On Art, Joy, and Rebellion
I was singing Stevie Wonder’s Master Blaster yesterday, and a friend said, “I haven’t thought about that song in years.”
“I return to this song all the time,” I replied.
Why? Because not only is Stevie Wonder a skilled song writer and musician, Master Blaster incapsulates a vision of the world where enjoying life is a way to stand up to tyranny.
The story unfolds: It’s hot out. There’s a block party. Bob Marley is playing from someone’s boom box. People are feeling good and looking good.
Oh, the world has problems, Stevie Wonder reminds us, and the folks in power want us to fight one another, but you know what? We’re going to lift each other up, instead. We’re going to enjoy each other’s company.
The people in power cannot crush the spirit of community.
In my youth, Rai music was popular. The bright sounds from Algeria came to the US in the 1980s, and I was told the music was “political.” At first, I was confused.
“This is party music,” I said. Ah, but that was part of the point. Little did I know at the time, the long history that led to the rise of Rai in the 1970s. And the songs were about social change, though I could not always hear it. The songs were about farmers, and working people, and struggle, and yes, about having a good time.
The Algerian government did not want people gathering. Fundamentalists did not want women singing. The people rebelled and did both. Rai was the music of resistance, and dancing, and enjoying life when the ruling regimes wanted to crush the spirit.
The spirit rose up and sang.
I’ve written before about the way in which all art is political, depending on how you look at it. Who gets training? Who has access? Whose voices are predominant? Who makes the money?
These questions are embedded in the reigning social order. Anyone who bucks that system is considered political, or dangerous, or defanged by the brand of exceptionalism.
What characters are portrayed as good? What characters are portrayed as bad? What characters and voices are not included at all?
By now, we all know about Hollywood’s “Middle Eastern” filter, that turns skies and cities a depressing orangey-brown to convey how terrible things are in that part of the world, how those places are filled with danger and deceit. We are aware of the ubiquitous maps of the world where the scale of the United States is completely disproportionate to any physical reality.
Those who redraw maps redraw our perception of the world. Map making can become a form of oppression, or a form of rebellion and resistance. When we make our own maps, we can show each other the way.
And those people who ask why we have maps with borders rather than topography? Well, they may be called crackpots, or they may be called visionaries. Are they ever called realists?
You tell me.
Kathe Kollwitz drew images of mothers protecting children. “The Seed Corn is Not For Grinding” was the message to warmongers and fascists.
NO Bonzo makes art and creates murals that remind us that we are all we have, and that collective action keeps us strong.
Keith Haring drew bright, childlike images in the midst of the worst of the AIDS crisis, as a testament that his community was still there, despite the best attempts of the government to kill off every one of his friends.
Judith Jameson, Alvin Ailey, Leontyne Price, Nina Simone… they all danced and sang both in celebration and resistance. They changed the world by doing it.
I’m writing a new novel series. It’s another set of paranormal cozy mysteries, this time with corgis instead of a cat. The non-dog protagonists are two gay men.
“Hmm…” I thought. “These novels don’t have the same social conscience of my other books. There isn’t any explicit politics of resistance, like in my urban fantasy books. There’s not even the emphasis on community action, like in my Seashell Cove cozies.”
Then I stopped myself.
I’m writing about two gay men living their lives. One of those men is trans and probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. Oh, and there’s a ghost, too. A leather daddy named Adam. A former member of ACT UP who died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
That alone is enough. That alone will be considered “political” in a time where being queer and trans is a dangerous thing. Where neurodivergence is feared. Where queer history is being whitewashed and diminished. People are killed for being queer or trans—especially Black trans women. Parents are moving their trans children across state lines to protect them. Many people’s lives are hanging by a thread.
So, some cozy books about a trans gay man and his partner and two cute dogs, solving mysteries and living day to day?
That very celebration is rebellion. Is resistance. I don’t want it to be, but that’s the world we live in now, isn’t it?
In a society where my very existence is threatened, just living can be seen as a fight.
So, I may as well show up, and insist on my right to live, and the rights of my friends and loved ones to thrive.
I’ve long said I write the world I want to live in. Whether that’s non-fiction or fiction, it’s all the same. As a society, we can choose how we live with one another, yet we repeatedly return to oppressing each other and poisoning this earth.
Stories, art, music, movies, dance… all of these are ways we hold out a hand to each other and insist, “You are not alone.”
James Baldwin reminded us of that.
All forms of art and expression can become vehicles to say to the ruling powers, “You do not own us.” And “There is a better way.”
Through our creativity, we can throw a block party for each other, just like in Stevie Wonder’s song. We can dance in the summer sun. Dancing won’t make our problems go away, but it just might help us face them—feeling stronger and more joyful—tomorrow.
We can make art in solidarity with the world we build together.
We can slap stickers on the backs of street signs, leaving markers, blazing a trail.
We can choose to live, and live well, sharing what we have in this crumbling society, in this amazing, beautiful, world.
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