Musicians use rhythm and harmony to heal America’s toxic divide

It’s a chilly night in the Texas Hill Country, but inside the Arcadia Theater in the town of Kerrville there’s a pleasant breeze. The audience swings to Miles and miles of Texas Played by Asleep at The Wheel, the Grammy-winning Western Swing band.

The crowd is a mix of cowboy hats and tattoos, rural and urban folk. And everyone seems to be getting along. These days, as polarization runs deep into American life, some musicians are trying to step away from the fray and use their music to bridge divides.

A country and western musician has to walk a fine line these days to avoid trouble.

“Six years ago, it wasn’t so bad,” longtime Sleep at The Wheel frontman Ray Benson tells the old man on guitar. “Four years ago it started to get weird. Now it’s completely toxic. And it’s all about social media, because that’s where all the trolls are, that’s where all the bashing is.”

Benson happens to be a hardcore Democrat. But unlike openly progressive stars like the Chicks or Bonnie Raitt, he doesn’t play his politics on stage. He assumes his audiences are split down the middle: half blue, half red. The wheel – who celebrated 50God’ Last year’s anniversary – trying to stay halfway. They proudly played the inaugurations of George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama.

“It’s a big problem if you take one side or the other in the really divided information society,” says Benson, 71.

He learned what happens if he appears on social media.

“Donald Trump’s followers were called a cult and his followers don’t take it lightly. ‘Cult! You’re calling me a cult?! That’s it, I’ll never listen to you again! And screw your radio show too!'”

Also Read :  Opinion | Diversity among diplomats will strengthen U.S. foreign policy

Benson and many other bandleaders took the age-old advice, “shut up and sing.” More than a dozen working musicians contacted for this story — both liberals and conservatives — flatly refused to participate. Said one Dallas promoter incredulously, “Why would we want to alienate our audience?”

It’s better to let the music be an oasis from the harshness, says Mike Blakely, a hill country singer/songwriter who was at Kerville’s concert.

“I know a lot of people in my audience,” he says, standing in the lobby. “And I know who voted this way and who voted that way. And they’re out there in the same crowd, shaking hands and dancing and singing together. So music is the escape from all that. It takes politics, religion and disagreements out of all kinds of things.”

The same can be said whether it is a guitar with six strings or another 11 strings, which is an Arabic lute. Mahmoud Chouki is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who plays music from his native Morocco combined with influences from southern Spain, the Middle East, Latin America and American jazz. His instruments include classical guitar, oud, banjo and Algerian mandol. He lives in New Orleans and plays engagements around the world.

During the epidemic, Choki went on a trip around the country playing wherever he could, in his mind acting as a sort of ambassador for sub-Saharan Africa. As an immigrant who brings his music with an exotic sound to the taverns and concerts of the house, Chucky, 38, says he too feels this national dyspepsia in America.

“If you’re not with me, you’re against me, so we can’t just be friends if we have different ideas and political beliefs,” he says. “And it’s kind of sad to see that.”

Choki says most people have been friendly and welcoming on his adventure. But with his thick accent and great mane of black hair, he says he can feel his significant other. He says he met a woman in Virginia who, after a few beers, told him, “I like you, but I hope you’re not a terrorist.” Then I told her, ‘Yes, I really am, but I’m on vacation right now.’ Then the whole conversation changed completely.”

As his spidery fingers dance over the emotionless oud, Chuckie thinks the best he can do is offer a form of music therapy. “When I play my music I don’t feel any difference, I don’t feel any political opinion,” he says. “I feel like people have a moment to enjoy and listen. And I’m very grateful for that.”

Mahmoud Chouki, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist from Morocco, performed in a concert by the Historic New Orleans Collection, "La Noche Buena: Spanish Christmas Music of the New World," at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, on December 15, 2022. Chocki says he plays music to transcend polarization: "When I play my music I feel no difference, no politics.  ... People have a moment to enjoy, to listen."

/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR


Leslie Gamboni for NPR

Mahmoud Chouki, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist from Morocco, performed at the New Orleans Historic Collection’s concert, “La Noche Buena: Spanish Christmas Music of the New World,” at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans on December 15, 2022.

In early December, Chucky played with his local band at a gala on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Also Read :  What Do We Know About the Upcoming ‘Captain America 4’ Film? 'New World Order'

“I work to music. I play it before I go to sleep. Like, it’s sane for me,” says James Orange, a marketing executive from South Carolina who now lives in New Orleans. She was at the jazzy gala, sampling the braised oysters and shrimp Creole and paddling the tight band of Chucky.

Orange says, for her, the two gifts that bring people together are food and music. “But music especially. I mean it’s been studied and scientifically proven about the vibration and the megahertz of this sound and that sound, and it’s really linked to our brain and our heart.”

Actually, what she says is true. There are neurophysiological responses when we create music together and when we listen to music together. This is not to say that music is somehow going to heal our great national divide. But it sure can’t hurt.

“Music has been around since our earliest times on the planet as humans,” says Janice Lindstrom, professor of music therapy at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas.

She points out that music activates more areas of the brain than any other activity, it engages our bodies to move in sync, and it releases oxytocin – the love hormone.

“Music evolved to increase our social cohesion as humans to help us work together and form deep bonds with each other so we can survive,” says Lindstrom. “Because we rely on others for our survival. We cannot survive in isolation.”

It was the images of America at war with itself – after the murder of George Floyd and the riots on January 6 in the US Capitol – that prompted Donna Elaine Miller to write United State of Mankind.

Also Read :  Kurds in Syria call for U.S. help as Turkey threatens ground assault

Miller is a 63-year-old singer/songwriter living in Los Angeles. She freelances tunes for Disney and – like so many talented artists in Los Angeles – has a day job at a restaurant. When her producer, John Baker, told her about a song contest held by Braver Angels, a citizens’ organization trying to depolarize America, “United State of Mankind” popped into her head.

“I bent over, wrote it down and then I had to figure out what it meant,” she says. “What is a united state of humanity? Well, it’s not that, it’s not that. It’s not black, it’s not white. That’s how the song developed.”

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at the Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.

/ Grace Widyatmadja/NPR


Grace Widyatmadja/NPR

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at the Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.

It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s wrong, it’s not right,
It’s not red, it’s not blue, just me and you.

Cue the electric bass fill and the suffocating guitar.

It’s not rich, it’s not poor,
Somewhere in the middle is the open door,
If our viewpoints don’t quite see eye to eye,
Well, that’s even more reason,

Her warm and clear voice belts out the chorus:

We need a united state of humanity, we need it, we need it,
A united state of mankind, the sum of every part,
We need a united state of humanity, we need it, we need it,
The revolution is in the revolution of the heart.

Miller does not see herself as a revolutionary. “I call myself more of a spiritual activist.”

“I think if we can relate on the level of our humanity,” she says, “this is the only place where we will resolve any kind of division. Because we first need to see each other as human beings. We are all human beings. Before we are any skin color or gender or A political party or something.”

Miller believes that the sickness and disease plaguing the American soul is not so much a political division as a spiritual one. She says she strongly disagrees with some of her friends.

“I think you can listen to someone who has a completely different point of view and not agree with them and still be friends, and still stand by each other, even in the midst of a disagreement.”

Her catchy song won the Braver Angels Songwriting Contest. And it’s growing in popularity. People are broadcasting it now. The churches ask her to do it.

Maybe she is United States of Mankind Seize the moment.

Maybe the Americans are tired of the disgust.

It’s a harmony they miss.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at the Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.

/ Grace Widyatmadja/NPR


Grace Widyatmadja/NPR

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at the Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Articles

Back to top button