Music itself is among the greatest healers. It pulls people together when language fails. Some people seem to think that music and politics are antithetical; I play music always with the hope of contr
Kurt Elling is a Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer, Blue Note recording artist, vice chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and, last month, was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
I ran for a delegate spot in my native Chicago this year because I believe we all have to give whatever we can these days to help the world heal. Touring the country and the world, I've seen too much of the sad and angry human divide to sit on my hands this election.
Of course, music itself is among the greatest healers. It pulls people together when language fails. Some people seem to think that music and politics are antithetical; I play music always with the hope of contributing to human unity. I know that being an artist means something concrete and real in the world. But sometimes you have to stand for something more specific.
So, that's what I tried to do. The question is, does it really mean something to be a delegate?
When I left for Boston, I was looking forward to a week of intense learning, of intellectual and political fortification, of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my idealistic brothers and sisters for the common good. And, as a dilettante political junkie (all those newspapers to read on airplanes!), I was excited about hooking up with people engaged full time in the ongoing fight for the nation's heart and soul.
In fact, a convention is a sort of fantasy camp for those who love party politics. Some of us in the Illinois delegation met our party-affiliated local and state leaders every morning at 8 a.m. for breakfast and cheerleading. Led by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, party functionaries and elected officials from the governor on down briefed us on the events of the day to come, gave us talking points (no small thing with reporters outnumbering delegates at the convention 3-to-1) and generally exhorted us to "be ready for another big night!"
I don't know what other delegates did in between our morning meetings and the gavel in the Fleet Center, but I kept plenty busy. I signed up for forums where people like Gary Hart, Dennis Kucinich and Ambassador Joe Wilson discussed possible outcomes in Iraq and the future of our foreign policy. I got into intelligent sidewalk discussions with dedicated rank-and-file progressives while we waited in lines. And, of course, there were parties-some of which I sang at, pro bono, with pick-up bands from the Boston area.
As vice chair of NARAS, I also pulled some double duty. The Recording Academy has an advocacy program on Capitol Hill that is growing in strength and stature. With the academy's larger artist-oriented legislative agenda in mind, I met informally with people like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. I thanked them for supporting the Induce Act, which is high on NARAS' list of priorities in the current legislative cycle.
I was deep into what was for me a new, provocative atmosphere, and I certainly was busy. But did it help the cause for which I was there? Was I helping the party gain traction on the problems at hand?
I was confronted by those questions every time I came back to the room to see how the event's TV and newspaper coverage was shaping up. One of the cliché complaints the major news outlets have is that the convention was a scripted, archaic non-event-or, in the words of Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," merely "the unveiling of [the Democrats'] new product line."
Admittedly, there wasn't much to actually do. As delegates we listened, cheered, waved signs. On Wednesday night, we voted to formally endorse a predetermined outcome. On Thursday night, we greeted John Kerry as our official candidate. We were the dedicated backdrop.
Sure, the same phrases were repeated throughout the week. No surprise there: I know from my work as an artist how hard it is for an idea to find its way into an audience's consciousness. In order to get any kind of political message over the yawning gap that is the national divide-no matter how sensible or how idealistic-one must be as focused as possible.
After all, an idea must run the gauntlet of the pundits' snide remarks, the media's focus on frivolous sidebars and the obfuscation and counterpoint of the opposition. And then there's the competition for audience attention from mindless entertainment and the general static of the Communications Age.
To successfully reach a national audience, a campaign must hammer its points home in a highly organized and streamlined fashion. Ideas must echo many times to be heard once.
And if, during the convention, those ideas needed to echo off thousands of signs with the force of thousands of voices, and if it helped to have one more person holding one more sign and raising one more voice in support of a man as right for this country as John Kerry is--well, then I guess I know what I was doing there after all. We all have to give whatever we can.
On the other hand, the real work begins for delegates now that we've come home. There are friends to inspire, voters to register, fund-raisers to mount and minds to change. Maybe that's what it really means to be a delegate.