Musician. Army veteran. Mom. Lawyer. Citizen. Since resigning from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities with 15 colleagues last week, many are asking, Why? Why now? What am I hoping to accomplish through this public act protesting the actions of our current U.S. President?
For me the answers are straightforward: U.S. citizenship provides me many rights and as a society, we talk a lot about those enshrined in the U.S Constitution’s Bill of Rights along with those inferred or created since then. As someone whose family has lived in this country for more than 200 years — initially as slaves — I am acutely aware of and cannot escape the multi-century journey of our nation toward a more perfect union.
Because of those who came before me, I vote, live, travel and shop where I want. I love who I want and I can even be buried where I want. Because of those who came before me, I have attended some of our nation’s most celebrated institutions of higher learning and served my country as a U.S. Army Airborne officer. Because of them, I make the kind of music I want and I live as a “citizen-artist” based out of the only city where I chose to live in — Seattle.
Not because of family, job or school but because I just had to live in this city, first inhabited by Native Americans for at least 4,000 years before the first Europeans permanently settled. And, despite Seattle’s real challenges, it remains one of our nation’s most prosperous, beautiful and diverse cities.
So, what is a “citizen-artist?” For me, it starts with being a citizen. Citizenship isn’t just about “rights.” I have responsibilities as well even though as a culture, we talk far less about that. Those responsibilities go beyond paying taxes and voting. Like all citizens, I have a responsibility to stay informed and frankly, when I die, to leave America better than I found it. Leave it better for my child, your child and the generations that follow.
Though it sounds quaint in today’s hyper-partisan and otherwise divisive climate, President John F. Kennedy was spot on when he exhorted us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That’s why I volunteered to serve as an Army officer and then, as a federal prosecutor, as a legal services for the poor advocate and most recently, as a member of the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities. It’s why I’ve worked in both Democrat and Republican administrations and believe in bipartisanship. It’s selfish. I want to live in that America. I'm a citizen who happens to be a musician.
Following our current President’s remarks in the aftermath of the Charlottesville riots, in which he drew a moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis and those who opposed them, it became untenable for me to remain on the President’s Committee. By our mass resignation, the other committee members and I drew our line in the sand. Our act of citizenship has been widely publicized, discussed and, of course, not without generating controversy.
We’ve inspired other acts of citizenship and I am pleased by this, but it’s not enough. We artists can do more. I can do more. The arts and humanities touch every fabric of America. Through music, dance, fine art, acting, design, architecture, literature and the like, we touch every American. We artists and writers have a powerful reach and through its use, even when our voice is angry, frustrated or depressed, we can make a difference.
In the wake of Charlottesville, many artists have spoken out and not just ones with nothing to lose. A lot of people see what we do and how we do it in helping shape an America our Founding Fathers envisioned and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of and died for.
I hope our resignation spurs Americans to put more value on arts education in our public schools. I hope our act sparks respectful conversation among neighbors. I hope our boldness helps spark thousands, if not millions, to think afresh about what it means to be an American. I hope we help inspire artists to write, paint, draw, make movies, broadcast, sing, play, act, build and choreograph their hopes for America as well as choreograph their disappointment about how far yet we have to go.
The United States is the greatest country on earth but our greatness is not guaranteed. It derives from each of us; We, the people are America’s sovereign. As so eloquently stated by scholar/activist and fellow Seattleite Eric Liu, “If the undocumented have to work hard to obtain citizenship, those of us already citizens should have to work hard to sustain it. We should all have to serve more, vote more, build more and do more for our country.”