We Americans: Thoughts on Love, Hate and Protest Music

As distilled by The Avett Brothers

I grew up in a musical household. My parents had an impressive vinyl collection and a "hi-fi" (as "things that played music" used to be called), to which we had constant access. Albums and cassettes were staple birthday and Christmas gifts, when we weren't spending our lawn-mowing/paper route money on them at the analog ancestor of iTunes and Spotify, aka "the record store."

This was in the white-bread suburbs of Boston. The Wonder Bread factory was literally a 15-minute drive away—you could smell the fresh-baked pseudo loaves if the wind blew right. So I don't claim we were the coolest nuclear family on the eastern seaboard. 

But thankfully, it wasn't all Manilow, Streisand and Bee Gees all the time, either. (Though, come on—who would shit on the "Stayin' Alive" soundtrack, which I proudly took to 4th grade show-and-tell?)

Throughout the '70s, my parents threw just about every type of artist into their musical blender and served up tasty, diverse sips of cultures, genres and backgrounds. From the Beatles, Smokey Robinson, Elton John, Sam Cooke, Dylan and Stevie Wonder to Aretha, Simon & Garfunkel, Ike & Tina, both types of Stones (Rolling and Sly & Family), Earth, Wind & Fire, the Jims (Croce/Morrison), a James (Taylor) and a Jimi (Hendrix) ... and more.

As far as I know, this musical bouillabaisse wasn't intentional, or an overt "lesson" in diversity, which was basically non-existent in 1970s and '80s Wellesley, Mass. Or purposefully "woke" or "white liberal" of them before those were even things. Or some kind of prehistoric White Fragility cry of, "But um, uh, wait—some of our best musician friends are Black!"

They just happened to dig all these bands and artists. Hell, they may have even voted for Nixon at one point.

By osmosis, we kids began to peer through an otherwise inaccessible portal to a vast, often troubled world that existed in places called Somewhere Else. Sprawling cities and decaying blue-collar towns inhabited by folks struggling to overcome unjust legacies, unfair rules and everything else we didn't learn in elementary school history books—because those who had conjured up and violently enforced those rules had rewritten or torn out the most damning pages. 

But in a subtle way, all these artists shined a spotlight on beaten-down, fed-up realities that those of us nestled in our safe, suburban bubbles didn't have to live or fear. And while I rarely knew which songs were "serious" and which were "just for fun," our stereo cranked out equal measures of each.

For every Beach Boys "Surfin' Safari," there was an Isley Brothers "Fight the Power" (a sadly timeless refrain Public Enemy poached a decade later). I see your jaunty Elton John "Crocodile Rock" or Three Dog Night "Joy to the World" and raise you a Sam Cooke "A Change is Gonna Come," Dylan "Masters of War" or John Lennon "Working Class Hero."

Stevie Wonder could masterfully toggle back and forth—one minute offering the dentist-office bubblegum of "Isn't She Lovely" and the next dropping the hammer with perhaps the decade's most unheralded protest song, "Living in the City."

Did 10-year-old Mark understand that "What's Going On" was inspired by police brutality and social inequality? Nope. I just thought Marvin Gaye had an even better voice than Art Garfunkel. Which in our house was saying something. And when slightly older me discovered the likes of Bob Marley, the Sex Pistols, Springsteen, Prince and others, I didn't know what "rights" Marley was rallying people to "Get Up, Stand Up" for—because my white rights had never been threatened or stolen entirely.

I didn't know Johnny Rotten was piss-taking Queen Elizabeth II by snarling "God Save the Queen"—because comfortable white people still believed their leaders were morally and ethically infallible. I had no clue that "Born in the USA" wasn't a pro-'Murica anthem, because I wasn't a poor enough white boy to be shipped off to a foreign land to die in a rich man's war.

And even if I had known that Prince wrote "Uptown" about a fictional, racism-free urban utopia where "downtown" people—i.e., Black and Brown victims trapped and doomed by neglect, poverty and crime—could be anything they wanted? To white kids like me in our perpetual suburban "uptown," it was just another party anthem for our bumbling 8th grade dances.

But as I got older and (hopefully) wiser, these artists morphed from famous rock, soul, R&B and folk stars airbrushed on two-dimensional album covers into multi-dimensional messengers speaking for those whose voices had been historically silenced. Flesh-and-blood humans who taught me there were places called Detroit, Liverpool, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, where "We the People" meant only some people and equality for all men and women was far from "self-evident."

In short, music became my uncensored history book. Non-whitewashed (literally and figuratively) narratives that began to teach me that only by pure chance did I possess a skin color that enabled me to pursue "life, liberty and happiness" without fear of being murdered while jogging, sleeping in my bed, holding a pellet gun, or spending an alleged counterfeit bill.

All of which is to say: In troubled times, I still turn to music to help my cloudy goat brain absorb and articulate the daily cyclone of astonishment, rage, sadness and disillusion elicited by a 2020 that, six months in, to put it bluntly, can already go fuck itself.

Lately I've looked to (somewhat ironically) a Southern-rooted, Red State-hailing, God-and-country-raised duo, Scott and Seth Avett, who with bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, comprise The Avett Brothers ... and their aptly titled and -timed song "We Americans."

It took me only one listen to feel it already belongs in the pantheon of history's greatest protest songs, the worthy progeny of Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit," Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," Peter Gabriel's "Biko," the aforementioned "Fight the Power," U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," NWA's "Fuck Tha Police," Rage Against the Machine's "Killing In the Name," Tupac's "Changes," Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," and many more.

The song, from their album Closer Than Together, came out last October, several years after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean and too many others to count ... but several months before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the latest shameful murders—call them nothing else, they were murders—in 2020. 

Despite being inspired by years—centuries—of violence, racism and social injustice, it was still remarkably prescient and perhaps even more powerful now than had it been released in 2012 post-Trayvon, 2014 post-Michael or 2015 post-Freddie.

Justin Jacobs in his November 2019 review for Relix Magazine, calls "We Americans" "the thematic centerpiece of the album: a sobering reckoning with America's bloodied, racist heritage. It's an Americana record dissecting the American Soul, shaped by centuries of injustice and promise alike. Deconstructing, dissecting and hopefully rebuilding the heart and soul of America."

For me, this is the perfect explanation of the inner conflict many Americans—particularly white ones like yours truly—felt as we watched fireworks fly on Saturday night and tried to, cough, "celebrate" the fiery trainwreck this country has become for us, and always has been for others.

In a country with violent hypocrisy at its core, "We Americans" reminds me that there can be—has to be—redemption on the other side of even the most abhorrent social injustices. That real change can't happen without more white people speaking up. Listening. Asking questions. Challenging each other and the system. Even if our words aren't perfectly timed or articulated because, in most cases, our life experiences aren't remotely similar to those of the all-too-frequent victims.

And it's a reminder that 2020's senseless tragedies can't be just another blip on the radar before moving on to the next cause celebre. No, it has to be drastic, uncomfortable (for some), long overdue and systemic change. 

Deconstructing. Dissecting. Rebuilding.

I'd highly recommend you first listen to and watch "We Americans"—absorb the music, messages and hauntingly stunning animation style. And then, I'd suggest reading the lyrics to see the scope of their (and America's) violent inner conflict—good and evil, love and hate, pride and shame, privilege and oppression—that reads more like a stream-of-consciousness essay or epic poem than just "lyrics."

Maybe, like it did me, this song will punch you in the chest, knocking you into the dirt writhing and gasping for air, before extending a hand to help you up and dust you off.

Or comfort you that it doesn't make you a traitor to declare that you dislike or even hate this country because of how brutally it's treating our fellow citizens and non-citizens alike.

Or reassure that it's OK to loathe our shared but egregiously rewritten history and systemic evils. To be ashamed of the greed and arrogance of our (shockingly recent) past. And to vilify the most hateful people, beliefs and behavior in our less-shocking-by-the-minute present.

But "We Americans" is a whole new species of protest song. Because along with this soft-spoken outrage, there's a ruefully positive flip-side that says, "No, you're not inhuman, racist or tone-deaf to also still love this country—warts, scars, fresh wounds and all."

That says it's OK to believe in a better nature that, despite horrific evidence to the contrary, still exists deep inside even the worst of us. And that, despite our sins—from slavery to Jim Crow to 8 minutes 46 seconds, and too many others to list—we can still, astoundingly, be "more than the sum of our parts."

We can and will mend our torn, bleeding, sobbing, enraged national heart and soul.

We can hope for, expect and demand a time when the "love in our hearts" becomes more powerfully and indelibly transcendent than "the pain and the memory."

Love and hate. Good and evil. Pride and shame. Hope and despair. Opportunity and oppression. Each a pair of mortal enemies, yet both halves equally vital—the first to believe in, demand and fight for; the second to call out, strike down and banish forever.

Because until we do, we Americans—all of us—will never fix what's so clearly, institutionally, appallingly broken.

For those who just wanted a story about a great song, thanks for reading. I won't be offended if you leave.

For those sticking around, I ask: So what now, my fellow advertising pros? How can we actively deconstruct, dissect and rebuild our industry? 

Here are a few suggestions.

• Effect and promote diverse hiring and awareness and support, and share those who are already doing so—like Three's a Crowd, which is challenging agencies to sign a pledge to increase Black leadership to 13 percent by 2023.

• Find mentees not like us. Recruit from non-traditional places like The One Club's "Here Are All the Black People" and other diversity programs. And related, to a point made by Derek Walker on Rob Schwartz's "Disruptor Series" podcast, when travel restrictions and fears ease, don't make talent pay airfare, hotel, etc., for the oh-so-elusive privilege of interviewing with you in New York, Chicago or L.A. Go to South Carolina, Iowa or Texas and visit/recruit/find them.

• Read and share stories of being Black in advertising, and truly consider if you've ever even unintentionally "othered" someone—made them feel uninvited, marginalized, hopeless, affirmative-actioned, like a "mascot" or worse.

• Support brands—led by the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Sleeping Giants (yes, I see the irony of linking to their FB page), Color of Change, Free Press and Common Sense—fighting for-profit racism by boycotting a Facebook advertising Death Star that generated $70 billion in ad profit in 2019. #StopHateForProfit

• Support/spread the message of those like Saturday Morning who have rightfully declared that these most recent shameful, hateful moments can't be "just another moment." And the 600 & Rising Black advertising professionals whose campaign and open letter (also written on behalf of women, non-binary, LGBTQ+, disabled and NBPOC colleagues) demands meaningful action from agency leadership. Not words. Action.

• Consider virtually attending the 3% Movement's 9th annual conference, whose 2020 theme is "The Radically Inclusive Future of Work."

• Support Free the Work, a "talent-discovery platform for underrepresented creators," like what Free the Bid did for female talent.

• Read the Call for Change letter, spurred on by Nathan Young, group strategy director at Minneapolis-based Periscope, and Bennett D. Bennett, principal and content lead at creative consultancy Aerialist. 

• If you're a Black creative looking for a job, or you know one who is, submit your profile to Muse Recruits. I'd love to see more Black and Brown pros have their work/experience featured, because looking at the breadth of talent featured over the past few months, it's been mostly (big shock) white and "international" (Asian, British, Aussie, Latino/and other scattered NBPOC). But very few Black ad pros.

Hate, bigotry and violence affects us all. So while this isn't me myopically claiming, "Look at me, the one white dude doing things right!", this is me suggesting how all of us can do and be better. It is me asking my fellow white folks to get off the sidelines, click on the links above and keep the cancer of racism top-of-mind long after the normal "trending topic" shelf life. 

In 2020, there are no sidelines anymore. Everyone needs to get in the game.

People of all histories, differences, similarities and acronyms—separately when it makes sense, together when it counts most. In the streets. Behind closed doors in our homes. In our conference rooms, hallways and corporate summer outings.

All of us. "We Americans." Without whom, a better, more peaceful, harmonious future doesn't stand a chance.

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Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance executive creative director/creative director/copywriter and author based in Boulder, Colo. All his work and info is conveniently housed at markstamant.com.

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