A few weeks ago, in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, a throng of protesters clapped along to live music even as they were shouting the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, holding signs, and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” As part of a band led by Jon Batiste, it was the second time I’d performed in front of a live audience in months, and I remember the weight and gelatinous viscosity of the spirit of the crowd—that attention, that passion, that urgency. As a saxophonist, I have spent years of my life dancing with that spirit, exploring ways to make it rise and fall, rage, and swoon. Musicians are often called upon to shape an event’s emotional tone—to add joy to the wedding, solemnity to the funeral, inspiration to Sunday service. That afternoon, the dance steps came back to me quickly, charged with the tragic and rebellious purpose of the gathering: both collective grief and demand for justice.
It dawned on me as I was riding the train home afterward that there has never been any time in my life when I felt the government worked the way it was stated to. It didn’t need to completely live up to the ideas of Rousseau or Locke, but the failures have long been more than theoretical. And in that moment, I had no hope that our institutions could deliver us, no tangible model of a healthy civic life, no belief that justice was anything but a sarcastic joke. I sighed with a deep sense of disappointment.
My first and defining political disappointment was the election of President George W. Bush. As a teenager forming my identity in the tradition of Black music—a tradition where discipline, creativity, and mastery are highly valued—watching an anti-intellectual like Bush ride to the top on nothing but cronyism and extreme wealth was a bewildering slap in the face. Furthermore, at age 14, I was starting to understand some of the racism of the Republican Party (it would take me far longer to understand the racism of the Democrats). The day Bush v. Gore was decided was the day my faith disappeared; the corrupt decision revealing that everything I was taught about the sound moral function of American government was a lie.
From then on, any time I’d discuss politics, it was to insinuate, decry, or condemn the brokenness of it all. The Patriot Act was a gesture toward totalitarianism, Dick Cheney’s wars in the Middle East were for oil, the resistance to global warming was based in greed and induced ignorance. George Bush didn’t care about Black people. Everything seemed to prove my thesis, and yet deep down I wasn’t yearning to be right. Deep down, I sought a vision of the national community—a knowledge that my leaders and country folk could be relied upon, a calling to grow myself in such a way that they could rely on me. I was seeking the same sense of shared responsibility I found every night on the bandstand, where democracy, negotiation, and common objectives were practiced in real time.
When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, my disbelief in government was as strong as ever. Still, I played the national anthem at an impromptu but voluminous parade on 125th Street in Harlem. I danced with a roaring crowd, my fingers on cold brass, the thrill of victory racing through my bones, making the November night air bearable. But Obama’s victory didn’t transform the government into something I could believe in. It just meant that the conspiracy had failed—the establishment corrupt and disorganized. So, in my most triumphant political moment, I played the national anthem not for the country, but just for my friends and our own naive sense of victory. And, I’d come to see, it really was naive: Throughout Obama’s presidency, the rise of the tea party, the right’s vicious opposition to any attempt at progress, and Fox News’ heavy fearmongering would all continue to feed my disbelief in a functional government.
After those eight years and the 2016 election disaster that brought us here, I found that I had slipped into a place where I didn’t truly have a life-affirming vision for the future of the country. And that place is terrifying because without a vision, all that we are left with in this country is a gunmetal grey injunction to get yours, justified by the cynical gesticulations of an invisible hand or the bombastic religion of American consumerism or the desperate realization that we may not have much time left.
Then what was I playing for in front of the Barclays Center? Just to dance with the crowd again, to stunt, to get credit for showing up, to increase the numbers that sit next to my name on the internet? How uninspired, how selfish, how meager.
But as I rode the train home, I had another thought: Music is beautiful. As an artist, I am here to make beautiful things, and as a Black artist, I create beauty through the musical tradition that has made American music worthwhile: R&B music that makes people dance at weddings, second line music that leads parades at funerals, Gospel music that makes people praise their God in church. But, if I don’t believe that the world of which I am a part can hold beauty or be moved by it, or that the tradition with which I am charged can alchemize existential terror into a brighter future, what am I really offering besides noise and sanctimoniousness?
In the wake of that protest, I’ve come to understand that an inescapable part of my job—one I am still learning—is to hold on to the hope that the world can be more beautiful than it is. Perhaps I must make peace with the corruption of the past so that I can fight for a fairer future. Perhaps I can choose to live and play in a way that others can rely on and thus make the world more reliable. Perhaps I can help elucidate how a bandstand full of Blackness may be the best example of participatory democracy America has ever produced. Perhaps I am—and perhaps we are—the ones who can make America what it must become.
Marcus G. Miller is a world-renowned saxophonist and mathematician based in Harlem, New York. He wants to increase the curiosity, imagination, and beauty in the world. Find him at imaginewithmarcus.com and on Instagram @imaginewithmarcus.