hop broke the cycle of bigotry. Through music they came to identify with the struggles of America’s urban youth – with sounds ushering from a culture and places that they would never otherwise know.
In this spirit, I have decided to plant my pole. We can and must fight. We must raise our voices and fists, but we must acknowledge that what we are witnessing has a long legacy, one as old as our country, built on the back of fear and a lack of understanding. We must remember what is at risk – what is under attack. This is not only a fight for the rights and well being of others, but for our own and the very fabric of democracy. We must promote the antidote to this sickness. We must begin with the long game – it may take years, decades, or centuries to take root, by making difference familiar, exciting, and acceptable – recognizing that it is the essence of who we are. We must champion the humanity of others, defend it, and make it understood. We must eradicate fear through education. Screaming and punching have no role in this fight – those are for other fronts.
If democracy is respecting the value of the voices of others, and bigotry is founded on fear, with the objective of destroying democracy in the service of consolidated power and wealth, the way to proceed seems simple enough – to defend and promote it, by championing and creating access to the very voices that the Right-Wing wants us to fear and attempts to separate us from – those different from ourselves. In a slightly ironic way, I am well suited to begin such a process. Donald Trump hates and fears anyone who is not like himself – women, queer people, those of other ethnicities, and from other cultures and religions. Like Trump, I am a white heterosexual male from the North East of America, stemming from Protestant linage – thus, to promote the voices that are different from my own, I promote the very same which he seeks to suppress.
Here begins The Democracy of Sound Project – an application of the ideas which I have just presented. Every week, for the duration Trump’s presidency, and longer if necessary, I will post at least one piece of music – a video or sound file, made by someone, or a group of people from a culture, background, social position, religion, gender, or sexual orientation other than my own. Through music, I will champion the voices which Trump fears and hates, and wants others to fear and hate in his quest to destroy democracy – a simple attempt to offer access to them, and chip away at his ground. As I struggle to flood the world with song, with voices that deserve to be heard and understood, which are equal to each of our own, I hope that each of you will share these posts, and make more of your own. That you will help and join me in this fight – that you make this project your own.
I decided to begin with one of my favorite videos on Youtube – Group Inerane performing Ano Nagarus. During the years they were active, Inerane was one of my greatest musical love affairs – carried across borders by caring hands of Sublime Frequencies. It’s hard to imagine a culture more distant from my own than the Tuareg people, nor a music which resonates stronger in my heart. It carries the spirit of collaboration, love, joy, pain, and the desert. As their wonderful voices wash over you, I hope you will remember that the fight against racism, xenophobia, and any form of bigotry, is the fight for democracy as a whole. When we hear each other, we join and become capable of seeing this for what it is – a mechanism which seeks to separate and oppress us all.
Group Inerane – Ano Nagarus (2007)