We who are engaged in the humanities—art, music, writing, dancing, architecture—often like to tell ourselves that we are doing some good. I often have my doubts. I doubt that art or a song can change people’s minds, but it seems there is real proof they can change people’s lives in other ways.
Part of what Mayor Peñalosa did in Bogotá was create cultural hubs at the end of the Rapid Bus Lines… locals would bike from their homes to these stations and then ride the bus into town for work.
This is one I visited on the outskirts of Bogota. This is a former garbage processing plant… now it’s a library and a place where kids can use computers.
This is next to a rapid bus depot, which has a huge bike parking lockup facility. People who live around there can bike to the bike parking facility, get on the rapid bus—they don’t have to have a car—and they have this big cultural facility here.
It turns out that these cultural facilities in various barrio neighborhoods and boroughs have a huge knock-on effect.
This is a library in a poor barrio in Medellín, Colombia. This example is kind of extreme—libraries don’t HAVE to be as architecturally distinctive as this to make a difference. The point is that a cultural institution in a neighborhood changed the whole neighborhood.
“We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces.” -Frederico Restrepo
Murals made by locals have helped people here vent frustration and proclaim ownership of their neighborhood.
In another one of these cultural barrio projects, the area was formerly ruled by gangs—it’s now houses a sports complex and school, new sidewalks, new mid-rise housing blocks and a string of shops have opened.
A phrase by Jane Jacobs: “A thousand eyes were on the streets”—when a community is alive the citizens look out for one another.
AfroReggae began in the Brazilian favela Vigario Geral as a music and cultural initiative. The ongoing and violent war between the police and the drug traffickers had left the community suffering.
AfroReggae emerged with a commitment to offer Brazil’s youth a way out of the path to crime by introducing them to music, dance, and art. It had percussion and afro-dance workshops for young people, while the band, AfroReggae, promoted the group’s actions and ideology.
I went to the favela and met José Junior and other founders and saw part of a performance that dramatized with music an event in which a police helicopter gunned down scores of innocents in the favela.
The effect has been huge—the neighborhood is now safe. Kids aspire to engage in music and the arts instead of dealing and killing. The project has been exported to 100’s of other neighborhoods.
There’s a doc: Favela Rising, which portrays the history, work, and achievements of AfroReggae and the life story of one of its founders, Anderson Sa.
There’s a similar project that the amazing musician Carlinhos Brown started in the Candeal neighborhood of Salvador—another dangerous neighborhood that was completely transformed.
There’s a lovely doc on that project too, called The Miracle of Candeal.
This knock-on effect happens here in NY too. A study done recently by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when libraries and other cultural institutions are placed in the boroughs around New York, there are surprising knock-on effects:
- The kids' test scores go up
- Spousal abuse goes down
- Obesity goes down
- The crime rate goes down
Things that might seem to be unrelated are actually connected.
To lower crime, we don’t need more prisons or stiffer sentencing. Part of the solution might be to build a library or a performance space.
This is a band called Casa Mantequilla playing at a club called Shrine in Harlem. They play African, latin, blues, funk—a wide range.
I heard about the band when I attended a event for an organization at Bellevue called Survivors of Torture, where some of the band members work. Other band members it turns out were once their clients. Now they all make music together.
The club was packed when I was there, a wonderfully diverse audience having a great time. I looked around and I thought to to myself, “This is america”.
I looked at the ceiling
… there’s a Talking Heads album cover up there!
My own work
In my own modest way, I attempt to do this too. In 2015, I conceived a show that brought together 10 cologuard teams and 10 contemporary musical acts. Color Guard, or more properly winterguard, welcomes all kinds of kids in high school and beyond. Needless to say the musical acts were pretty good too. I had no fancy intentions in presenting this show, I just thought it was a cool idea to bring these worlds together. But something else was going on.
Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis saw the show in Toronto. Later they told me, “It’s about diversity, inclusion, body image, love, imagination, and a lot of hard work.” To be honest I felt that, but I had never realized or claimed that was our intention—it took someone outside to articulate it.
I worked on this new record while collecting a lot of this Reasons To Be Cheerful material, and I have a feeling this material informs this set of songs.
The painting on the cover is by Purvis Young, an outsider artist who lived in Overtown, Miami. His work often responded to events in the news, and he often imagined and painted images of a better world.
The fairly elaborate live show will reflect these ideas as well. When thinking about the live show, I decided I would make it about people, not screens or impersonal effects.
Here’s a quote from the playwright Ayad Akhtar who has a show on now at Lincoln Center called Junk:
“[Theater is] a living being [standing] before a living audience. [It is a] relationship unmediated by the contemporary disembodying screen. [it’s not about the] the appearance of a person, but the reality of one. Not a simulation of a relationship, but an actual relationship.”
A song from that album is available now. It’s called Everybody’s Coming to My House- so that will give a taste of what the album is like.