Musical Messages: Detroit


Today we kick off what we hope is the start of something bigger here on the Soul Clap Blog, we’re calling it Musical Messages and the goal is to explore political and social issues using music. What better place to start than the once and future great city of Detroit and we’re playing there tomorrow so the timing couldn’t be better.


I’ve been meaning to write this piece ever since my mother, Dr Diane Levin had her first blog published on the Huffington Post. Diane is an early childhood educator who’s life work is trying to understand how social phenomenon like violence, the media and poverty can effect child development. She’s also an activist who uses her knowledge to improve our education, build supports systems and fight negative influences. By random luck she was an intern in Detroit during the riots of 1967 and the piece she wrote for the Huffington Post connects the experience she had in Detroit with broader issues of poverty, education and the prison system in the U.S.

Her initial experience in Detroit that summer was full of hope, “We were studying how President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” would help children and families who were living in poverty in the inner city. A focal point of the “war,” Head Start, was in its infancy. It offered new hope, part of a comprehensive set of programs and services designed to help “lift” children and families out of poverty. There was much optimism about the future for Detroit’s poor. Officials described Detroit as a “demonstration city” that had quickly and effectively implemented all available programs and resources provided by the federal government to fight the War on Poverty. The deterioration of inner city Detroit had been halted, and many in high places were hopeful that the downward spiral had even been stopped, even reversed.”

Then one hot summer night, everything changed. Detroit and the entire country would never be the same. This amazing song by jazz musician Gregory Porter captures this moment in a way only music can:

“It’s neither a celebration or degradation of the political uprisings that happened in the US in the ’60s – all over the US, not just in Detroit. That level of uprising caused a shift in politics, and a shift in peoples’ attitudes towards people. It’s essentially a documented conversation of the absurdity of injustice, and the pain that injustice causes, and the after affect of that pain. ‘If you’ve done something to me, I’m gonna strike back the only way I know how. I’m going to do something to myself,’ essentially. The people that riot, mostly just often burn their own neighborhoods.” -Gregory Porter on Soul Culture UK.

Fast forward to 2007 and my first visit to Detroit for the Movement Festival. My first impression of Detroit was the biggest ghost-town I could ever imagine. Abandoned skyscrapers littered downtown and the streets were entirely empty in the daytime. Yet, I still couldn’t mistake how welcoming everyone I met in the city was. From my interactions at the airport, with taxi drivers, at restaurants, and of course at the festival, I came away with a feeling of deep respect from and for Detroiters. Nowhere is this more palpable than at the Guardian Building, an internationally acclaimed art deco masterpiece and one of the few downtown buildings that is not only maintained, but kept in impeccable condition. To me this building embodied my experience in Detroit and like the city’s rich musical history, it stands as a sign of all that has been and all that can still be. I knew that I needed to come back and properly explore the Motor City.

All my further experiences in Detroit have reinforced my initial feelings. There was our magical pre-Thanksgiving set (our first ever performance in Detroit) at the Bohemian Cultural Home, when techno legends Stacey Pullen and Eddie Fowlkes gave us the warmest welcome any young artists could ask for. We got the full city tour from John Johr, including the Motown Museum, old rave spots, burned out blocks and of course the Heidelberg Project. Then in 2011 we got to play, Movement our favorite festival in the world, probably the biggest honor for any America electronic musician. There may be poverty and hardship, but there is no denying that Detroit is one of our richest cities in authentic culture, spirit and love.


Through all these experiences I began to realize that Detroit is a symbol for the broader United States. Once our industrial heart, we’ve allowed our arteries to become blocked and stopped the flow of this culture and spirit in and out of this once rich city. In Dr Levin’s words, “The declaration of bankruptcy by Detroit occurred almost 46 years to the day, in July 1967, when the catastrophic riots broke out. This year’s monumental event too graphically symbolizes the failure of America to implement the commitment it made in the Sixties to reduce poverty, especially among children, when its lifelong effects can be the greatest. The reality is that poverty has gotten worse in the intervening years — in Detroit and throughout the country. In 2011, child poverty levels in Detroit were close to 60%, among the highest rates in the nation. But beyond Detroit, Measuring World Poverty (UNICEF 2012) reports that of the top 35 economically advanced countries, the U.S. ranks 34th on levels of children poverty with a rate of over 23%?”

My mother’s article goes on to outline how powerful a tool in child development the Head Start program is and at the cost of only $7,500 per child per year it’s significantly less than the $34,000 we pay yearly to keep an inmate locked up. Why not spend now on education instead of continuing to lock up the poor and cost our country more dollars? Yet our government has cut more than half it’s funding for Head Start this year and will keep cutting unless we fight to get the word out. There’s more on this in the full article, so read it!

If every American was required to go on a tour of Detroit before they were allowed to vote, so many minds would be opened to the real work that we need to do to heal the city and our country. I truly believe that as Detroit goes, we all go. Why not start with the children!? I’m taking my mothers lead, putting my money where my mouth is and donating most of my fee ($1,000) to a Detroit based organization for kids. Now I just need your help choosing the right one. Can you help Detroit?