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Creativity is a Human Right

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 often exceptions to this belief. Sometimes it is even flat-out unhelpful. Making music (or creative expression of 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. To create spaces where we can invite different ways of meeting these needs, and how the meeting of those needs “out of order” can be a viable part of the bridge out of homelessness, is part of the entire philosophy of the program.

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 basic 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 finally, 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.

To read this post on Medium, click here.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan. Maybe devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning.

Hearing of Joni’s health in jeopardy earlier this week made me realize that the long-dreaded day that Joni is not in the world any longer is getting closer. It feels much like when I finally started realizing my maternal grandmother was not going to live forever: I understand it intellectually, that no one lives forever, but my heart seizes in objection nonetheless.

joni mitchell with guitarI still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, and from there I discovered altered tunings.

If not for Joni and her exotic tunings, I probably wouldn’t have become a guitarist, maybe wouldn’t have even kept going with music.

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums. It wasn’t only the musical aspect, of course; it was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics, which gave an intriguing glimpse into a grown woman’s love affairs, independence, politics, opinions, and struggles–not something that is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, even today.

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe entirely; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities.

Today when I look back at those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses” (it’s too long a list)–I see how this entire musical vocabulary was internalized into my playing and my eventual songwriting. Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant: her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then); her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality.

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved. Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that too often undermines authentic expression.