Artist as Peace Activist

What is the artist’s responsibility, if any, to the state of the world? As we progress in life, sometimes, but not always, we begin to look at our lives and ask ourselves, what is my contribution?  Some of us think that we can’t make a significant input unless we do something that a least gets mentioned in the New York Times, nominated for a major award or some other self-affirming accolade. Artistic offerings whether large or small, recognized or not, are always present in our world.

Those of us who are ambitious musicians, strive to have our music heard, to have our feelings understood by the masses. Perhaps this is the only type of addition that matters for us as artists. I can only speak from the musician’s point of view, but perhaps it may be true for the other art forms as well.

Some of us sit comfortably in our world of art for art sake, art without an agenda, believing strongly of its authenticity.  But is art with an agenda not authentic art? Why is it that some artists are considered political while other artists are not? Is this an intentional thing on their part or merely a by-product of stirrings in the subconscious mind that arises without awareness, in the form of a song, poem, painting….?

Of this I am certain; when music springs organically from a source, the ‘what is strongly felt within is a mirror to what is felt without’, producing a power that can change the world for good or for bad. Artist as peace activist?

I’ve been a musician all of my life and I’ve been an active peace pusher for 20 years. As a musician, my focus has been to create the music, get the gigs, have fun playing music with wonderful musicians, and of course, let’s not forget getting paid cause the bills ‘gotta’ get paid. The idea that my music was affecting people in ways other than listening and having a good time, and that I could be one of those ‘political’  musicians, never occurred to me. Besides I felt I was already making a statement just by being an African American female jazz musician who grew up in deep South, in the 60’s. I lived those stories of riding on the back of the bus and drinking from ‘coloreds only’ fountains. Yes, I have some unbelievable stories to tell, which I will save for another time. My attitude finally settled on, “enough, I just want to play some music”.  It wasn’t until a dear friend of mine, who was a big community activists for over 60 years, started asking me to help her with mobilizing our Brooklyn neighborhood around the peace and social justice movement. Through working with local grassroots organizers, handing out flyers, creating educational forums, attending rallies and marches, I began to seriously think about my connection, first to my neighborhood, and eventually to the entire world. I was also introduced to Nichiren Buddhism and the SGI around the same time. The SGI which stands for Soka Gakkai International with its mission of education, culture and world peace seemed to be in absolute alignment with my new found personal calling.  So I jumped in, eventually became an active member of Brooklyn For Peace and began my exploration as an activist.

The years have passed and working day in and day out to mobilize and motivate people to take action has been a frustrating, yet rewarding adventure. For me it was not enough to simply inform people of things, that in my opinion, seemed out of balance; we needed to give them something to do about it.  To help them feel empowered and effective. People ask me why do you care so much about something that you can’t really change? Why involve yourself in a peace movement that obviously has not, nor probably never will, have a ‘win’ to speak of? You’re a musician, just play music!

My answer: I accept full responsibility for the state of the entire world. I am completely and totally connected to everything around me. Yeah, we know, the spiritual Buddhist thing, right? Yeah, that…, but think about this. The fact that you are reading this blog entry, and that I have typed it on my computer is the result of someone creating the technology for me to do so. The chair I’m sitting in, the desk that my laptop rests on, the house that I’m in, the list can go on and on and these are just the material elements. So when I say that I am connected, that my contribution or lack thereof is part of the cause and is definitely the effect, it hails more than just some intangible ‘spiritual Buddhist thing’. It can definitely be seen on the material plane. Just as I rely on everyone else in the world to help me with my existence, in turn I think it is safe to say that I aid everyone else in their existence. Interdependence or in my Buddhist practice, dependent origination.

So whether I acknowledge it or not, act upon it or not, I have a responsibility to the world and since I am an artist (that’s what I like to call myself), my work and expression (my story) are my tools that I use to provide service to the world, to create the greatest value.  Effective art tells a story and people always like a good, compelling story. If I am an active story teller, then I my art becomes my activism.

Maybe all the songs I sing and write aren’t those of specific social commentary such as End War NowSave the Planet, No Nukes, etc, they are commentaries nevertheless, and their value represents what I value in life. The tribal, familial elements of a story draws us in and guides us to seeing our similarities, identify with all the emotions of the moment, whether it be pain, joy, sadness, loneliness, happiness, etc. We all want to be heard, even if it is sometimes through the captured visuals, words and music of another.

Traveling around the world, I have witnessed first hand the power of music to bring people together. Music permeates and integrates the life of the teller with the listener’s and carries them both into the heart of silence where you find Peace.

 

There are some great articles on art and activism, here are a few here, but I invite you to browse the web and seek out more information for yourselves.

Art, Artists and Activism– 1930s to Today
By Art Hazelwood
http://bit.ly/14OXim0

Cultural Politics
Art Activism [this site contains numerous links for exploration]
http://bit.ly/10d1gfu

Baby, Scratch My Back….

ogdan-nash-itchBeing a singer, I’m hypersensitive to lyrics to songs. There a quite a few songs about scratchin’ where it itches. Most of them are blues titles. The title of this post, for instance, is taken from a Slim Harpo tune of the same name.

Another “Scratch My Back” title song, written by earl Cage, Raymond Moore, Marcell Strong and sung by the great Otis Redding.  Here’s something.

I have been a fan of the Simpsons since they first aired in 1989. After all that time, I just realized what the lyrics are to the theme song of the “Itchy” and “Scratchy” show. Doh!!!!

They Fight, and Bite
They Fight and Fight and Bite
Fight, Fight, Fight, Bite, Bite, Bite
The Itchy and Scratchy Show

Enjoy!

All In A Day’s Work…. part 3

The final installment of my miraculous visit that became an unexpected journey. I would say that this is perfect timing. Why? Because in 3 days, I will back in the land of Java continuing another exploratory excavation of the hidden inside all of us. But before I get into all of that, I will finish telling, to the best of the space allotted here and also what I can still recall, the story of my last visit to Jakarta, Indonesia. (I began this post 3 days before leaving for Jakarta, that was one month ago. I finally finished this post today, May 23, 2014. Since then I’ve spent one month in Indonesia. More tales to come, LOL)

OK, where was I; oh yeah, pilgrimage for a Mystic in training. Before the opportunity arose for us to demonstrate the effects of all of our hard work at the school, Devi and I decided to take a day trip to give all of the teaching and performing a rest before returning to teaching and performing. The place for this excursion was none other than Borobudur.

I cheated and pulled this aerial view from the web. It helps with the explanation of the description of this unusual temple. Borobudur is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The monument consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.[1] A main dome, located at the center of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside a perforated stupa. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple,[2][3] as well as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. (taken from wikipedia).

I wanted to venture to this historical site on my last visit four years ago. I read during the full moon in May or June, Buddhists in Indonesia observe Vesak (Indonesian: Waisak) day commemorating the birth, death, and the time when Siddhārtha Gautama attained the highest wisdom to become the Buddha Shakyamuni.

borobudur-up Reading and viewing pictures on the website is one thing, seeing up close and personal is an entirely different experience. I can’t say that I was speechless or in an immediate state of transformation as I walked up the towering stairs leading to this grand wonder. To be honest, the true beauty and magnificence of this man made structure did not hit home until later when I was sitting in my hotel room looking at some of the pictures I took of the day.

buddha-statueThere are many different Buddhists sects. I personally practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism and I am a member of the Sokai Gakkai International (SGI).Still it is always inspiring to view some of the ancient Buddhist temples while traveling around the world.

My friend Clark Strand has a new book out entitled, Waking the Buddha: How the Most Dynamic and Empowering Buddhist Movement in History Is Changing Our Concept of Religion. It is an illuminating read on Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism specifically and the SGI organization and its founding Presidents Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda and Daisaku Ikeda.

All in all I’d say the trip was one big amazing surprise after another. A wonderful student of mine in Indonesia , an inspiring person I consider a dear friend, Melyana was kind enough to provide us with a place to crash while we were visiting. Amanjiwo. From my room I chanting throughout the night and found that I have a peace that was immediate and always there inside me waiting for me to acknowledge and then surrender to it’s purity.

Believe it or not I was anxious to return to Jakarta to continue my lessons with the students. I looked forward to our “Chillin’ with Veronica” night along with the jam session. For this evening in particular, all of the private students along with the ensemble classes that I worked with performed. The night was spectacular. I was so proud of everyone and how hard they worked. But once again I got another “out of the this world” surprise. Every student in the school at the close of the evening sang a song for me. You Are My Heaven by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Their beautiful voices and the love that flowed through each note, each word. Well, was I crying. Absolutely and throughout the entire thing. They presented me with gifts and a card that they each signed. Although I’m beyond thankful for the gifts and the card, the greatest gift was the one that was not material, but instead it was one where the value can never be measured. It’s value increased every second of every day for always. That precious gift was each student, exactly as they are-one of a kind.

nov-2014-imdi

“Unless we view things with our hearts, we can see nothing. But if we look at the world with a love of life, it will reveal its beauty to us.” Daisaku Ikeda