Aloe Blacc’s gravelly voice and moving video speaks of hope when all seems lost
This song brings me to tears. Every time. And it’s not just because the lyrics speak to me so, and because of the honest soulfulness of Aloe Blacc’s vocal performance. It’s so much more than the tired cliche of “dreams lost”. It’s so very much more than rambling words you hear in your lecture hall, or the political platitudes of pandering pundits you hear on television. It’s about lives, and families, and futures. It’s about acceptance, and equality, and justice.
I’ve known undocumented immigrants, and walked with underpaid farmworkers demonstrating in front of grocery stores for a living wage for their work. I’ve participated in marches against mass deportation, alongside people of all colors and backgrounds. Much of this was when I lived and worked in Atlanta, a place that to me oftentimes felt far more like a multicultural melting pot than the place I live now. In spite of all our hard work there, things just did not seem to be improving. I’m a citizen of the United States, but toward the end of my time living there I quite seriously wanted to pack a single bag, board a plane, and flee.
Dead serious. I stood in the airport waiting for my dad to arrive and asked myself if I ought to find a way to board a plane. “Things aren’t changing,” I said to myself. “There’s little left for me here.” The job I’d found as a valet after the end of the year of service work I’d been engaged in just outside the perimeter of the city, one that had never been truly satisfying, had cut my hours in half. On days I decided to walk to Eats, on Ponce de Leon, and treat myself to lunch, I’d see day laborers on the road waiting for work. Around this time, I’d been writing and writing in every free minute, with no breakthrough. I’d even traveled all the way to Washington D.C. in an attempt to lift my voice to someone who might hear it. But nonetheless, I felt snubbed, abandoned, unheard, and without hope.
“They tell me I’m too young to understand.” You say the millennials have a culture of entitlement? You say we want success without having to work for it? Get out of here. Many people are working for it. Very hard. Try going out and talking to some of ’em.
“Wake Me Up” is a song you’ve probably heard, when it hit radio airwaves around that same time thanks to a remix by Avicii, the version that I initially encountered and was impressed by. There was a period of time before it connected for me that the popular song was in fact a remix of Blacc’s original, the version I now prefer. The song’s good… very good. Its lyrics reflect the human condition, in all its confusion, desperation, and occasional transcendence. The song is a portrait of the individual search for meaning and quintessentially human desire to create beauty from suffering and to live a life of meaning. It speaks of a sputtering dream, one I still struggle to search for in the America I live in today, a country where nationalism and populism face off like a pair of boxers, sweating and bleeding and bitterly cursing one another.
It’s not surprising, then, that the video might take a stab at portraying the very real and very political. From the very beginning, when “Inspired by 11 Million True Stories” fades into view, to the circular ending and the moment it is revealed that most of its actors have lived the experience of migration across state borders and deportation, the video aims to make a point. It is a very open and pointed attempt to humanize voices that have been downtrodden, slandered, and persecuted.
Yesterday, a march was held at Dawson Park by the Black Lives Matter Movement in Portland in honor of the National Day Against Police Brutality. To this day I am so very glad to see this movement grow, and continue to challenge and disrupt us from our routine of blithe acceptance. The seemingly endless school shootings and gun violence here have not ceased, including in my beautiful and beloved Pacific Northwest. In fact, they seem to have intensified. I’ve been seeing violence ignite again in Israel that has been lighting up some of my friends’ social media feeds, including news that a well-loved activist there lost his life after inhaling pepper spray. And in the meantime, America is priming itself for a fiery, extremely important presidential race, one where extreme viewpoints WILL come head to head. I have been reluctant to get involved or to be too vocal about my opinions and reactions, partly because I was so disappointed and disillusioned by my brief foray in the world of political organizing last summer, after leaving Atlanta, and partly because I’ve been focusing on more personal pursuits. But today I just couldn’t help myself.
What this video is trying to do is to humanize people. It attempts, in no uncertain terms, to attach faces to the stories of immigrants, multicultural people, and people of color, who otherwise may remain abstract and inconsequential to some. Aloe Blacc is connecting his voice and his lyrics, which bleed humanity, ambition, confusion, and the search for self realization, with the stories of people who are continuously dehumanized and oppressed and who, like anyone else, simply seek a better, happier life.
And at the end of the video, the stony-eyed gaze of a white, male riot policeman appears. He catches eyes with a protester. His eyes show world-weariness and fatigue. But they show the very slight glimmering edge of something else that I think is very important, if we are to find hope in these troubling times. His eyes show compassion.
I don’t claim to know whether the video had an appreciable effect, or improved lives for the better. With art, you never can tell. But I know that for me, it re-awoke some deeply-buried hopes and emotions. It re-awoke my compassion. It reignited my frustration, my ambition, and my determined hope to travel any distance, face down any challenge, and climb any fence, for those that I love.