What it means to be an Artist for Change

I’m excited and honored to be a host for the upcoming One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change in Detroit later this month. But as I start to share what this event is all about, some people may roll their eyes and go, “Oh please; not another one of these hippie music fests that’s all talk and no action. Why don’t you start a soup kitchen and do some REAL helping around this god-forsaken community?”

I know, I know. Those of us who have visions of repeating Woodstock and having an impact on mainstream culture do have a tendency to get caught up in what I call the “musical picnic” part of such events, but that’s because most of us have forgotten what it means to be a live artist, especially now that we’re living in a digital media world where you can get any kind of music any time of the day for free and not think twice about it.

So when I say One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change, I do NOT want us to fall into the trap of thinking this is just an excuse for local artists to spout off or promote themselves so their digital music will fly around the world unhindered. We as artists have to be responsible for how we present events like this.

The first thing we have to get is what it means to be an Artist. Everyone has their own definition, and I know it’s not up to me to create something universal that every artist will rally around. But I will put forward something that might contribute to one’s definition: Ritual. At the birth of civilization artists were known by names such as these: Priest. Shaman. Medicine Woman. They were there to weave the stories about who we were in the form of ritual word and action. I believe that art is a remnant of this. So when the modern artist gets on stage to play music, recite a poem, or present a drama, what’s taking place is a modern remnant of an ancient ritual; at its conception it was never considered mindless entertainment.  That may be why some people are always saying, “they sound better live,” when talking about a band they like. Or why some people will shell out hundreds of dollars to see musicians live, even just once in a lifetime. An Artist is a ritualist.

The second thing we have to get is what it means to be for Change. Change from what? The way things are? Ask ten people and you will get ten different descriptions of “the way things are,” so that’s not useful. Let’s try qualifying that by saying, “the way things are for me.” What change do I want to see in my life? If we forget about society and politics and all those kinds of distractions, what remains is our lives, and I believe that if I can make a positive change in my own life, it will have an impact on the world around me. When Gandhi said “be the change you wish to see in the world,” he was effectively saying “clean your own damn kitchen.” It’s both easier and harder. Easier, because we don’t have to be distracted by the outside world. Harder, because we have to work on ourselves.

So what does change for my life have to do with going to see a bunch of artists playing music? That’s where the artist as ritualist comes in. The transcendence we get from a live performance of music is not there for its own sake, like fireworks going off in an empty park with no one around. People gather, they set aside their busy lives to refresh themselves, they take in beauty and sublimity from beyond their normal world so they can reenter that world a new person. The modern live artist has forgotten this, and so has the listener. We need to remember.

That’s what I’m talking about when I’m sharing One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change. It’s happening on September 29th, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Spirit of Hope Church, 1519 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Detroit. I will be playing at 6:00, and throughout the day you’ll hear a bunch of hand-picked musicians and poets that are all there to bring some beauty and sublimity to our world. We’ll be live-streaming on the web also, and the rest of the one hundred thousand artists will be having their own showcases in dozens of cities around the world as well. So it’s a global event! And there’s no reason to miss it.

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6 thoughts on “What it means to be an Artist for Change

  1. […] world unhindered. We as artists have to be responsible for how we present events like this…read more Share this!Tweet This entry was posted in *UPDATES*. Bookmark the permalink. ← Cover to […]

  2. Artist as ritual. Thank you for this post. What we change is an ongoing question for me as well. To be an artist is to honor the moment to moment changes and express them creatively, a necessary part of the cultural ecology.

    • Yes, it really does have the same reality-altering potential that any other ritual can do. If we actually bring something to the experience, some commitment or question or story to share, then a live performance can become so much more than what most of us are used to.

  3. […] 100,000 Artists for Change […]

  4. Mary Stebbins Taitt says:

    Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful piece. I am with you 100%, that is, with your thoughts here. I am attending a workshop called “The Writer as Shaman” fr some of the reasons you mention above.

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