Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

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Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor





Singing Against the Rubble
by Elizabeth McAlister





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 bedrooms.”

So many 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. 

The news 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 hymn.

Music, 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.

On January 16, CNN broadcast a large group of Haitians walking through Port-au-Prince singing hymns. “Tout bagay deja byen,” they sang. “Everything is already fine.”

In an “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.”

Bernice 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.

Meanwhile, the world was seeking to help the Haitians with a different musical undertaking.

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.

The 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.

Musical 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. )

The more 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.

John 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.

The last 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.

Wearing a 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.

He then 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.

The 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.”

By the 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. 

Telethons 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.

Telethons 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.

Hope For 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.

And so, 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 humanitarian crisis.

Amidst the 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.


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