Grammy Award-winning musician Esperanza Spalding has a problem with using the phrase "protest song" to describe her new recording, "We Are America." The song, along with its accompanying music video, demands congressional action to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
" 'Protest' doesn't seem accurate to me," she tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "We weren't thinking of a 'protest' song, we're thinking of a 'let's get together and do something pro-active, creative and productive' song."
She says she grew increasingly motivated to take on the cause of closing Guantanamo as she learned more about the "human rights violations and, actually, the constitutional violations that this continued detention represents." But it was news of hunger strikes and force-feedings earlier this year that prompted her to action. "I just felt, I really want to do more, and if I can become a public champion for this, let me find a way to do it."
In the music video, Spalding joined up with artists Janelle Monae, Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte with a mission to let people know what is still happening at Guantanamo, and to say that everyone's voice is important in this debate. "We really do have the power as a people," she says. "Part of the message of the song is, 'This is not our America. We are America. I am America. Esperanza Spalding is America. And all the people in this video are America, and no, we don't condone this behavior, and we don't want it anymore."
She says that ultimately the song is celebratory. "It's not heavy. It's not sad. It's not angry," she says. "We're saying, 'Yes, let us celebrate this freedom that we have and make sure that our voices are heard that this is not the country that we believe in.'"
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Let's turn now to a new musical take on an ongoing political debate. This week, the Senate voted on a bill that could potentially lead to the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison. Grammy award-winning musician Esperanza Spalding wrote to her senator about the issue, but didn't feel her voice was being heard. So she decided to get people's attention with a song. So here's a clip from her new video "We are America."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE AMERICA")
HEADLEE: In the video, Spalding is joined by artists like Janelle Monae, Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte to demand Congressional action on closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. And she's here now to tell us more. Welcome.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: I mean, obviously, you must get a lot of calls from charities and different groups and activists wanting you to be the champion for a bunch of different issues. Why this one?
SPALDING: Well, I felt, personally, really motivated and deeply, deeply concerned the more that I learned about the human rights violations and, actually, the constitutional violations that this continued detention represents. And I think what really drove the point home was the hunger strike and the force feeding, when I learned about that. I just felt I really want to do more. And if I can become a public champion for this, let me find a way to do it.
And at the same time, the members of my band - the Radio Music Society - had also been hearing those headlines and actually came to me and said, can we do something creative together? And that's where the whole premise of the song came from and the music video. And it fortunately kept its momentum going. And we found a lot of support from the human rights community. And what you see is the fruit of all those efforts.
HEADLEE: How do you write a good protest song? I mean, I'm sure you've heard bad ones. I can probably list you off a lot of really terrible songs that were invented to activate people or get people to do something. Yours is - it works just as a song. How do you do that?
SPALDING: Yeah, ouch. Well, I don't know about bad, but - and, you know, I wish there was another word we could use because protest doesn't seem accurate to me. Maybe that's the root of it. We weren't thinking of a protest song. We're thinking of a let's-get-together-and-do-something, proactive, creative and productive song.
HEADLEE: That's not quite as snappy, Esperanza.
SPALDING: I know, I know. I need a new word. I'm open to suggestions. But lots of great minds were in that rehearsal room when we got together to write the song. We're going, you know, what are we really saying? What do we want to transmit? What's in this room that's in our hearts that we want to transmit out to other people and hope that it'll be resonant with that aspect of all of us that wants to do something good - that wants to do the right thing and the just thing. And I think we really captured that. At a certain point, we got a little bit stuck for some of the lyrics. We couldn't come with this. It kind of has - what are we trying to say?
And I looked at the wall and, just next to the piano, some previous musician in there had written, no justice, no peace. And so I start humming the - like we were doing, like, a call-and-answer kind of chant. And, (Singing) I've been told and I believe - ain't no justice, ain't no peace. And that really became a seed that grew into the whole song. So really, I don't know how to answer your question specifically, but all I can sort of say is describing how we did it. And it was a very organic and genuine process.
HEADLEE: How will it help? I mean, I know President Obama came in and I believe he truly believed that he was going to be able to close Guantanamo without too much fuss. He found that to be very difficult - still to this day - to do. How is this video and greater public awareness going to actually do something that's so complicated in Washington?
SPALDING: Yeah. It's not as complicated as you might think. The narrative has gotten a little co-opted to become a who's soft and who's tough on security. And really, there are some very basic laws and human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our Constitution that are being violated. And there is a really concise and coherent roadmap that's been laid out by a lot of different governing bodies. So the mission or the objective of this video is to let more people know that this is still ongoing. And we really do have the power as a people to voice that concern and continue to let Congress - and let everybody know that this is a priority for us.
Also, just in terms of our image as a country, right? Part of the message of the song is, this is not our America. We are America. I'm America. Esperanza Spalding's America. And all the people in this video are America. And no, we don't condone this behavior and we don't want it anymore. We don't want our America to be doing this. And that's why the song is really celebratory, you know? It's not heavy. It's not sad. It's not angry. We're saying, yes, let us celebrate this freedom that we have. And make sure that our voices are heard. That this is not the country that we believe in.
HEADLEE: Well, I hope all of our listeners go and listen. If you do, it'll get stuck in your head. I'm warning you right now.
HEADLEE: The song is called "We are America." It is out now. Esperanza Spalding is a Grammy award-winning musician. Esperanza, it's a pleasure. Thank you so much.
SPALDING: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.