Digesting what the election means for our culture has been tough – both to decode and to accept. For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the national conversation is the kind of reductionism and category worship that the great folk singer Utah Phillips wisely identified as “journalistic convenience.” In this case, the impulse to divide people into large groups and paint them in broad strokes. Rural America. Coastal America. Elite America. Working class America. Rust Belt America. Tech America. Real America. Unreal America (never named, but implied like crazy). Over and over the conversation subtly insinuates that the incontrovertible division in our society is between liberal coastal college graduates, and conservative working class middle-Americans - or some version of that.
But I just don’t recognize my reality, my America, in all this crap. I know that my life, and the lives of so many people I know, has nothing to do with these cartoonish characterizations. So, to battle this maddening reductionism, I want to state for the record who this real American is.
I grew up in Milwaukee, in neighborhoods on the edge of what everyone I knew called simply “the ghetto.” Neighborhoods where the long fingers of the all-black ghetto laced together with the long fingers of the affluent white neighborhoods that surrounded it. Until I was around 13 I assumed that half of the country’s population was black. Until I was around 15 or 16 I believed that owning your own house qualified you as rich. Most of my friends would have agreed with me.
When I was a little kid, my dad worked second shift in a factory in the heart of the ghetto. This meant that, once I started school, I didn’t see him much. He drove a forklift, did janitorial duties, worked on an assembly line, and worked with nasty industrial solvents and acids to clean metal parts. He did this for over a decade.
My mom grew up in a family of nine siblings. Her father worked in foundries his whole life. When he wasn’t at the foundry he drank and smoke. Eventually, he died from ALS and emphysema. My mom was 13 years old the first time she ate in a restaurant.
I grew up surrounded by American music. Blues. Bluegrass. Old timey. My parents performed as a blues duo, my dad playing finger-style guitar, my mom belting out songs from the 1940s and several decades on either side. Their friends were musicians. As soon as I could be, I was a musician.
When I was around 12, our downstairs neighbors stopped me on my way into the house after school and commented that they didn’t know my dad played hillbilly music. Indignant, I stormed upstairs to find my dad and his friend Jim packing up their instruments. I angrily shared what our neighbor had said, taking it as an insult. Placidly and proudly, my dad informed me that they had most definitely been playing hillbilly music.
When I was in seventh grade I discovered the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That led me to Fishbone. That led me to Bad Brains. My friends and I found Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Funkadelic. We loved Nirvana and Soundgarden. We loved the Beastie Boys. We loved Fugazi. Soon after the Peppers I found De La Soul. That led me to A Tribe Called Quest. Together we found Public Enemy. We formed a band and played rock and roll. Later my friends started making rap. That same friend and I performed in an acoustic folk duo. At school we played classical music and jazz. In orchestra we thrilled at finally conquering Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In jazz band we turned Miles Davis’ “So What” into an up-tempo rocker. Everything made sense to us.
I learned to respect people who were different than me, because I watched my parents show respect for people who were different from them. I learned to respect tradition, because I watched my parents work lovingly to preserve it. And I learned to love America, because my parents showed me the bottomless reserve of bravery, soul, humor, kindness, and creativity that have been the building blocks of the real America. Black America, white America, and everything in between, which is really everything. Period.
I’ve been a roofer, a caregiver for the mentally ill (working 14 hour shifts), a temp, a wilderness camp counselor, a climbing harness assembler (working a sewing machine), a waiter (12 years), and a non-profit grant writer.
I get up every day and go to work. I do this so that I can pay rent and have food to eat and money to give my parents and my sister to help them out. I once lived for five weeks on $100. I spent about $15 a week on groceries, and at the end of the week bought a beer. I have no savings account, almost no money squirreled away for retirement. I assume that I will have to work well into my seventies.
I am a Midwestern white man. You might argue that, with my button-up shirt, my masters degree, and my job in a downtown office tower, I left the working class behind a long time ago. I won’t argue that I’m not ridiculously privileged. But if you say that my fancy college education (paired, btw, with hefty student loans), my subscription to the New York Times, my atheism, and my disdain for opulence make me unqualified to speak as a “real American”… Well, then you can go fuck yourself.
You know what real Americans do? We believe in America. We believe in history. We understand that every good thing we have has come from struggle against the forces of greed and power. We believe in each other. We know about our culture – our writers, our musicians, our painters, our dancers, our athletes, our thinkers, our explorers, inventors, and our rabble rousers. We believe in science and fact. We love our land and believe in preserving it. We acknowledge both the terrible things in our history and the fact that those things continue to reverberate today. We believe, because history has shown it again and again, that we are stronger when we work together, when we require our government to be a mechanism for cooperation not division, when we judge the health of our society by the status of the lowest among us, not by the wealth of those at the top.
I am the real America.
I am shaken. I am terrified. I am angry. I am, every day, sad.
I am determined to fight.
I am determined to fight for the America that I know. For the America that I want.
First Blood - Resist I hate to admit it, but this is the sound of my soul right now.
The Specials - Racist Friend An argument could certainly be made that severing ties with people who disagree with us is exactly the wrong thing to do in this moment. Still, it does seem important for people to challenge their friends and family to do better.
Noura Mint Seymali - Mohammedoun A groundbreaking woman from a Muslim country (Mauritania), updating traditional music with modern grit, and forging a new model for women in that tradition. I can't think of a better antidote to the closed-minded, backward nonsense raising its head right now. Plus, the music just kicks so much ass. I've seen Seymali perform twice, and had the privilege of sitting in on a guitar workshop with her guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly, a surreal amuse bouche of the magic he spins on his crazy customized guitar. I love this music to death.
Chairlift - Ch-Ching Speaking of something that sounds bad ass. Love the video too.
Christian Scott - Van Gogh (Interlude) Just 'cause I can't get enough of Christian Scott right now.
Common - Black America Again Yes please. Sooner, rather than later.
A Tribe Called Quest - We The People... The timing of this song coming out at this moment. Goddamn, everyone - Tribe is back, and not a moment too soon. I absolutely love how alive this album is, calling back to the group's best heyday, but with a sound and feel all its own and 100% anchored in the here and now.
John Legend & Chance the Rapper - Penthouse Floor Argh, Blake Mills!!! What devil did you make a deal with so that everything you produce sounds like gold? Storm the penthouse! I know exactly which one to start with.
Luke Temple - Smashing Glass Temple made his Faux Sounds debut back in September of this year, and I liked a lot of what I checked out at the time. As you listen to different albums, his eclectic streak is very clear - but nothing I heard of his prepared me for the delicate, bare beauty of this album. Mournful, understated, witty, and emotionally honest to a fault. And that voice.
Laura Marling - Soothing I saw Marling play a lot of the material from the forthcoming Semper Femina exactly a year ago, and it was clear that she had made a leap in her songcraft, evolving out of the Joni Mitchell-influenced stream of consciousness ramble into something with more shape, more groove, and, well, fewer words. Of course, having Blake Mills in the studio (DAMN YOU, BLAKE MILLS!!!!) doesn't hurt. I love the dueling basses. I cannot wait to hear this whole album.
Hiss Golden Messenger - Biloxi Got to see MC Taylor and crew again this month. So great. "I wasn't lonely, I just liked being alone."
Yussef Kamaal - Black Focus Popped up somewhere in my Spotify bubble and I couldn't ignore the title.
Ivor Cutler - Women of the World Driving around, obsessing about the present and future of our country, I spontaneously started thinking of the great Jim O'Rourke song "Women of the World." Naturally, it's not on Spotify (Drag City, I respect your decision not to be on Spotify, but DAMNIT!). But, in my research I found that it's not a Jim O'Rourke song at all. Like me, I'm imagining most of you have never heard of Ivor Cutler before, but you should at least check out his Wikipedia page. I'll just say that hanging out with The Beatles isn't even in the top four interesting things about him. (O'Rourke's version kicks off the whole album stream in the YouTube video below.)
Mica Levi - Schoolhouse I fell for Levi's soundtrack to Beneath the Skin, super eerie, unnerving, and beautiful music for a super eerie, unnerving, and beautiful movie. This is a short piece from a new album with cellist Oliver Coates. She also just released the soundtrack to the new Natalie Portman film Jackie.
Run the Jewels - 2100 Keep your eyes on Killer Mike to be a loud, strenuous, and smart voice against the blizzard of evil bullshit that's going to rain on us for the next four years. Run the Jewels 2020!
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - This Land Is Your Land In the summer of 2010 I went to NYC with a group of dude friends. It was the first time I'd been back since moving away in 2002, and it was a chance for me to fall in love with the city without having to worry about the hardships one faces when living there. One night the whole group of us trooped out to Brooklyn, scurried through some slightly sketchy neighborhoods, and finally made our way to the Prospect Park Bandshell, where Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were putting on a free concert. It was mobbed, just packed with people, and officially very passed capacity. Security wasn't letting anyone else into the bandshell area. In a "it's New York City, of course we're doing this" moment, we all walked about 30 yards back and hopped the fence, tuning in partway through their set. It was startling how good they were. Just completely transporting. Jones stopped the band after we'd seen a couple of songs and talked for a good 5-10 minutes about what it meant for her to be playing to such an enormous crowd in her home of Brooklyn. It was, like, this super intimate moment shared by thousands of people. I get goose bumps just thinking about it now. The sheer force of nature she was. The perfect combination of impeccable showmanship and utter emotional truth and honesty. Such a fighter, such a lover, and such a tremendous singer. It's a tragedy that she's gone, but what a blessing that the world got to hear her sing her truth. Just remember, this land was made for you and me. Fight, fight, fight.