Spiritual politics blog
Table of Contents
From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition
Haiti Laid Low
Snatching Babies for Jesus
Singing Against the Rubble
The GOP’s Latino Problem
The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans
Losing Patience with the Vatican
Death in the Sweat Lodge
Letter to the Editor
Singing Against the Rubble
As the sun
went down the evening after the earthquake, friends who live in
Port-au-Prince tweeted that people were singing in groups, facing an
uncertain night of camping outside. “The streets,” tweeted Richard Morse,
the roots musician from the band RAM, “are Haiti’s living rooms and
had lost everyone and everything, all they had left was the air in their
lungs. Mostly they sang Catholic and Protestant hymns. Some understood the
quake as the beginning of the apocalypse and stood ready in that moment to
receive their Christ.
media took note of Haitians’ use of music to hold themselves together. On
NBC, a woman named Janette, trapped for five days, was pulled from the
rubble singing “Do not be afraid of death.” It sounded like a Protestant
like religion, orients people in time and in space. Haitian quake survivors
used religious music to locate themselves in the midst of the material
destruction and psychic disjuncture, to move toward equilibrium. They sang
to reconstitute themselves as individuals and as groups—families,
congregations, and neighbors thrown together in makeshift camps.
16, CNN broadcast a large group of Haitians walking through Port-au-Prince
singing hymns. “Tout bagay deja byen,” they sang. “Everything is already
“audio postcard” on NPR January 20, women and girls sang, “Jericho, miray-la
kraze”—“Jericho, the walls are crumbling.” Port-au-Prince became the
biblical city, while they became the righteous and sanctified people of God.
The lyrics went on to name other troubles—hunger, poverty, sickness—but then
declared, “There is nothing Jesus cannot crumble.”
Johnson Reagon, of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, once told Bill
Moyers that during the civil rights movement marchers sang to take space
away from the sheriff. In the face of the worst natural catastrophe in the
Americas, Haitians sang to make their spaces habitable. They sang life back
into the space of death.
the world was seeking to help the Haitians with a different musical
Twenty-five years after Live Aid raised funds for famine relief in Ethiopia,
Hope for Haiti Now became the most widely viewed telethon in history. For
two hours on January 22, it aired live on ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, BET, the CW,
CMT, HBO, VH1, MTV Networks Worldwide (which reaches 640 million
households), and CNN International (which reaches 260 million). It was also
broadcast over the Internet, on YouTube, MySpace, and Huffington Post, which
compiled updated tweets from organizations in Haiti. In Haiti, survivors
could listen in on the radio—if they had one.
telethon, proposed by Haitian music star Wyclef Jean, was organized during a
January 13 phone call between George Clooney and MTV president Judy McGrath.
Like Live Aid, it turned into a multi-venue event, with Clooney hosting from
Los Angeles, Jean from New York, Jay-Z and Bono performing in London, and
CNN’s Anderson Cooper reporting live from downtown Port-au-Prince.
acts were interspersed with taped pieces from CNN’s Haiti coverage, thereby
putting CNN in the somewhat awkward position of helping to raise money for
organizations it was covering. (The beneficiaries included the Red Cross,
UNICEF, United Nations World Food Program, Yele Haiti Foundation, Oxfam
America, Partners in Health, and the newly formed Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. )
than 100 musicians and actors were there to generate the largest donations
possible. “They’ll be singing songs that they have an emotional connection
to and that best reflect their feelings about this tragic situation,”
executive producer Joel Gallen told Denise Martin and Matea Gold of the Los
Angeles Times the day of the event.
Legend sang “I Feel Like a Motherless Child”; Kid Rock, Keith Urban, and
Sheryl Crow sang “Lean On Me”; and Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bono, and the Edge sang
“Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour),” one of the few original songs composed for the
occasion and the one that ranked first in iTunes downloads.
performer was Wyclef Jean himself, the leading Haitian pop star and a
galvanizing figure for the Haitian diaspora. Immediately after the quake he
had gone to Port-au-Prince and helped in the work of picking up corpses.
large Haitian flag as a scarf, and backed by his band (including his sister
Mekly on vocals and his cousin Jerry on bass), Jean began in English with
the iconic Jamaican song “By the Rivers of Babylon”—about the exiled
Israelites weeping for their lost homeland.
segued into “Yele,” a dirge-like composition of his own written in Haitian
Kreyol: “If you have a voice, shout out. If you have tears, cry.” But after
a few minutes, he stopped the band short and said, “Enough with the moping,
let’s rebuild Haiti.” Like a cortege of New Orleans jazzmen coming back from
the cemetery, the band burst into Rara—the exhilarating funeral music from
the Haitian countryside, produced on handmade metal horns, each blown
separately to create a melody.
performance on the global stage before millions was also an insider affair,
whose messages were for members of the Haitian diaspora. Jean used it to
give some coded shout-outs—to Jimmy O, a rapper who died in the quake, and
to singer King Kino, who had been rumored to be dead but wasn’t. The lyric
was in English: “Earthquake, we see the earth shake, but the soul of the
Haitian people it will never break.”
next day, a reported $58 million had been raised, largely through
text-messaged donations and musical performance downloads at 99 cents per
song (or, later, $7.99 for the whole album on iTunes). This, according to
MTV, was a record for a disaster relief telethon. By comparison, the 9/11
telethon, “A Tribute to Heroes” (also organized by Clooney) and the “Shelter
from the Storm” telethon for the victims of Hurricane Katrina each raised
about $30 million.
are designed to wring their audiences for contributions—because there, but
for the grace of God, go we. They present a stark divide between the viewer
and the survivor, the victim and the star, the afflicted and the saved, the
unfortunate and the fortunate. When a disaster hits an historically
oppressed or colonized population, the divides tend to reinforce stereotypes
of poor, helpless, natural victims who cannot help themselves and so need to
be rescued by the strong.
also flatten a disaster like Haiti’s into just a natural disaster, ignoring
structural causes of the high death tolls like international debt and
inequitable trade deals that might make the contributors feel less noble in
their role as rescuers.
Haiti Now was what has by now become a scripted ritual. We have become
accustomed to listening to the music of our superhuman beings, the
celebrities who lead us in empathetic call and (financial) response. We have
also become accustomed to affirming our moral righteousness as Americans
leading the world in the mercy of aid.
American musicians used music as a medium of connection, manipulating their
remote audience into empathy, compassion, and charity. They empowered their
countrymen as feelers and givers, as moral responders to a heartbreaking
rubble, Haitians used music to connect in a different way. They sang for
themselves and for each other, to push back death and to orient themselves,
with their breath and their songs, towards life. They made the quake make
sense by singing it.
Wyclef Jean, in both places at once, did both.