On songwriting and questioning

The process

My songwriting ability amounts to the basics of coming up with lyrics and a melody. I wasn’t blessed with a gift for musical instruments, and my vocal skills are that of a pretender.

When I started writing the songs for DEF with the REVOLUTION, I was limited to recording a raw a capella and basic drum beat.  After that, the mission was to find someone generous enough to offer a real instrumental track to go with the vocals.

Only able to ask so many favors of my musician friends, I was lucky enough to come across an online remix community called ccMixter. Within a few months, I had enough material for two full remix albums.

Since then, with the help of the artists at ccMixter (and a few others who have stumbled upon my work and one or two instrumentalists I have stumbled upon), I’ve been able to experiment with different genres and styles of singing. Everything from hip hop to bluegrass. Just as our movement should be trying to organize a diverse spectrum of people, I want to try and cast a wide musical net.

Some of the songs are issue specific, and some are more general in nature. All of them are meant to aid or inspire activism.

While I may never see my name at the top of the charts, I believe in the potential of these songs. I believe in their lyrics, and I believe in the power of melody.

How good these songs sound will depend on who is remixing them.  How good these songs are will depend on the reaction of who listens to them.

 


Questioning (part one/contribution)

With unprecedented challenges facing us today, our world is in need of radical change.  There are numerous books offering achievable solutions.  There are visionaries in every field.  Unfortunately, many of us are not used to thinking in such radical terms.  The questions necessary to even grasp these solutions are absent from everyday life.

You may or may not agree with the content of my songs, but hopefully you will agree that it is important these questions be asked.

We will never change the world until we can question the world. My hope is that these songs can help examine and break down many of the obstacles that keep us from asking the very questions that may lead us to real change.

My goal is not to preach to the choir, but rather to remind everyone that they are in the choir. I try to approach questions concerning economics, politics, and social justice with the recognition that I could have been anyone. My only authority is the authority to question, same as yours.

Although you may find some of my work to be controversial, I will try to direct the majority of my criticism toward specific philosophies and the roles they offer us rather than the individual followers of such philosophies.  As I was not always of the mind I am now, I understand the appeal of competing ideologies.  I wish not to dismiss you, but to appeal to your intellect and sense of humanity.

I hope you will return the favor.

 


Questioning (part two/personal)

Like anyone who is honest in reflection, I am embarrassed (at times ashamed) by so many previous actions, attitudes, statements, writings.

Now, this is not to say that I’m some giant asshole. Nor have I lived all that wild a life. I was certainly never any kind of gangster or badass or even a particularly violent person. In fact, my lifestyle was quite conservative in contrast to my surroundings. But as I grow older and expand my understanding of right and wrong, I’m saddened by the way I handled certain situations and treated certain people.

I believe the difference between who I was then and who I am now (or rather how I got from one to the other) boils down to the questions I have since asked. Questions, at the time, I never thought to ask or was simply afraid to ask.

Sure, I was young.  And being young, I thought I had it all figured out. But having later stumbled across many of these questions by accident, I can’t help but imagine what a difference it would have made if I had been brought up in a culture where this type of questioning was the norm.

Admittedly, a part of why I’m doing this is to try and make up for past transgressions. I want to make it easier for others to ask the questions that were so hard for me to ask. I want to help other young people avoid making the same mistakes.

I know now that I don’t have it all figured out. I know that I have so many more questions to ask.

In that process, I want to contribute to a culture of questioning, a culture that embraces critical thinking and its potential for progress, a culture for social justice.

 


Questioning (part three/writing)

As it is hard for someone to look back on a period of their life and admit they were wrong for so long, it is also hard to look back on work you were once so proud of and find what seems now to be obvious flaws.

Like many writers, I find myself over-analyzing my work, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Healthy questioning turns into endless second-guessing. Self-critique becomes self-doubt. Writing for the cause of social justice only makes this worse.

As I have changed my views over time, so has my writing changed.  As I have done things in my past I am not proud of, I have also written things before that now make me cringe.

I consider myself an antiracist.  But as a white antiracist, I acknowledge that everyday I must fight against my own racist tendencies, tendencies acquired in a society of institutional racism and white privilege.  Likewise, I must fight against my own patriarchal and heterosexist tendencies as a straight male in America.

As someone writing with the intention to aid or inspire left activism, I must constantly examine the impact that institutional norms have had on my work. I have not escaped the influence of the injustices I am writing against.

Acknowledging this challenge helps in the writing process, but it doesn’t eliminate guilt from past missteps or the fear that good intentions may nevertheless come back to haunt me.

Both in my writing and in my life, I want to believe in redemption. The test is to be honest about previous failures and open to the probability of future ones, while still maintaining confidence in my voice.

I am trying to become a better writer, trying to become a better person, and trying to contribute to a better world.

I welcome questions to my own work, as I have in the past not asked the right questions. Having said that, I would also welcome the patience and understanding that fallibility deserves.