My family and I have been spending the summer in Germany, where I'm working on my new book and participating in a research project on a fellowship.
It's been surreal to watch my home country devolve into a level of partisanship, hateful rhetoric, and outright violence the likes of which I've never experienced in my lifetime, but to see it all unfold from afar, via social media, citizen journalism and mainstream news outlets. Adding to the uncanniness of it all is the fact that my forebears departed this very region a few generations ago, already chafing under the anti-Semitism that would soon be catalyzed by fascism into full-blown genocide. Yet here I sit, in the heart of the Rhineland, surrounded by friends and well-wishers, with my African-American wife and brown Jewish children, feeling in many ways more secure than I would in my own neighborhood. (Not that Germany is free of the madness, as this week's horrible attacks in Munich attest to).
Two weeks ago, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed within days of each other, two more in a long line of unarmed men with brown skin gunned down by American police without reason. Two more families and communities torn apart, two more pieces of evidence that black lives – the lives of the people I love most in the world – don't matter in my country, in the place where I choose to live and raise my children.
I woke up the morning after Castile's death with the grains of a new song in my head. It was a different style of song than what normally comes to me. The lyrics were fractured, like the competing narratives in my media sphere, like the unresolved thoughts warring for my attention. The music was very spare, just an echo of a bass line, looping angularly in my aural memory. I wrote down what I could, and brought the results to my wife, who has also been my musical partner for decades. She took those pieces and ran with them, pouring in her own anguish and anger, her own hopes, her own angle as a black woman from America and a visionary with the widest perspective of anyone I know. Then I added some, and she added some. The kids were there in the room with us; they're used to hearing us work on new material. Within an hour or two, we had a song we both felt meant something. A song we were proud of, even relieved to have gotten out of our systems. The song is called #letuslive.
Fortunately, I had just given a talk a few days earlier at the Institute for Popular Music in nearby Bochum, where they have a state-of-the-art recording studio and a faculty and student body with excellent musical and engineering chops. I messaged my friend Hans, who runs the Institute, and asked him whether he'd be interested in helping us record the song. He kindly, even enthusiastically assented, and we made plans to come back down to record the song the following week.
In the meantime, Dallas happened. It's still unclear what the story is. A group of gunmen, or maybe a lone gunman. An ex-marine suffering post-traumatic distress. A black man fed up with systematic violence, seeking to settle the score. Maybe none of that. Maybe all of that. I don't know. Our song includes the refrain "policemen's ears they hear no sound." Now it was literally true, in a different way altogether. More pain. More agony. More broken families and communities. More finger-pointing and divisiveness.
We headed down to Bochum, and cut the tracks, with great support from many of the fine musicians at the Institute. I mixed them on my laptop a day or two later, and Dunia and I released our demo version of #letuslive on Youtube and Soundcloud.
More madness. Cops killed in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling had so recently been a living man. More pain agony finger-pointing division bullshit. More ears that could hear no sound.
This week, Hans himself released a remix of the song – a danceable disco track, twice as long as our cut, infectiously groovy. Dunia and I were overjoyed to hear our music and lyrics refracted through his DJ sensibility, and we were excited to see how well it was received, especially here in Europe.
More madness. The RNC convention. Protest snuffed out by overpolicing, unspeakable hatred passing as a political platform, crowds cheering as demagogues stoke them into xenophobic frenzy. America First. A black therapist on the ground with his hands in the air, catching a bullet to the leg from a clueless cop as he pleads with the police not to shoot his autistic patient. America First. A promise of "law and order," a warning note. Is it any more vague than the one my grandparents heard, when they decided to flee this place, this very place where I'm sitting right now? Should I stay here in Germany, where my family and I are welcome? Should we return and fight? Stand our ground? Speak out for what is right? How can I factor in the risk that my 12-year-old son and his friends will be profiled, will be targeted, will be killed? How can I raise a black son in a Trump America? Even if he loses – inshallah, kinehora, devil get thee behind me – it's still going to be Trump America. Those adoring crowds aren't going anywhere anytime soon. America First.
And here I am, enjoying my summer with my family, tasting Westphalia's fruits and hacking away at my new book, 1,000 words at a time, and going mad. I've never felt so close to giving up, to relinquishing any hope of making sense of life, of finding meaning in the day-to-day. I feel like I'm standing on the shore of a vast dark ocean, watching bodies wash up on the sand. Each face looks too much like my own, too much like the ones I love most dearly.
If it weren't for the music, I think I would have teetered over the brink and fallen into the black hole of nihilism, or gray anhedonia, or green hulk-like rage already. If it weren't for music, I don't think I would still be able to love. I really mean that.
So thank you. Thank you to whatever little piece of me took the pain and confusion and tried to make something beautiful with it. Thank you to my wife, my bandmate, my coparent, my life partner, my sparring partner, my lover, for taking my fragmented bits of dreamspeak and weaving them with her own into a beautiful tapestry. Thank you to my friend Hans, for opening your heart, your studio, your laptop, and amplifying and dancifying the signal. Thank you to anyone who listens, to anyone who dances, to anyone who shares, to anyone who plays and sings. I know you need my music, and I need yours. If we stop listening to one another, we'll be lost in the noise.