AWESOME CREATORS :: 100000 Musicians for Change :: Lee Ballinger's Letter from Los Angeles :: A Change is Gonna Come
Music by 100,000 Musicians for Change participants Ellis Ebakor in Warri, Nigeria and Larry Weiss, Nashville, TN;
in collaboration with 100tpc co-founder Michael Rothenberg; Video by 100tpc co-founder Terri Carrion
© Rhinestone Cowboy Music Publishing (ASCAP)/Drums of Grace Music (BMI)
I asked my students at the Lorraine Hansberry Middle School in the Bronx the other day if they thought they could understand the feelings of music if it had no words at all or was in another language and the answer was a resounding, 34-voice, YES. They agreed without reserve that music, poetry, and art makes us feel — feel like ourselves, and feel like each other…to understand each other. To remember we are all more alike than different.
Music transports and aligns, lifts and heals and energizes and inspires…and has always, both in its making and circulating, had the ability to be a massive catalyst for not only social unrest, but for unity.
Alongside the great work of 100,000 Poets for Change is an equally strong movement of musicians who, too, are using this network and the international framework of visibility, connection, and activism it has been building these past two years to catalyze a creative movement of enormous scale. What you see above, a collaboration from a Nigerian musician, a Nashville musician, and the co-founders of the 100TPC movement is just the tip of the iceberg.
I want to share with you today a letter from Lee Ballinger, the tireless 100,000 Musicians for Change organizer based in Los Angeles, and fixture in creative activism for many many years. Ballinger is the West Coast Editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, the magazine edited by Dave Marsh that’s known as “the conscience of the music industry.” A combat veteran of Vietnam who came out of the steel mills in Ohio to forge a career as a writer, he has written four books and his work has appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Village Voice, from Inside Sports to Rolling Stone. Lee is also a well-known performer on the Southern California poetry scene, is a voter for the Rock and Roll hall of fame, and was a publicist for the Sun City record label (which featured musicians ranging from Miles Davis to Ringo Starr to Run DMC).
We are honored to share his words with you today.
Letter from Los Angeles: A Change is Gonna Come
The spectacular worldwide success of 100,000 Poets for Change in September is cause for celebration, of course, but also for reflection. Why did this happen? First and foremost, the vision and hard work of countless artists around the globe. But nothing occurs in a vacuum. We all sense that we are coming to a fork in the road in human history. Something old is dying, something new is struggling to be born.
It begins with changes in the economy, in the way that we produce and distribute things. Robotics and computerization now dominate our factories, throwing millions out of work forever. A 2011 front page article in the Los Angeles Times detailed how technology will eliminate all service jobs in the United States within a generation. FoxConn, the giant Chinese manufacturer, has begun to install one million robots in its factories and that will lead to the loss of millions of Chinese jobs. The idea that a rising Chinese market will somehow save us is a myth. Permanent job elimination is expanding into all fields: law, medicine, and even software engineering. In The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, software entrepreneur Martin Ford explains why this phenomena is not only unstoppable but is rapidly picking up speed. There is no turning back. It’s a new world and it’s scary.
Unable to fit these hyper-productive technologies into a structure built on managing scarcity, society is disintegrating. A political response has begun…The massive immigrant marches in 2006. A million Americans demonstrating for public education shortly before the Occupy movement exploded. Other large movements operate under the radar. For example, there are over one thousand benefits in America every week that musicians do for each other in a time of health crisis. This is a gigantic movement for health care reform, lacking only an organizational focus to collectivize its magnificent spirit and apply it on the policy battlefield. These movements in the United States are one part of something much bigger exemplified by the Arab Spring, the South African miners strikes, the resistance to austerity which is sweeping Greece and Spain.
Here in America, we must ask: Where are the artists?
Artists have only been a marginal part of the movements here. While it’s universally acknowledged that culture has a place, culture is generally regarded as a condiment, a minor ingredient in the stew. Is this approach wise? Does it correspond with reality?
Email I wrote on the occasion of the first open mic in the history of Diamond Bar, California; April 19, 2008:
I know everything about Diamond Bar even though I’ve never been there. I know that if you knocked on almost any door, talked your talk and made people comfortable, they would invite you in. They would bring you coffee and ask you to stay and watch the game with them. As they relaxed and began to trust you, they would begin to let you in on little secrets. Poems they’ve written. Drawings they’ve done. Songs they’ve recorded on a Casio four track. Films they’ve made on their cell phones.
It might be Mom or Dad or the kids. Uncle or grandma or neighbor. Brother or sister’s email which has the music they’ve recorded in Iraq. These people don’t line up at open mics. They don’t know that open mics exist. They don’t know that open minds exist, minds open and eager to hear what they have to say. Minds open enough to understand that a mortgage problem can wind up a sex poem, that having a cousin in prison can make you paint a picture of a forest, that ugly abuse can foster beautiful music.
The future of our country depends on people just like this. I know you will find them. Good luck tonight!
Away from competition and toward cooperation.
There are tens of millions of artists in America.
The one per cent who dominate the world have vast political, social, financial, and military power. To overcome their destructiveness, we need a massive number of people, at least half of the ninety nine per cent. To get those numbers we need to make culture an integral part of every movement for change. Inseparable. Total. Words and images and sounds dripping from everything. Fundamentally, we are not engaged in a physical battle but in a war of ideas and ideals, a clash of morals and mission. Away from competition and toward cooperation. The winning of hearts and minds is a heavy load but one that artists can carry once they are mobilized and linked into one organic diversity.
Artists aren’t just supporters. Artists have the same problems as everyone else. Unemployment. Foreclosure. Student loans. Lack of health care. Police brutality. Artists are not separate. We are different only in that we seldom become organizational leaders of movements because we are too busy doing our art. So that’s where we can be mobilized. 100,000 Poets for Change has proven it.
The number of visible artists, those who step up and say “check out what I do,” is growing rapidly. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We need to go deeper to draw out those who may need a little encouragement. We need to reach into the small towns, the churches, the car clubs, the fields and the factories, the jails, the card games, the high school poetry clubs, the fast food joints.
When culture is made central, artists can swell the ranks of the movement and bring in those who are touched by their art. But what can the movement do for the artists? It’s got to be a two way street.
The movement is the new audience. The movement can give artists a precious gift: respect and love for what they do.
I often ask my musician friends: Would you rather play yet another show in a nightclub for just your girlfriend and your buddies or would you rather play for a community organization that will give you its rapt attention?
The transformation of the world economy has brought down barriers and created a world labor market, a restless ever-moving mass of people traveling from continent to continent in search of survival. It has forced us all into a vicious race to the bottom. Who will work for less? Whose city will give the corporations its tax base, its children, its soul? The old political structure isn’t able to come up with ways to cope with the new realities so instead it merges with the banks and the corporations. The Supreme Court may have declared that corporations are people but that can’t change the fact that they have no soul, no imagination, and they kill everything they touch.
The downsizing, privatization, and offshoring is a horrific process but it does have one silver lining. It allows us to see our commonality. Not just our commonality as victims but our commonality as thinking, feeling human beings with a common destiny. Like it or not, we have all been drawn into one world structure and all the promise and peril that goes with it. Change today can only be global and it demands a global response. 100,000 Poets for Change. 115 countries. Right on time.
The watchwords of 100,000 Poets for Change are peace and sustainability. These concepts are linked. Peace isn’t merely the absence of war because war always returns. Lasting peace depends upon a world built upon sustainability. Get the food to the hungry, the medicine to the sick, the homes to the homeless. Keep fossil fuels underground where they belong. Create the structures where art dances with science, inspiring science to move beyond systems of war and control so it can return to its humanistic roots.
Peace also means peace in the arts. An end to beef.
We are too often pushed into competition with each other. Competition for gigs. For grants. For attention. Does this mean we are bad, selfish people? Not at all. We live in a society which values only the bottom line and which could care less about our need to express ourselves. The resources and audiences we need are deliberately withheld from us. It’s not our fault but it’s up to us to solve the problem. One way is through 100,000 Poets for Change. It has room for everyone. Every style, every genre. If you don’t find your place in an event, organize your own. Collaborate. Cross-promote. We all have the same needs. Without the fundamental change our unity can bring about, those needs will never be met.
We should be about more than protest. Otherwise our audiences will eventually tune us out because the message is too painful. It’s true that our art asks, our art demands, that people face up to the destruction going on around them. But we also have to provide the antidote to the poison, a yes to the no. A vision of a radically different world of peace and sustainability, a world beyond money and above privilege. Only then will a critical mass of people be willing to deny their denial and confront the grim dangers that stalk the earth. Artists can make us all not just understand but feel what the future can be like. Once we start to imagine it, we are halfway there.
It’s a long-standing joke that “organizing artists is like herding cats.” The success of 100,000 Poets For Change makes such cynicism indeed laughable. Artists are highly organized. We organize to create our work, to rehearse it, to present it, to record or to film it. We organize to get the resources we need to create. We are not some hopeless mass of well-meaning losers. We are already what we need to be. Let’s be it.
A change is gonna come.
The upcoming book, Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing gathers much of the Lee’s best writing. It’s filled with incisive commentary on the issues of the day—poverty, immigration, war, the environment, religion. His writing takes the form of articles, op-ed pieces, poems, plays, film scripts, and essays about books and films. Spending over a quarter century working in the music industry has led Ballinger’s writing to most often flow through the prism of our sounds…all of them. Rock. Rap. Salsa. R&B. Country. Funk. Metal. Jazz. Punk. Reggae. Love and War takes the reader on a tour through Ballinger’s life: a homeless teenager who went on to be a local leader of the steelworkers union and wound up introducing Kurt Vonnegut at a Chicago banquet. This writing is raw, but beautiful — and goes deep into the guts of America in search of the whole truth, which ultimately includes a vision of the peaceful and prosperous world that is now possible.
** Be inspired by what’s happening all over the globe — as humans decide we are more alike than different: get introduced to this amazing movement, and figure out how you can be a part, wherever you are in the world! Check out the ongoing work that musicians, actors, poets, and more are doing in Trinidad and Tobago, with organizer Rachel Collymore, then keep travelling! learn what organizer Nana Nestoros has been doing with 100,000 Poets for Change in Greece, and then visit México, where Pilar Rodriguez Aranda has been tirelessly organizing events nationwide for two years!
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