This is a series where I reflect on albums that either number among my favorites, or have otherwise impacted me. Posts may or may not include a review, recommendations, or recipe.
It’s November 8th, 2012 and I am listening to NPR. Michel Martin is interviewing three members of a band who have just released a new album inspired by recent events. Stylistically, it’s something I wouldn’t otherwise discover on my own, but the stories behind the work compel me to seek out and experience it. The final lyric of the album is the phrase, “You’re a witness,” so before a full analysis, let’s witness this work from the context in which it was created. We’re taking a quick field trip to the Wikipedia page for the year 2010.
January 1st, two-thousand ten, same-sex marriage becomes legal in the state of New Hampshire. On February 1st, Toyota announces they have solved the “Sticking Accelerator Pedal” issue, a massive recall that left many drivers in fear of unexpected, uncontrolled acceleration while driving. On March 23rd, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, and subsequently fourteen states announce plans to sue the federal government over the law.
4/20/2010, an explosion occurs on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 workers, and causing the rig to sink two days later – leading to a massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest environmental disaster in U.S. History. On Saturday, May 1st, around 6:30pm, two street vendors in Times Square notice smoke coming out of a Nissan Pathfinder and notify the NYPD. Fortunately, due to a combination of malfunctioning and flawed design, this would-be improvised explosive device fails to detonate. 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad is arrested and eventually charged and convicted on terrorism charges for the attempted car-bombing.
July 21st, President Obama signs the Dodd-Frank bill into law, a suite of reform legislation written in response to the 2008 financial crisis, including the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On August 19th, the last U.S. combat troops leave Iraq, and on the 31st, President Obama declares an end to combat operations in the country. About 50,000 troops remain in an advisory capacity.
September 19th, after 86 days and over 200 million gallons of crude oil released into the ocean, the well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is declared sealed. Future observations will report further apparent seepage from the site.
On October 13th, a federal judge declares “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional, and temporarily ends the policy. The Department of Justice immediately appeals the decision. The appeal is struck down a few days later on the 19th, and the military begins accepting applications for gay service members. The legal battle continues however, and the military pressures congress to take action and keep the issue out of the courts. Legislation including a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” passes a vote in the Senate and is signed into law later the same year.
November 18th, General Motors returns to trading on the New York Stock Exchange, sixteen months after it declared bankruptcy in July 2009. November 28th, WikiLeaks releases the first of thousands of confidential documents sent by U.S. Diplomats.
On December 17th, 2010, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, stands in traffic in front of the governor’s office, douses himself in gasoline, and sets himself on fire.
For a long time, MC Jonny 5 and MC Brer Rabbit, two members of rap/rock band Flobots had wanted to visit the Middle East, and in early 2011, they did. On January 25th, 2011 protests calling for the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The protests would spread across Egypt, lasting two weeks and three days, culminating in the resignation of Mubarak. This moment, in addition to Bouazizi’s self-immolation catalyzed a series of anti-government and often pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world, a period generally known as the Arab Spring. In addition to revolution, these events sparked a new creative output for Flobots. Jonny 5 began working through new lyrics as early as the plane ride back to the States.
That fall, in their home base of Denver, Flobots headed into the studio to record an album inspired by individuals rising up against oppressive regimes in traditional societies. On September 17th, 2011 demonstrators gathered in Zucotti Park to protest economic inequality. They called their movement Occupy Wall Street and introduced America to the language of the 99% and the 1%, and other occupy movements sprung up in cities across the nation, including Denver. An album birthed in response to protests abroad was now being shaped in the studio in response to protests at home. Direct references to language and themes of these uprisings are present “The Circle In The Square,” an album by Flobots, released on August 28th, 2012.
The history of art is human connection. An audience is communal with the artist and with each other, and artists throughout the ages connect with each other through reinterpretation and reaction in their creation. Flobots use this album to connect these two protests movements, both rooted in rebellion against the existing power structures, and calling for a society that more practically reflected democratic values. From the middle east to the east coast and beyond, people were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.
At the time I found the album sonically and lyrically interesting, and felt it captured the mood of frustration and a struggle, but it didn’t necessarily connect me to the movement. And I didn’t really have any personal experience that should connect me to the passions of groups shouting in the streets. I have been fortunate. I didn’t have to pay for my first car, so I always had reliable transportation to a job. I never took out student loans, so I don’t have looming, unending student debt. I have remained healthy, so I am not crippled with medical debt. I have always been able to find safe, affordable living situations, and I have never been harassed by authorities in my place of business, consistently demanded bribes of, and been left powerless to petition my government for redress of grievances. I have been fortunate. And all these protests were happening so far away.
It is November 2nd, 2004, and I have just cast my ballot for the re-election of President George W. Bush in the mock election at my middle school. The week prior I was one of two eighth graders selected to portray the President in a mock republican convention. I even wrote my own nomination acceptance speech outlining the planks of the party platform, which in addition to researching for accuracy, I also happened to agree with personally.
I listened to a lot of conservative talk radio in middle school. Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage were all regulars on my dial. I liked Rush Limbaugh, too, but he was on the air in the middle of the day, so I didn’t catch his show often. These pundits were smart, clever, and logical – all values I saw in myself and strived to deepen. On top of that we were nominally republicans at home, not that politics was a big deal, but voting is a civic duty, so you pick a team that shares your values. Freedom. Liberty. Hard work.
At thirteen years old I had no real reason to believe in small government, other than the fact that that’s what the founders wanted, and that’s the way to be most free, and that’s the way to stimulate the economy, and that’s the opposite of big government, and you know who has big governments? Socialists, and socialism is bad, because communists are socialists, and communism is bad. Conservative politics is the most reasonable choice, and the only way to keep society from collapse. Liberals are the opposite of conservatives, so I guess they want to destroy America, or at least those who don’t actively want to cause the downfall of the world as we know it, have good intentions, but their positions are based in feelings, not fact, and you know what they say, if you’re too open minded, your brain might fall out.
Over time, I would become distanced from conservative political talking points, and not because I was seduced by the dark side. It was mostly because I started spending my time doing something other than listening to talk radio. High school arrived and I had marching band practice, and debate tournaments, and theatre. And I played in the youth praise band at church, and started a band with friends, and rode my bike a lot, and played computer games. And I got a job, and enrolled in college, and played disc golf, and wrote songs. I found myself listening to talk radio less and less, and in turn, I repeated what I heard from it less and less.
So what happened to the kid who duct-taped a county-by-county red and blue election map on his locker with the caption, “Still think the election was close?” in an effort to propagandize his classmates? Did he walk away from his convictions? Were his deeply held beliefs challenged and changed? I don’t think I truly believed in conservative politics, but rather identified with them. Entertaining, charismatic, white people with easy-to-listen-to voices found their way onto my radio, and I thought I had found my tribe.
There was a time I wanted to be a talk-radio host when I grew up, and that desire was not driven by a need to entrench myself in a certain political ideology, but by a need to perform. Whether in conversation, or on a stage, or in an essay, I want my audience to feel they’ve gotten something of value out of the experience. Sure, I like the attention, but I don’t want someone to say, “you were great up there,” I want them to say, “I never thought about it that way.” I want to be a catalyst for your life being better because you encountered my art. That’s how I want to be seen, that’s how I want to be heard, that’s how I want to be known. The history of art is human connection.
By 2012, I had largely let go of any strong political leanings. I was still influenced by my latent conservative thought, but policy conversations didn’t interest me much, or at least were not a pillar of my identity. I still voted, too. I’m not entirely sure who I cast my ballot for that year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was for Romney. Although I didn’t really have a problem with Obamacare. I liked the fact that it meant I could remain on my parents’ health insurance until age 26.
Best Way To Listen To The Whole Album: Looking for bumper music to include in the documentary podcast you are producing about the Arab Spring.
If You’re Only Going To Listen To One Track: Run (Run, Run, Run)
My Favorite Lyric: “Put the book away, we fight today. And the fires burn with brighter flames. There’s a balm in Gilead.”
Best Bop On The Album: The Rose and the Thistle
Yes, Flobots Are: the guys who sing the “I can ride my bike with no handlebars song” but while many people experienced that song as a novelty, the song as a whole is an indictment of wielding great power without responsibility, particularly the negative effects that a nation’s indiscriminate use of military force has on individuals, and with its release in 2005 it certainly falls into the same milieu of Bush-era protest rock along with Green Day’s American Idiot, and all this shouldn’t be surprising because Flobots has always been political.
In 2012 I was surprised by this fully conceptualized album coming from Flobots. At that point I only knew them as the guys who sing the “I can ride my bike with no handlebars song,” and thought it was kind of a novelty hit. I like surprises in my art. I like concept albums. I like it when it feels like someone has put in a lot of work to make it into a whole thing. “The Circle In The Square” felt like a window into another world, it wasn’t just a collection of songs, it was a story. But while I connected on an aesthetic level, it didn’t lead me to care too much about the complexities and impacts of the Arab Spring, and it didn’t make me care about some hippies in a park trying to talk about income inequality. My latent conservatism still had my thought patterns locked into a worldview based solely in my own experience, unable to empathize with any perspective that differed from mine. In the years to follow, my relationship to this album, and my perspective on protests, would shift.
On July 13th, 2013, a Florida jury finds George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In the wake of this verdict, protests erupt and the Black Lives Matter movement is born. Month after month, year after year, we see the unnecessary death of a Black person, often at the hands of law enforcement, met with no or unsatisfactory action by the criminal justice system. And we see protests.
On September 15th, 2017, former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley is found not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith. The first of a series of protests takes place downtown near the courthouse. Protest events continue to be organized in St. Louis city and county for the next two months.
At some point along the way, I began developing an ability to see and hear and listen to the experiences of others. And over time, the distorted guitar and thunderous drums and screaming violins of “The Circle In The Square” morphed from a story about characters elsewhere, to the voices of real people, my neighbors, whose lives and experiences matter, but are negatively affected by the systems they live under.
It’s 2020, and I have seen stories of injustice and two Americas play out over and over again. I have witnessed a system that talks the talk of equality but does not walk it. I have seen protests close to home. I have been friends with protesters, and I have listened to their stories. I have heard the grievances of my neighbors that go unheard by the power structures above them. And these experiences are not mine, but my good fortune does not negate their reality.
And the history of art is human connection.
The album opens with the lyric, “When he came to the place where his enemy lay, he looked down at the body and said, ‘That could be me.’” I would much prefer a world where I don’t have an enemy, a world where there aren’t ‘other’ people, just people. That may sound naively optimistic, but cynicism doesn’t get anything accomplished.
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