“Blessed are the Shithole Countries, for they gave us the American Dream”
This week began with some of the greatest musicians in the world standing up to embrace good and reject evil in all its forms. It also began with a former governor of South Carolina showing that she does not share their courage or convictions, and that she is either poorly educated or willfully ignorant regarding the inextricable link between art and protest.
In 1945, in the same South Carolina Nikki Haley would later govern, and in which she would oppose unions and their efforts to protect the rights of workers, the employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston went on strike. As they picketed, demanding a raise from their wage of 45 cents per hour, they sang words similar to those which slaves in the fields of the same state had sung before them. “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.”
Those words echoed around the world as the battle for Civil Rights in America was fought and won. Other old songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” found new life and power, and voices found new ones to join them.
The words of artists inspired by that legacy have echoed down the generations since, and inspired countless others. In art, in literature, and perhaps most of all in music, creators have used their talent to call for change.
Bob Dylan knew those old songs well as he sat and wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Sam Cooke, inspired by both his forefathers and his contemporary, followed with “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Those songs and countless others, from artists white and black and all other colors, artists old and young, artists gay and straight, artists atheist and religious, have given us a soundtrack ever since to the eternal battle of good versus evil.
When America sent its sons to Vietnam in an unjust and pointless war, the songs rang out again. Dylan and others like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone and James Brown were still there, and again, other voices joined. John Fogerty, Neil Young, Joan Baez and many more became the spokespeople of a generation not willing to go and fight and die for no reason.
The legacy has continued unbroken. Musicians stood and battled censorship, and in some places more dire threats than that, to deliver their message. They fought Apartheid when politicians were content to let it continue.
It continued through movement after movement. Though Civil Rights were won, the battle for equality goes on, and men and women like Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga, Chuck D and Tom Morello, Kendrick Lamar and Queen Latifah, picked up the torch and fought to stop police brutality and evils of all kinds.
Then and now, some told them to “shut up and stick to music.” Bono’s famous question of “Am I buggin’ ya?” and his irony-dripping reply “I don’t mean to bug ya” were in response to those people.
Then and now, the musicians ignored them. They responded as Shakespeare did so many years ago:
“Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.”
Sunday, the voices were as loud as ever. #MeToo. #TimesUp. #NotMyPresident. They wore white roses They stood and cheered as artist after artist fearlessly spoke out against evil, whether that evil came from powerful men exerting their power through sexual assault or from a tyrant in the White House.
They stood and they played and they sang. The crowd cheered and cried for Kesha, who survived rape and a decade of abuse to emerge more powerful than ever. Logic, U2 and others made clear that the countries Donald Trump called “shitholes” have given the world far more goodness and light than Trump ever will.
Camila Cabello, a Cuban-born immigrant and now a Grammy winner at 20, spoke for those like her who Trump and his ilk would ban from a nation built by immigrants for immigrants.
“Tonight in this room full of music’s dreamers, we remember that this country was built by dreamers for dreamers, chasing the American dream. I’m here on this stage tonight because just like the dreamers, my parents brought me to this country with nothing in their pockets but hope,” she said.
Satire has stood perhaps even longer than song as a tool for the oppressed, the less powerful, to protest. It was there Sunday night too, with a sketch directed at Trump.
Nikki Haley, a person long known for putting political expediency and her own quest for power ahead of the needs of those less fortunate (and no stranger to politicizing music for her own purposes), responded to song and satire alike with rebuke. “Don’t ruin great music with trash,” she said via Twitter. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”
Here’s the thing, Nikki, the thing you should already know. If music didn’t have “politics thrown in it,” you, a woman and a child of immigrants from India, would not be where you are today. Disagree with the politics, fine. But despite all the complaints you and the man you’ve chosen to serve can make, the voices will not be silent. Good will not surrender to evil.
Haley and Trump have chosen their side. They can have it. We’ll take ours happily. We’ll stand with Dylan and Guthrie, Baez and Aretha, Bruce and Kendrick, Neil and Chuck D, Kesha and Monae and Camila. We’ll stand with everyone who stands for equality and justice. We won’t always win, but we will never surrender. We shall overcome. We’ve beaten back worse than Trump and his ilk.
No matter what happens, no matter how long it takes. “Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”