Name: Dan Blake
Current Release: Da Fé on Sunnyside Records
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Dan Blake and would like to find out more about his work visit his official website for more information.
When I started getting serious about jazz all I really wanted to do was learn the craft and try and do justice to the amazing legacy left by countless musicians whose collective struggle and sacrifice created an extraordinarily beautiful and profound art form. When I began to explore Buddhism around fifteen years ago, I learned about the relationship between compassion, which is a necessary faculty for changing the world, and listening. I once heard a teacher named Thannisara speak of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion whose name means “perceiver of the sounds of the world” since Kuan Yin became enlightened through the act of listening. I began to see how my closest musical relationships were akin to compassion practice, where we learn to move from more superficial kinds of listening toward what the late composer and sound artist Pauline Oliveros called “deep listening”.
Exploring the spiritual faculty of compassion is not really an ambition in the sense of achieving a material or professional goal, but rather a way of seeing the creative life as one that reflects and hopefully addresses the problems in the world. This comes back to John Coltrane, who said that there exists a deep and universal Love Supreme, and that this Love can be realized through music. While this is a mere aspiration for me, it is one that I believe is worth pursuing.
The organization that really taught me about compassionate action and how activism and organizing could play a role in my life is Buddhist Global Relief (BGR). BGR partners with and fundraises for grassroots organizations working to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in poor communities around the world. Started in 2008 by the visionary monk and Buddhist scholar Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, BGR focuses on four areas to get at the root causes of hunger: 1) direct food relief for people impacted by natural disaster and other crises - most recently Covid-19; 2) promoting sustainable farming initiatives to empower small-scale agriculture and diminish the power of multi-national “big ag” corporations; 3) promoting the education of girls and women, a major factor in averting climate disaster; and 4) supporting vocational training to alleviate poverty and therefore food insecurity.
I see hunger and malnutrition as the first order of business in addressing the many issues facing our world. The Buddha called hunger “the worst kind of illness” because we have little hope of achieving our full capacity as humans if we are starving. While I am fortunate enough never to have personally experienced chronic hunger, I am deeply saddened and outraged to know that hundreds of millions of my fellow humans, many of which are young children, are starving or in a constant state of anxiety about if and where their next meal will come. Hunger and poverty disproportionately affects marginalized communities and allowing it to occur represents an inexcusable form of societal oppression. Addressing hunger is not only a moral imperative, but would also lead to a more virtuous set of politics that would leave our society better equipped to address other pressing societal issues like climate catastrophe. Moreover, we can only imagine the unbelievable brilliance of thought and action that would be unlocked if millions of people were lifted out of such a dire predicament and allowed to live a life of basic dignity…
Over the years I have I have tried to play a simple but hopefully helpful role in making connections between musicians and social justice organizing. I started with this kind of work in 2010 when I began producing benefit concerts for Buddhist Global Relief. I remain awestruck by the incredible outpouring of compassion from often world-renowned artists, who gave their time and immense talents to help raise funds for poor communities around the world. The feedback I received from these musicians, volunteers and audiences encouraged me to keep organizing, and I have since branched out to start working with other organizations as well. For example, this fall I’m excited to be teaming up with Austin Robey, the co-founder of a cooperative music platform called Ampled, to offer a special seminar on cooperative organizing at The New School. Bringing activism into the classroom is something that is very important to me as students are often the ones who bring the most amazing ideas and are energized to get things done, which is exactly what we need now.
My latest album Da Fé was directly inspired by the activist work going on now in the climate and racial justice movements, and is the clearest musical statement I can make at this point to capture the urgency of the moment as I see it. But a musical statement will only go so far toward the kind of action we need to see, and so I am always looking for ways to get out there and support people in the streets wherever I can. The dialogue between creativity and activism is complex and very personal, one I am learning more about every day. I think that approaching this question with a sense of humility is important because in the end the creative work must be in service to the social movements who are doing the important work of changing society.
Music may lift people’s spirits or even spur productive action, but in and of itself music cannot feed people who are starving. Nor can it turn around the climate catastrophe. The point is made well by Angela Davis, who said that “art may encourage a critical attitude and urge its audience to challenge social conditions, but it cannot establish the terrain of protest by itself.” To set and follow the best agenda we need to support social movements, which can inspire a popular groundswell that will compel structural changes so that future generations have a chance to survive.
I believe that artists have a unique opportunity to be what the political theorist Antonio Gramsci referred to as “permanent persuaders” as opposed to what he called “mere orators”. This is a provocative idea to some who feel that art should remain separate from political engagement, but it seems to me that we cannot afford to miss this moment. We need “all hands on deck”! Artists have the potential through their work to educate and persuade others to join social movements, and given the opposition they face, grassroots efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign and Extinction Rebellion (or any number of other wonderful efforts now underway) need all the help they can get. Engagement by artists can take many forms like simply showing up with an instrument or raising one’s voice at a rally, organizing a performance to raise funds and awareness for a cause, educating audiences through social media and blogging, or by creating work that has a consciousness-raising effect on the public. I also know artists who put down their instruments, roll up their sleeves and set about assisting with the nuts and bolts of activist work. Everyone has a role to play!
Books, websites, articles or other sources of information recommended by Dan Blake:
There are many! Buddhist Global Relief’s website has many good resources concerning the issue of hunger and malnutrition. I also recommend getting on the mailing list of the Poor People’s Campaign as Rev. William Barber hosts an incredible weekly “moral Monday” series and numerous other events and direct actions. The PPC has also published a wonderful “movement songbook”.
On the climate emergency, Thanissara’s book Time To Stand Up is a wonderful expression of the urgency of addressing climate catastrophe as a spiritual imperative. Extinction Rebellion has a wealth of videos and short articles on the climate emergency that clearly distill the facts and a possible way forward. For those more interested in exploring the history of music and activism I highly recommend William Roy’s “Red Whites and Blues” (Princeton University Press, 2010).