The healing power of music
By Cassandra Andrusz-Ho Ching and Avery Smith
Local activist, singer and songwriter Taina Asili (third from left) visited the NYS Writers Institute in Spring 2019 for the “Art of Songwriting Panel.” From left, Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl, Bryan 'Buggy Jive' Thomas, Asili, and Michael Eck.
“If you look at our history, you see over and over that music has played a central role in changing how people think, both for the good and bad. How we make change in the larger political landscape starts with how we affect one another individually, and music brings a message in a way that opens people—their heart, mind, spirit.” -- Taina Asili (Tainaasili.com)
Under COVID-19, those already struggling with food insecurity are facing even more precarious circumstances while many more are now in need of food assistance as paychecks dwindle or stop.
COVID-19 is exposing the deep racial and class inequities in our society, especially for Black and Brown workers forced to choose between a paycheck and their health. We are also witnessing how relevant the working poor and working class people are, as essential, for the functioning of local communities to the global economy.
Healthcare and transportation workers, teachers, grocery store clerks and stockers to farmworkers among others are undervalued in our society receiving some of the lowest wages. Even though essential, many are one paycheck away from financial catastrophe, being unable to pay for daily needs from a doctor’s visit, food bill, rent or mortgage, and never being able to re-cooperate.
It is also being made apparent today, how critical social services are, the need for school meals, food pantries and food assistance, but also how fragile, limited, underfunded and unsustainable many of these programs they are.
I interviewed Taina Asili in summer 2018 for my dissertation titled “A Hunger for Justice: Everyday Forms of Latinx Resistance.” In this work, I examine daily practices that promote food justice from within communities most affected by inequity.
Practices that include but not limited to community gardening, education and training programs, farmers’ markets, CSAs, the creation of alternative narratives, (re)definition of language, poetry, art and of course, music.
In our interview, I wanted to know more about how in times of crisis music can be a tool, a change agent, a catalyst. Asili explained that she is dedicated to using her art, her music, for personal and social transformation that emphasizes environmental and food justice. She said:
Music plays a central role in how people think. It also influences how we make change in the larger political landscape by starting with ourselves, how we affect one another. Simple songs or chants can often serve as a uniting force to provoke social change. Songs help people come together, march, walk, protest and can provide a sound and voice, giving them focus and resolve to make change in their day to day lives or larger social change.
Cultural resistance, like song, music and the arts have been used to sustain the people working towards systemic change. It can heal minds and spirits, inform, inspire, and galvanize people’s hopes and goals for change.
Many of Asili’s songs contest food, land, and environmental injustices and inspire hope and resilience. One song, “Sofrito,” speaks to the power of food.
She shared the inspiration for the song, her abuela, and how she used to make sofrito, a sauce in Puerto Rican cooking with cilantro, garlic, and onions, used as a base for beans and flavoring. She explained that her grandmother’s sofrito recipe was renowned on the island, not just in her family, but among everyone who tasted her cooking. She recalled:
My abuela’s tradition of food kept community together, held community and held love. When I smell the potent ingredients, they remind me of who I am, who my family is, and that is what the song “Sofrito” begins with.
Food has power to promote culture, community and solidarity. Like food, music too can play a powerful role in efforts to better understand ourselves, identity and build a better world through connection, solidarity and empathy.
These changes and reflections can be exemplified by University at Albany student Avery Smith.
Smith is from Brooklyn, currently a junior at the University at Albany majoring in communications with a minor in music.
He writes, music has always been a significant part of my life. Each of my fondest childhood memories are connected to a particular song that my family and I sang along to during a road trip or danced to at a holiday gathering.
The following is excerpted from an assignment in Smith’s “Food and Social Justice in the America’s” course in the Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies Department.
“Through listening to music, we created shared experiences that have kept us united as a family. The same can be said for when we listen to songs we love with our friends or even with complete strangers at a party.
Music feels euphoric when we enjoy what we hear. The pleasure we feel as each chord is played pushes us to become comfortable being vulnerable in virtually any setting. Even my parents who normally wouldn't have noticed each other gravitated towards one another at a party one night when the music set the perfect tone for my mother to ask my father to dance.
Music helps us create meaningful stories. Each song we love is part of the soundtrack of our lives. “Ghetto Story Chapter 2” by Cham featuring Alicia Keys is a song that I’ve enjoyed since I was seven years old.
Although I mostly remember it for its catchy chorus, it also introduced me to the topic of food insecurity, as well as the related social justice issues.
In this song, Cham and Keys reveal dark details about their experiences growing up in neighborhoods struck with poverty, hunger, violence, political corruption, prostitution, and drug addiction. Keys is referring to her life in Hell’s Kitchen while Cham speaks about his home in Kingston, Jamaica.
In the second verse, Keys sings:
“I remember those days when, we was dead broke
And, I could barely find a, dollar for a token
Hop in the train just to get where I'm goin
PoPo's after me I'm runnin like I'm smokin
Remember those days when I went to bed hungry
All I ever ate was white rice and honey
Big dreams in my head empty my tummy
Might crack a smile but ain't nothin funny.”
Here, Alicia Keys tells her listeners that she was so struck with poverty when she was younger that she could hardly afford to take public transportation.
On days when she unfortunately had no choice but to hop a turnstile just to get on the train, she was chased by police officers treating her as though she had committed a more serious crime.
Additionally, we see that Keys didn’t have access to fresh, healthy food or a proper full home cooked meal every day. She experienced hunger, that was only occasionally remedied with “white rice and honey.”
“Ghetto Story Chapter 2” is unique for multiple reasons. It falls into the category of dancehall yet it features a Grammy award winning R&B artist. This unexpected crossover of genres alone immediately stands out to all listeners.
The overall effect this international duo has is that their audience is forced to look at poverty, violence, and food insecurity as global issues as opposed to aspects of a harsh reality only some people have to deal with.
I hope this song pushes listeners to develop a sense of empathy for others who share stories similar to Cham and Keys but have yet to be fortunate enough to achieve the same level of success or gain the resources needed to leave their neighborhoods.
Perhaps someone will let “Ghetto Story Chapter 2” be an inspiration for them, as it is for me, to create a difference that puts an end to this sort of narrative. I personally can’t think of many other songs that could do the same.”
All of our minds and bodies seem to be spinning out of control of late, with physical distancing practices taking affect, changing work and school schedules and the jump to full online communication among other shifts.
And as we reach for face masks, antibacterial gel and toilet paper -- if there is any -- remember music can be a tool that you reach for too.
Music can encourage a centering of ourselves, our minds, finding comfort in something familiar, like the rhythm or lyrics of a favorite tune. Music can help us center on something positive, move and inspire us to act, as Asili states. It can be bridge to others, to build empathy, as Smith emphasizes, making known the injustices felt by some within our society.
It can be easy to fall into panic, think the worst of people and society and “imagine the apocalypse” but at the same time there is another imagining taking place. In moments of crisis the instabilities of capitalism, the injustices within in our society, are confronted and reshaped as communities work to survive, undermine, resist and or create alternative ways forward.
Crises, as disastrous and tragic they may be, offer place to question, begin the process of reevaluating institutions, most recently healthcare, as well as social relations, politics, and ideologies among other sectors. And music can set the tone.