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How musicians bring Americans together across party lines

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Polarization has rippled across all sorts of behavior - who you date, where you live, even the music you listen to. Musicians are keenly feeling the divided state of the country, too. NPR's John Burnett has been talking with music makers who say they want to help bridge that divide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's a chilly night in the Texas Hill Country. But here inside the Arcadia Theatre in the town of Kerrville, there's a blithe spirit afoot. The crowd is swaying to Asleep at the Wheel, the Grammy-winning Western swing band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky.

BURNETT: The audience is a melange of cowboy hats and tattoos, rural folks and urbanites, and everybody's getting along.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: But these days, a country and Western musician has to walk a fine line to stay out of trouble. Ray Benson is the guitar-slinging, white-bearded, longtime leader of Asleep at the Wheel.

RAY BENSON: Six years ago, it wasn't so bad. Four years ago, it started getting weird. Now, it's totally toxic. And it's all about social media because that's where all the trolls are. That's where all the nut bars are.

BURNETT: Benson happens to be a hardcore Democrat. But unlike openly progressive stars like The Chicks or Bonnie Raitt, he doesn't strut his politics on stage. The Wheel, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, has tried to stay in the middle of the road. They've played the inaugurations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Benson learned what happens if he pops off, as he did a couple of years ago on social media.

BENSON: I called Donald Trump's followers a cult, and his followers didn't take it lightly. A cult? You're calling me a cult? That's the end. I'll never listen to you again. And screw your radio show, too.

BURNETT: Better to let the music be an oasis from the acrimony. In the audience at the Kerrville show is Mike Blakely, who happens to be a Hill Country singer-songwriter.

MIKE BLAKELY: I know a lot of the people in my audience, and I know who voted for this way and who voted that way. And they're out there in the same audience, you know, shaking hands and dancing and singing along. So music is the escape from all that. And it kind of takes the politics and the religion and the disagreements out of all sorts of things.

BURNETT: Now, let's move from the six-string guitar to the 11-string oud, which is an Arabic lute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHMOUD CHOUKI: My name is Mahmoud Chouki. I'm from Morocco. I'm a musician, composer and music curator and also educator living in New Orleans.

BURNETT: Chouki is playing with his band at a gala at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in early December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURNETT: During the pandemic, Chouki took a road trip across the country, playing wherever he could - in his mind, serving as a sort of ambassador to Saharan Africa. As an immigrant bringing his distinctive music to taverns and house concerts, Chouki says he, too, has felt this national dyspepsia in America.

CHOUKI: And if you are not with me, you are against me. So we can't be just friends if we have different politic ideas and beliefs. And that's kind of really sad to see that.

BURNETT: With his spidery fingers dancing across the fretless instrument, Mahmoud Chouki figures the best he can do is offer a kind of music therapy.

CHOUKI: When I play my music, I feel no difference. I feel no politic opinion. I feel just people, like, having a moment to enjoy, to listen. And I'm very grateful to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURNETT: At the Jazz Museum Gala, alongside serving stations of broiled oysters and shrimp creole, some people feel the same way. Jimese Orange is a marketing executive from South Carolina, now living in New Orleans. She says music is her survival strategy.

JIMESE ORANGE: I work to it. I play it before I go to bed. Like, it's sanity for me (laughter).

BURNETT: For Orange, the gifts that bring people together are food and music.

ORANGE: But music especially. I mean, it's been scientifically studied and proven on the vibrations and, you know, the megahertz of this sound and that sound. And it's literally linked to our brain and to our hearts.

BURNETT: Actually, what she says is true. There are neurophysiological responses when we make music together and when we listen to music together. This is not to say that music is somehow going to heal our great national divide, but it sure can't hurt.

JANICE LINDSTROM: Music has been around since our earliest times on the planet as humans.

BURNETT: Janice Lindstrom is a lecturer in music therapy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She points out music activates more areas of the brain than any other activity. It releases oxytocin, and it engages our bodies to move in sync.

LINDSTROM: Music has evolved to increase our social cohesion in human beings, to help us work together and form deep bonds with one another so that we can survive. Because we rely on others for our survival, we cannot survive in isolation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A UNITED STATE OF HUMANITY")

DONNA ELAINE MILLER: (Singing) It's not black. It's not white. It's not wrong. It's not right.

BURNETT: The images of America at war with itself after the murder of George Floyd and the riot at the U.S. Capitol are what motivated Donna Elaine Miller to write this song, "A United State Of Humanity."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A UNITED STATE OF HUMANITY")

MILLER: (Singing) It's not rich. It's not poor.

BURNETT: Miller is a singer-songwriter living in Los Angeles. She freelances tunes for Disney. When her producer told her about a song contest put on by Braver Angels, a citizen's group that's trying to depolarize America, this phrase popped in her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A UNITED STATE OF HUMANITY")

MILLER: (Singing) We need a united state of humanity. We need it. We need it. A united state of humanity, the sum of every part.

I think, if we can relate at the level of our humanity, that is the only place we're going to solve any kind of divide because we have to see each other as humans first. We're all human before we're any skin color or any gender or any political party or anything.

BURNETT: Miller believes the malaise and malady that afflicts the American soul is not so much a political divide as it is a spiritual one.

MILLER: I think that's the biggest schism. I think it's possible to listen to somebody who has a completely different point of view and not agree with them and still be friends and still, you know, stand side by side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A UNITED STATE OF HUMANITY")

MILLER: (Singing) A united state of humanity. We need it. We need it.

BURNETT: The catchy song won the Braver Angels contest, and it's been growing in popularity. Folks are now streaming it. Churches are asking her to perform it. Perhaps her united state of humanity has caught the moment. Maybe Americans are tiring of the nastiness. It's harmony they miss.

John Burnett, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: We want to mention this is John's last story as a full-time correspondent for NPR. He is retiring after a distinguished career of 36 years with the network. We wish John well in his retirement. And John, we hope there's lots of music in your future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A UNITED STATE OF HUMANITY")

MILLER: (Singing) We need it. We need it. A united state of humanity. We need it. We need it now. Resolutions in a revolution of - resolutions in a revolution of - revolutions in a revolution of the heart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.