Donald Cohen: Musicians and Artists Are Essential Workers Too

Before the brutal and racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery exploded into mass protest and resistance, we were merely in the midst of the Covid crisis (illness and skyrocketing job loss.) It seems like another lifetime.

We watched growing Covid casualties with horror but also inspired by the outpouring of support for front-line workers — the nurses, doctors and hospital staff, public and private sector workers who are keeping us fed, delivering the mail, and teachers using technology to stay connected to students.

We were learning (or relearning) that health, education, communication, transportation, food, water, shelter, and more are basic public goods we all need all the time. They shouldn’t be privatized commodities available only to those who can afford them. These are life’s essentials that we can only do for all if we do it together.

We must deal with both crises at the same time. We have to foreground and confront the deep history and impact of structural and cultural racism. We also have to remember that there are millions of essential workers, putting their lives and families in jeopardy while waging a war against the pandemic and keeping America moving.

There’s an even deeper lesson about what’s important. After several months in isolation we hunger to reconnect with our friends, our families, our communities. We’ve seen in sharp relief that the community we need is the community of all of us — bereft of racism, hatred, and oppression and full of understanding, empathy and connection.

It turns out that community is a vital public good that provides the glue that makes possible our common purpose.

If that’s true (it is) then we have to acknowledge that musicians, (and artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, etc.) and the workers who support them are also essential workers. Our health and hatred crises have exposed a fundamental truth: We need art and music, and we need to experience it together. As Rosanne Cash says, music is “the premier service industry for the heart and soul. We cannot survive without music. It is the language everyone understands in this dangerous and divisive time.”

The economic impact on the music industry is profound. Thousands of its workers are watching their livelihoods evaporate, their tours canceled, their venues closed (some permanently) and their connection with fans changing by the day. There’s even more at stake. Music, like all art, is essential for our health, for community solidarity, for education, for understanding of our common history (both the pain it unveils and the progress achieved), for creating connections and fostering empathy. It’s essential for life, society and democracy to flourish and therefore needs to be available to all. As Louis Armstrong said, “Music is life itself.”

We can’t eat art, but it feeds us.
Art is the glue that ties us together.
Art is what makes us feel real.
Art is not an excessive luxury.
ART IS A MUST.

- Rhiannon Giddens, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman

Music as community
The pandemic has obliterated the concert experiences we share. Online shows aren’t the same, but powerfully demonstrate our need for connection. For example, 2.5 million people watched Andrea Bocelli livestreamed on Easter morning from the Duomo of Milan, Italy. We watched together, across every barrier we construct — geography, language and culture.

There’s an even more fundamental way that music creates communities of common purpose.The currency of democracy and a functioning society is trust. We simply can’t tackle the big things unless we tackle them together. And we can’t do it together if we don’t trust each other. We can’t trust each other if we are unable to see the world through the eyes and experiences of others.

Music has the power to chip away at distrust. Storytelling in song spreads the basic element of empathy: an understanding of the real experiences of those we don’t know nor understand — to learn not just their story of pain and suffering, but also their humanity, their dignity, their strength.

“Grapes of Wrath moved millions of people, very few of whom were Okies in the dust bowl. [Steinbeck] was able to make us feel everything that those characters felt. That’s the way you get a better world. It opens up our empathy and our hearts and I think we become kinder people”
- Gretchen Peters

Losing John Prine to COVID-19 brought this home to so many of us. Jason Isbell described Prine’s “secret sauce” that made his songs such powerful carriers of understanding beyond ourselves: “John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like ‘Hello in There’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. ‘Angel From Montgomery’ opens with the line ‘I am an old woman/named after my mother.’”

Music as education
Music, like all art, is a powerful teacher. It illuminates the world around us and where we come from. It makes the invisible visible and takes us into the corners and contours of our histories and worlds. There are examples throughout American history that have helped create cultural and social norms, have educated millions, put a spotlight on obscure issues and hidden injustices, and inspired change and progress.

For example, Rhiannon Giddens’ describes her calling to tell the stories for those who couldn’t or weren’t allowed to speak for themselves. Her songs of slavery and oppression have taken us into the lives and choices of the oppressed and the enslaved as well as the indifference and cruelty of those who held others in bondage.

There are also many songs that lift up values of the common good and point to examples of public action and assets that have saved lives, improved communities and made the country a fairer, more sustainable and compassionate nation. Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs project taught us about the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam — a public asset that has powered the Northwest for nearly a century. There’s “TVA,” Jason Isbell’s tribute to the saving graces of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a Depression-era, government-funded project that brought jobs and electricity to a large swath of the South. And most recently, Joe Troop of Che Apalache wrote “A Plea to the US Government to Fully Fund the Postal Service,” a real-time anthem of support for one of our most cherished public programs.

Music as health
COVID-19 has made clear that the health of all of us depends on the health of each of us. Music has been invaluable during the crisis for my mental health and I’m not alone. There is also ample scientific evidence that music improves health outcomes. For example, scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. It fosters brain development, helps infants and supports healing in stroke patients.

Music as democracy
There’s no doubt about the social, cultural and political power of music to inspire democratic and civic action. Powerful songs such as “We Shall Overcome” fueled civil rights movement action against powerful and violent forces and continue to inspire movements today. They shined spotlights on injustice and inspired millions to persevere and act in the face of terror and hatred. Many of those songs remain cultural anthems today. The contributions to the nation by Dylan, Baez, Lennon, Ochs, Aretha, Nina Simone, Buffy St. Marie and many more are incalculable.

Courageous acts by artists have inspired millions to take their own actions for justice. In 1957, Louis Armstrong canceled his Moscow tour to protest Arkansas Governor Faubus’ use of national guard to prevent nine black children from entering Little Rock High School. It was a powerful act that put a spotlight on the distance between democratic values that America espoused internationally and how those same values were ignored and thwarted domestically.

The recent protests against systemic racism has been filled with music. Thousands sang Lean on Me in front of the White House. Protesters in Atlanta danced to Childish Gambino and a live band played to families on the street. “Music has completely changed the atmosphere, as you can see,” the band director told CNN. “As soon as we started playing, the crowd just immediately came this way. We just want justice. We understand what’s going on. Music will bring togetherness and everybody is here now.”

Music as hope and vision
Finally, music and art can point to a better future — to inspire us to think and imagine from our heart, to go past the confines of our mind, to imagine a better, more just world by lifting up the history and examples of collective action for the common good. For example, Scottish artist, Karine Polwart, creates music that speaks truth to power, connects us to the natural and social worlds around us and points forward to a more just world:

“All of my writing and performing now, across song, story, theatre and books, is about bridging what’s gone before and what might yet come. I draw on tradition to say something about the moment we’re in now, about the possible futures we’re making for subsequent generations, and about the power we have to make a difference”

To sum up — music and art are essential public goods, and musicians and artists are essential workers. Case closed.

Guest post by Donald Cohen

Artist-run, non-profit advocating for musicians, performers, & songwriters in the digital landscape. (Formerly the Content Creators Coalition or “c3”)

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