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.

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

What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.

Measuring Life Dollar by Dollar

I saw the young man sitting on the bench. He looked scruffy, with uncut hair, tattoos and piercings. He looked like hadn’t slept well in a while.

To get where I was heading, I had to walk down the narrow passage between the two buildings and past the bench. It was unavoidable.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat,” he said to me.

I made eye contact, so I had to stop. I briefly hesitated, then pulled out my wallet. The moment where I could have made a graceful exit had passed.

My wallet had no ones. The smallest bill was a five. I pulled it out and handed it to him. “You’re in luck,” was all I could think of saying.

“Thanks man. I really appreciate it,” he said.

Giving away money is uncomfortable.

I do it often enough–last year I claimed over $1,000 in tax-deductible contributions to charities–but these face-to-face encounters still leave me with a weird feeling: I have money and you don’t; you are asking me to give you money, perhaps embarrassed for doing so. I have the power to decide to hand over some cash and whether to ask for something in return, perhaps wondering how it would be if roles were reversed. It is a transaction, and not really a person talking with another person at all.

We give large sums of money unconditionally to family. We give small sums of money unconditionally to strangers. Everything in between is weighted with social awkwardness. How much are you asking for? What do you want the money for, and why do you think I can give it to you? Are you a blood relative? How well do I really know you? Is this a grant or do I expect repayment? If I give you this money, do I expect you to do something  in return?

Money talks, as the saying goes, and it can say both good things and bad. My mother has told me more than once that she gave “a large amount” of money to my sister, and that she expects it to be paid back. My guess is that it is in the several thousands of dollars. My sister’s past history warrants a cautious approach to money lending. She defaulted on a loan for which my dad was a co-signer, for instance, something he still feels stung by. She accepted gifts of money and stuff over the years that is now gone: spent, lost, stolen, sold for cash, or just destroyed.

So my mother has some justification. But we give large sums of money unconditionally to family, right? Perhaps not, after family has burned you once too often. I may still be naïve about such things; I hope I am never in the position to have to make that choice.

My mother doesn’t really need the money–it is on principle that she is asking for repayment. My sister doesn’t have it to repay.

It is a stalemate.

Meanwhile, I go to my job and give of my time; my company pays me in return. I give to charity, I give to panhandlers. I intend to ensure my children’s college is paid for. I worry about having enough money for retirement. Life is measured by a series of transactions.

Wanting to Be Seen

There’s a TV commercial for Nationwide Insurance featuring Mindy Kaling. In the commercial, she does all kinds of goofy stuff, until right at the end she says “Can you see me?”

The gist is something about how you are not invisible to the insurance company.

It’s memorable and funny. Sadly, however, this situation is, in many ways, all too true.

In modern societies, a vast majority of people are essentially invisible to each other, passing through their daily lives in buildings and on the streets, anonymously. Never speaking, never touching.

Our lives are empty because of this.

In his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger says “A person living in a modern or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

He goes on to say that, in a style of living that is most ideal to the human mental state, “day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people.”

This is something that has been on my mind in recent years. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to one another, we turn to so-called social media. And a lack of privacy is not always a bad thing. In fact, privacy has an ugly twin. It’s called loneliness, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people.

Wanting to be seen, to be understood, to be truly known is a very human feeling to have. Without it, we find ourselves, according to Junger, in a civilization “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”


I can’t recommend Tribe highly enough. It is a short, easy read, and Junger presents his well-considered thoughts in an engaging fashion. It should be required reading for anyone living in a modern, westernized society.