One prevailing belief of the capitalist industrialist system is that art is a luxury item, a non-essential extra. Nice to have and life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. Typically, the thinking is that you must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before you should, or can, ever worry about making a piece of art to express yourself.
But in my work as a Teaching Artist with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, I have learned there are exceptions to this belief. Making music (or creative expression in any form, but in this case, music) meets fundamental needs — for example, the need for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity. These are needs that can be met regardless of whether a person is housed or not. Perhaps the meeting of those needs “out of order” can even be a viable part of the bridge out of homelessness.
The idea of a linear ordering of fundamental needs versus non-fundamental ones is of course not endemic to modern capitalism. To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. But regardless of the system, the general idea in many cultures modern and traditional is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.
But maybe it is a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs — especially when such large numbers of our population are experiencing a profound emergency of one category of needs not being met.
In a recent lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. We refocused again and again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.
“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed.
Using breathing to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords became a new loop that had a more friendly, positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she is used to. In this way, the music demonstrated something about what it could do for the student, and the student explained what the music was doing for her, in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated or predicted.
These are all examples of why the only real musical skill is being able to listen; everything else is just preparation that may or may not be useful at some point in the future.
Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.
And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless.
Anyone who gravitated to music during times when their heart was broken, their family was under the stress of divorce or addiction or other types of loss and trauma, anyone who found their way through depression or soothed an anxious and over-activated nervous system with music, is familiar with how humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits, but there is something particularly holistic about how musical activity integrates physical movement, patterns, breathing, and vocalizing. (Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on.)
There is something profound about being a part of a musical experience where people are getting fundamental needs met through song and movement in such a transparent way. Too, there is considerable value in seeing someone who often feels marginalized and disenfranchised get to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.
Music may not be directly helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.