I play bass and sing with my dear friends Benjy and Heather Wertheimer of the kirtan ensemble Shantala. We travel around the U.S. and parts of Canada leading groups of people in a spiritual practice called kirtan, a lesser-known form of yoga which opens the heart through the singing of ancient mantras. As such, we mostly find ourselves performing in yoga studios, playing for communities of people who appear to be united in their common intention to cultivate health, love, and awareness.
I imagine some performers might be agonizing over a skillful way to articulate the Climate Message to an audience which might not take kindly to the intrusion of “liberal propaganda” into their well-earned entertainment. With my particular audience I agonized over the opposite: How do I give the Climate Message to this crowd without “preaching to the choir” or interrupting their ecstatic bliss with a harsh buzzkill from the world of Form?
My solution creates a balance. I’m gentle with them about the problem of climate change—assuming they are aware to some degree— but I challenge them to more actively embrace solutions. Most importantly, I encourage them to compassionately engage the uneducated and the denialists in conversations about climate solutions, and to use the apparent conflict as an opportunity to reject polarization and seek common ground.
When I consider the difficulties my fellow musicians in other genres might be facing with their audiences, I recognize that I have an easy, receptive audience with whom to share the Climate Message. And yet, after giving the Climate Message throughout the southeastern U.S., seeing the reactions on some people’s faces, and looking at my CD sales, I eventually heard a creeping thought in my mind: Is giving the Climate Message hurting my sales? Given the numerous factors which go into the success of CD sales or other merchandise in a given night, there is probably no easy, accurate way to assess whether or not this is the case. However, simply asking the question brings up a lot to discuss here at Climate Message Central.
How many artists out there—with audiences MUCH more sensitive than mine—are stuck trying to figure out their unique version of the Climate Message because of a similar worry? How many are reluctant to even consider giving the Climate Message to a potentially unreceptive or hostile audience because they are barely scraping by and can’t afford any possible economic repercussions? Are there performers who are concerned they might even risk physical harm by giving the Climate Message?
Responses to some of these questions can be deeply personal. We all have varying situations, abilities, and responsibilities. As with any activism campaign there’s only so many of us at any given moment who have the time and resources to “get ourselves arrested”. The rest of us do what we can at the time and there’s no shame in giving exactly what we are capable of; every little bit helps.
For me, I’ve decided that I’m willing to take a significant financial risk (even though I am “scraping by”, for the most part). I’m not afraid of violence. I’m interested in speaking to anyone about climate change, any time. I’ll challenge the most extreme denialist to consider the science of the problem. I’ll prod the most ardent environmentalist to delve deeper into the myriad solutions.
In my estimation, most everybody is aware of climate change to some degree. We haven’t been disconnected from Nature all that long in the grand scheme of things; most of us “feel it in our bones” even as our minds might disagree. As such, most everybody inhabits one of the 5 Stages of Climate Grief, as described by climatologist Dr. Steve Running: — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While it certainly doesn’t allow me to condone any of the hideous actions some people take to deal with their grief, putting everybody somewhere on the grief stage spectrum does allow me to have a modicum of compassion.
This perspective helps me to try and understand that their actions may likely arise from fear, sadness, and ignorance. I’m inspired to soften my response, my stance, and make the difficult attempt to connect with the basic humanity of anyone who opposes me. At the very least, this practice jolts me out of the self-concern of my CD sales and allows me to ponder some better questions: How do I most skillfully meet the fearful actions of denialists with compassion? How do I do it without being condescending? How can I most effectively help people to move forward in their Stages of Climate Grief to ‘acceptance’?
How might a critical mass of us move beyond ‘acceptance’, beyond grief, and collectively take on this enormous challenge with the highest capacities of creativity, intelligence, confidence, and heart?
Beautiful expression of a complex thought, Sean. There is no single answer to this question, for each of us faces different audiences, different performance requirements, different visions of how to communicate.
Have you tried mentioning this very question to your listeners? “Sometimes I wonder if speaking about climate change makes people reluctant to support my work…does giving this message hurt my sales?”
You might get more sales from people who want to show their approval!
Great idea, Warren!
Your suggestion is a good reminder that we need not always be martyrs or self-sacrificing in order to achieve something important for the lot of us. We can also be smart about what kinds of sacrifices we choose.
Still, I wonder if your idea is a slippery slope in the kirtan world. Kirtan ensembles in the West sometimes get criticized for making any money at all, even touring groups with significant overhead. After all, we are facilitating a spiritual practice. “Why should we pay to pray?” is a re-occurring meme.
Of course, this argument often falls flat with Shantala because we state that we never turn anyone away and we actively share this practice in prisons, nursing homes, and mental institutions for free.
Even so, I still quite often find myself feeling shy as Heather announces my CD after I perform “Viennawaterfalls”. We are very self-conscious of making the event too performance-based and my 3 string guitar piece is the one solo performance of the entire evening!
These are the kind of intricacies which must be considered within different musical genres. You’re right, each is SO different. I’m grateful for climatemessage.com to give us all a forum to work these kinds of things out with each other.
It gives me visions of climatemessage.com’s evolution: special sections of the website for blues musician, kirtan artists, jugglers, you name it. Tabs to click on that open up a whole universe of information on how to approach these different audiences in unique, compelling, and successful ways. Blueprints for social engineering, so-to-speak!