Music of Hope and Change

In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.

I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.

Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.

Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.

One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”

Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”

My ticket to see Nelson Mandela, June 30, 1990.

Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.

Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.

I can only hope for the same here in America.

Gen X Has a New Hero

A few years ago, I wrote about how people from Generation X*–my generation–are essentially nonexistent in the public sphere. With few exceptions, we are almost invisible.

I used the example of Reid Hoffman, billionaire founder of LinkedIn, as an example that proves the point. Without Hoffman, who I went to summer camp with, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.”

I now want to amend that statement and add to my list Eric Garcetti, the Gen X mayor of Los Angeles.

Garcetti began serving as mayor of L.A. around the time I wrote my post on Hoffman, and has shown in the past seven years to be very capable of being in charge of a large and diverse city.

Los Angeles currently has about 4 million people and serves as the keystone to a metropolitan region of about 19 million people. It is often said that the region has more Koreans than anywhere outside of Seoul, the most Mexicans outside of Mexico City, the most Iranians outside of Tehran. The economy of the Los Angeles region is larger than the economies of several nations, including Argentina, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

I think that whatever Garcetti is doing, he’s doing it right. Like any large city, L.A. has its problems, including crime and homelessness. But no one person can solve all of a city’s, state’s, or country’s social problems, despite what some people want to believe. That takes everyone working together.

However, an effective leader provides the vision and the glue to keep a large and diverse city, state, or nation on track. Garcetti is clearly doing this, and I’m impressed.

*NOTE: I am using the Pew Research Center’s definition of Gen X, being people born 1965 to 1980.

Change Comes from Within

A few years ago, a documentary aired on TV called 1968: The Year That Changed America. It was about how the events, politics, and social movements of 1968, in the words of the producers, “forever changed the modern American landscape.”

Except that, it now would seem that nothing ever really changed at all. America may no longer be legally segregated, but we are as much divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines as we ever were. The federal government is in chaos and unable to effectively address the real needs of the American people. People are protesting in the streets nationwide. We have a president who is egotistical, unqualified, and more interested in scoring political points than actually governing the country. We have a media industry that is both part of the solution and contributing to the problem. We have an economy that works well for a few people and excludes many. We have people self-destructing through excessive drug use. We have a Congress that appears to be unable to do anything meaningful.

It would appear that we as a country have learned nothing, and it makes me wonder how that happened. It is as if we collectively have an underdeveloped ability to learn, to regulate our own behavior, and to make changes for the better. Perhaps we suffer from multiple personality disorder, that there isn’t just one America but many, many different ones.

Or perhaps we are in recovery from trauma, that the events of 1968 didn’t set us on the road to improvement but rather created the dividing line between before and after. Most people who suffer a traumatic event view it as a pivotal point in their lives, that they are not the same person after that they were before.

Maybe America continues to struggle with coming to terms with this new sense of self, and we’re not there yet. But are we trying? Sometimes I wonder. Many are, but are there enough of us to create true change? Is change gonna come? Or will we just anesthetize ourselves and turn a blind eye to the real work that needs doing.

I would like to think we have it in us to do the work. When we’re at our best, we do. But, as with anything, we have to want to change. And it is our loss of we don’t.

A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity. – Dalai Lama

Three Awards

The corporation I work for has three awards to recognize employees’ accomplishments, none of which I qualify for.

One is for journalists, and I am not a journalist. One is for people who work on specific products that we offer, and I work on none of those products. And one is for managers, and I am not a manager.

Which leaves me in the pool of employees who essentially work unrecognized, day after day, year after year. This would include people such as accountants, help desk representatives, or the people who make sure the toilets still flush.

However, there is one award we all qualify for: the “service award.” This is the “award” people get for sticking with the company for 10 years or more. It basically recognizes people for being unambitious and unable to be employed anywhere else. It rewards people for not being creative enough, or providing enough value, to be noticed. It rewards people for blind loyalty and doing the minimum required to not get fired.

The situation does not inspire me to achieve much. I was laid off once from this company and I fully expect that it could happen again.  I know I’m expendable. This makes the “service award” less impressive than the others. (Full disclosure: even people who’ve won the above mentioned awards have been laid off.)

Which means that all the corporate-speak about teamwork, collaboration, and excellence ring hollow. If employees truly mattered, there would be more ways to recognize, more value placed on everyone’s work product (and not just the work product of the few). There would be a CEO who actually spoke to employees, not at them (we used to have one; he’s dead now).

Corporations are different than they used to be, and I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the economy. My father ran a commercial operation for over 20 years in San Francisco and he knew the name of every one of his employees. This could still be done today if the CEO wanted it to, instead of wanting more salary and to please the shareholders. Or to achieve greatness. In other words, corporations are the people who compose them, more so than their stock ticker or SEC filing. It would be nice if they behaved that way.

The Better Path

There is a fairly famous poem called “Desiderata.” You may have seen it before. The first lines are “Go placidly amid the noise & haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

Desiderata

I found a large framed copy of this poem recently as I was packing up my mother’s apartment. A little over a year ago, my mother had a stroke that requires her to live full time in a nursing home from now on. I remember this framed copy hanging in the house I grew up in, so it meant enough to Mom to have kept it for a long time.

My mother is a person of many contradictions. She can be both generous and cold. She is often critical and just as often accepting. She is relentlessly critical of some people but is capable of acceptance and forgiveness.  She voted for Trump but also has spent an unknown amount of money to support children in developing countries and also children with developmental disabilities in this country. She has done many things in her life but complains that she’s not accomplished anything.

The poem exhorts us to be the best version of ourselves and not worry overmuch about what might have been. “You are a child of the universe,” it says, “no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

And maybe that’s why mom has this framed copy, as something to reflect on when it all seems too difficult, as a way of reminding her to stop once in a while, take a deep breath, and try again. Perhaps we all have things that we put in place to remind of to strive for better and not succumb to the darker impulses. It might be a poem, a book, or a song. It could be rosary beads or a religious artifact. It could be a special picture or movie.

The thing is, even though the poem was parked in my mom’s closet and not hanging on a wall, the fact that she still kept it tells me that she is, at 84 years old, still in the process, as are all of us I suppose.

I’ve said before that knowing one’s parents is complicated, especially for those of us who have our parents in our lives for over five decades, and for those of us who have parents who have been difficult to understand.

So it can’t be said often enough that stopping once in a while, taking a deep breath, and trying again can lead us to the better path.