I met her in Alcoholics Anonymous. Our relationship was talking about her kitchen remodelling. I swear she remodeled her kitchen for five years - know what I mean? We live in a rich country. There are so many vacations, and the long campaigns of grandparents' assisted living and niece's graduations, therapies and Landmark, and weddings, weddings, weddings... There is a de-politicized dedication to all the domesticity that money can buy. These rituals fill out the year completely, but it's denial, isn't it. We assume that bodies won't be floating in our windows, that there will always be nature going on, and the poor will find a way.
What do I do with this feeling, this beat of justice I feel when I'm walking down the street? It's the banner drop in the middle of an orgasm. It's the seedling of Wangari Maathi. It's when a stranger marches out of a crowd, holds my head and says, "Keep doing what you're doing." The beat of justice is the heartbeat of the Earth. I can stop everything I'm doing and feel that beat. I'm an angel-zombie for the idea of this planet, the idea that life will grow like weeds through the crack in the highway of fear. Ban Glyphosates! Earthalujah!
Because I love me some Nina Simone I decided to watch "What Happened Miss Simone" on Netflix today. This is a beautiful and moving documentary that spoke to me from beginning to end; it felt like a splash of cold water awaking me from a deep sleep.
Near the beginning she says, "When I first started to take lessons, I became terribly aware of how isolated I was from the other children, and how isolated I was from the white community and the negro community. They always wanted me just to play the piano for them to dance. I wasn’t asked too much to do anything else. That was very hard."
I knew this isolation. I remembered looking up from the upright piano of our home out of the window that looked over into our neighbor's backyard normally overflowing with kids and laughter. I could hear the bikes whizzing by on the street outside and kids calling to each other but, I had work to do. I had found an emotional outlet for all the things that one feels growing up gay and Black in Mississippi. I knew that somewhere in those 88 black and white keys were answers to the questions I was too young to ask. At 13 I became the pianist and music director at my father's church. Hearing stories of Miss Simone playing in church as a child I was immediately taken back to so many Sunday mornings where after the postlude would end, the congregation would clap (sometimes politely, sometimes uproariously), and they would leave for their post-church Sunday activities I normally had about 15-20 minutes in the sanctuary by myself before heading to the next service. Finally alone, I would play just for me. Very often there would be tears streaming down my face as I realized that the church that I had grown up in, where I played and sang and led the choirs, the place where the Black community had found strength and joy out of misery for generations was not a safe place for me. Or at least not all of me. But, I wasn't just crying because of that. I cried because Sunday morning really is one of the most segregated times and no one really seemed to care. I chose my friends based on common interests and focus. I had friends of all races and ethnicities and I cried when I thought of the walls we were confided to dwell inside. So, I played songs for my friends that they would never hear and I cried.
"I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved." - Nina Simone
I think much like Miss Simone I did not become a musician in order to become an activist but, at some point I realized that as a musician I literally have a microphone in front of me and when you see injustice in the world it is your duty to speak truth.
Less than a year ago, I was sitting on a couch in Edinburgh, Scotland watching footage from Ferguson, Missouri with Savitri D and members of The Stop Shopping Choir. If it had been captured in black and white one would have been hard pressed to distinguish if this was 1920s, 1960s or 2014. As I watched this I could feel myself changing but, I didn't fully understand how. Four months later we were there, on the ground. Originally we had come to protest Monsanto with an organic Thanksgiving Dinner on their lawn but, that had us less than 15 minutes from Ferguson. We met activists there, had dinner with them and I found the slightly out of tune piano that every church basement seems to have. The Stop Shopping Choir sang some of our songs first then everyone started singing, mainly church songs (I specifically remember "Victory is Mine") and I felt a shudder upon realizing that perhaps my life had a trajectory that I didn't know about. All of those Sunday tears of isolation and sadness had suddenly become Thanksgiving tears of joy.
June 2015 was a roller coaster. There was a stark reminder that the church, a place of sanctuary and safety was never quite as safe as we had hoped. And then the final week of the month rolled in and it became clear that millions of Americans would keep their health insurance, marriage would just be marriage regardless of the genders of the people involved and as a country we even had conversations about the history of the Confederate flag (even in "Mississippi, goddamn!"). It felt that the country was moving in the right direction. The chance to pursue happiness was feeling tangible.
But, alas, the elation was short lived. Suddenly, my Facebook wall was being inundated with articles about "gay" marriage meaning the end of society. My pursuit of happiness for some reason had also signaled the end of civilization. I know, I know. "That's why Facebook has an "un-friend" button." But, 1 - I don't want to live in a bubble, an echo chamber of agreement. 2 - 20 years of friendship, shared memories and experiences can't be erased with the click of a button. And as I was probably the first out, gay person known to some of these people I couldn't help but wonder..."What had I done to make you believe that my desire to find love and happiness was a part of some evil plot to tear down society?" I know there's no answer for this but, the feeling is there all the same.
Last night, I called my mom and we talked for hours. I was energized when she told me about a number of encounters she had had explaining to people the truth about gay marriage. In Jackson, Mississippi. In case you were wondering - yes, she's a superhero. But, this isn't new to her. She's been an ally since before I even knew I would need one. (Can I repeat for emphasis: IN JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI.)
"She was not at odds with the times—the times was at odds with her. I think when a person moves to their own kind of clock, spirit, flow, if we were living in an environment that allowed us to be exactly who we are, you’re always in congress with yourself. The challenge is how do we fit in in the world that we're around. Are we allowed to be exactly who we are?" - Ambassador Shabazz on Nina Simone
Today, I celebrate July 4th not for our history but for our future. A future where we are allowed to be exactly who we are.
Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Savitri. Thank you, Miss Nina Simone.
Is it happening? "We're the people known as Earth." A simple anthem resurrects my tear ducts and gets them working again. Makes me want to take a walk outside in the trees. Put this alongside Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" The lesson for artists with songs like these is that there isn't that aesthetic hesitation. Cleverness, irony, hidden things, "art" for its own sake.
Neil Young has his eye on the meaning, the arrival of the revelation. A crowd of friends and a big string section. He's confident of that conversation he's having with us, unafraid of seeming sentimental. Yeah, we should be sentimental, we should love the Earth. Say it straight! That's the LAST thing that should embarrass us. Amen? Well, that was always the gift of rock.
Makes me feel independent today, independent from the Exxon and Monsanto and their idea of the USA. I'm feeling fine. Get back to my dependence on the Earth.
WE RESPECTFULLY REQUEST THAT OUR FACEBOOK FRIENDS START A CLIMATE RIOT AFTER YOUR MORNING COFFEE:
Our casual review of today's headlines that involve life on Earth: Heavy Rain Triggers Deadly Floods in India, Yosemite Forest Fire Leaves Mountains of Dead Trees, Methane Emissions in Freshwater Wetlands Raise Fears, Russia's Sochi Hit by Floods Victims Uncounted, Spike in Particulate Matter on July 4th in the US Expected, Helium Leakage from Earth's Mantle Raises Fears of Heat Rise, US Supreme Court Responds to Corporations: Unleashes Mercury Levels from Smokestacks at Power Plants, Mercury Pollution On the Rise: Experts, New Ramur Leopard, Black Rhino, Cross River Gorilla near Extinction. And - 2015 IS THE HOTTEST YEAR SO FAR... HOTTER EVEN THAN 2014...
So we feel a rise of people power and we feel also the facile moves of the sweatshop/fossil-fueled market. Two worlds that are on a collision course eventually, but meanwhile probably can continue to co-exist for a time. The 1% may be learning that their militaries and cops cannot be too heavy-handed. When the gun doesn't work, they go to commercial media, buying and poisoning land, and the corruption of governments. So their violence can take many forms. We know that. The quiet revolution of sustainable food, energy and education meets their thrusts with a kind of tai chi. We don't have to be their consumers.
A couple weeks ago the G-7 issued the death sentence for the children of all living parents. We'll be off carbon in 2100? This chilling idea was presented with giddy optimism. The ghoulishness of modern leadership had me down. Now suddenly, the power of Ferguson seems in step with the power of Stonewall. And we all sense the soon-to-rise power of the mass of humanity in the global south, where our neo-liberal economy has dumped its disasters. The Indignado are everywhere in the world, out-numbering and out-believing the old regimes. Now I'm liking our odds, but I know that the Earth will decide.
It should be easy (and very important) to mock the G-7 politicians who put off the conversion from fossil fuels to 2100, which would seem to be after the apocalypse. NGO's like Oxfam would counter the national leader's promise with the usual hopeful-but-scolding public statement. But it is the artists who needed to respond, especially comedians. Russell Brand must have said something, God bless him, but I missed it. What I noticed was a deafening silence. Extractive corporations everywhere let out a big sigh.
The crucial mockery went missing because the cultural world is the most established and tragic climate denier. Why? Why would the arts be conservative on the climate? Think of all the performances that challenged entrenched power. Remember all those revolutions? ...the Dadaists and rock and roll, Charley Chaplin in The Great Dictator, the Ghost Dance at the end of the Indian Wars, Sam Cook's gift of "A Change Is Gonna Come" to Dr. King, the folk-singers and poets of the Peace Movement.
At this moment in time, we have such an overwhelming climate-silence in the United States that you have to look around and wonder - where are the censors? We hear nothing about the earth for months on end. No TV, no music, nothing viral. The public response only comes when a natural disaster hits us so hard that we are forced to look away from the animated disasters in our video games...
Ten months have passed since the Peoples Climate March and the enduring activist event in the U.S.A. is Black Lives Matter. The PCM was officially permitted and had little power. The movement against racism and militarism in American police is boiling into a revolution. Black Lives Matter is in the streets, flash-mobbing into symphony halls, super malls and Grand Central Station. The climate movement is officially indoors, law-abiding, not-getting-your-hands-dirty.
The recent climate drama by an American artist is Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. The space thriller accepts the climate apocalypse of the Earth and it is lavishly deathy. But multiplexes are like museums at this point. The consumer experience is so dominating that the climate emergency dramatized inside the building doesn't seem to stick with us as we leave. Rather, we get purged by all the special effects and stagger from the theater having had all the climate change we can handle. The outside world of the streets - where social movements have always taken place - is reduced to commuting, headphone-wearing, and the visuals of corporate products.
We know how silent we have been when the cry of a real Planet Crier breaks through. Suddenly there is Gezi Park with its all-night piano in the 606 trees. Yeb Sano cries in front of the power suits at the Warsaw climate conference. The Chilean gauchos-and-environmentalists ride horses for days to save the Patagonian Rivers. Women with trapeze skills hang in bat outfits from refinery towers in New South Wales. The Maldives parliament holds a meeting underwater in scuba gear. The Nigerian mothers back down Chevron with their nakedness. Pussy Riot dances on the altar.
Meanwhile, back in the land of consumerism, we artists aren't getting that far. We have crowds of books and docs about the earth and they educate us. In 2015, activism must follow education, or why learn? The best artists have work in museums, iPhones, and colleges, but again, it's 2015 - activism must be the point. We've got a lot of facts, aesthetics, perspective - what we lack is the actual change. Chelsea Manning has more to do with a climate movement than another teach-in at the Sierra Club.
There was a day when the comedians, songwriters, and writers were the heralds of change in the West. Now the bullhorn of earth activism has been seized by unlikely citizens who do scary things. I'm thinking of the band of stalwarts who occupied UK's Tate Modern, writing the words of Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein on the floor of the Turbine Room. Liberate Tate! Yes! Overwhelm the big museum with climate scrawlings!
As the basic laws of the planet shift, we will outgrow the laws of our art forms, our careers and our uninvolved consumerism. Strange-feeling decisions will be made. "Breaking the frame" is necessary at this time. Put it plain: we must risk arrest. The totalizing culture is so complete that to say something unsanctioned, defending the earth, must be illegal.
The 200-miles-an-hour wind isn't legal, and it has the drama we need to get the message. The mudslides and avalanches and floods do not have permits. The droughts and fires uproot us, make us move, like good political art. We have a great teacher.
This is a picture of Jones Beach, where we perform July 21, opening for Neil Young. I think this audience is at a Phish concert. Since we got the invitation, I've been writing long letters to friends, because that's the best way to avoid getting the bends from the change in pressure. I can reflect on things as the theater I'm in expands for our songs and preaching. The life and works are not really at risk, though, because with us all things flow from the activism, or, as we say, "Nonviolent Dramatic Action." We are in the middle of a Glyphosate Ban effort, and if it is performed with some impact - something like, say, singing Pope Francis' encyclical to the Park's Department while surrounding a spraying truck, well, no - see? - that's not good enough. These actions need to be like folk stories that people can't help but try to excitedly repeat and even embellish to listeners, and the stories carry a meaning that grows and grows. That's the hardworking "expansion" that must go forward over the next month. After all, that's why Neil invited us, and that's how we invite ourselves.
First, take pictures, videotapes, write in journals, talk to people and point your finger at dead things and make snarky comments. My photo from biking around Prospect Park this morning:
The spraying truck and its emptied boxes of Monsanto's RoundUp, a known carcinogen. And the poisoned weeds. The concrete wall behind the little fence is the playground for PS 154 in Brooklyn. The steps on the upper right corner is our house, up and down which runs, bounces or if she is asleep like last night after rehearsal, Lena is carried... PLEASE DON'T SPRAY NEAR CHILDREN and other living things.
And so we are gathering evidence now. And will you send us your pictures. Last night the Stop Shopping Choir agreed to gather evidence in the city. These pictures plus 50 peer-reviewed published scientific studies plus Pope Francis' Enyclical and you gettin' somewhere. Put that in the mayor's lap!
Thanking you (actual) friends - We think all of this means - that in this time of the Earth's changes, we will re-meet each other in new relationships. I'm happy for the choir, volunteers who follow me into the weirdest super malls and rapacious banks... Our work has been shut out of commercially viable showbiz. But the Earth's winds are blowing. Consumerism and careerism's walls are breaking down now, labels and definitions re-compost into new magic. This is a sad and desperate and deadly time, but suddenly we are looking into each others' eyes. ---rev
HOW FAR FROM THIS EMPTY PLAYGROUND TO THE THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES IN THE BOATS? ...to the hundreds of thousands massing at borders, living as nomads, fleeing the chemical wars and food riots.
How far from this poisoned playground to the grieving families who go to church today with a loved one missing. How far is it really from police violence to the crazy loners who kill? Tamir Rice is in that playground.
Monsanto's toxins and the bullets of the state are both the creations of that border that we will cross. These reinforced fences that keep us apart and take away the power that we would have if we acted together - are false borders, created by fear.
There will be a time soon when the wanderers will break through the border and pray with the American families crying in the graveyard; a time when the neighborhood gathers around the toxic spraying truck and takes the driver by the hand.
---Father's Day, 2015