Into Music as a Lifeline
Trymaine Lee: It's pretty incredible to think about. But right now because of coronavirus, about 95% of all Americans are living under some sort of order to stay home. That's pretty much everyone in a country of more than 328 million people. Being shut in day after day can be stressful and sad and lonely and boring.
But sometimes it truly can be joyful. Those of us who love music, and I'm definitely one of them, we can't go to shows. We can't go to the club. We can't get together and just sing. But creatives are creative. We can and are finding new ways to keep the music going.
Archival Recording.: The importance of music is to keep our spirits up even though we're social distancing. Of course there's some sense of community that's been brought out of that that is kind of new and wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been on this big huge shut down.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. And today just a few of the stories of people making and using music in these difficult times. To help me, I called up an old friend. Hello, Bonsu.
Bonsu Thompson: How are you, sir?
Lee: I followed Bonsu Thompson's career long before we were friends. He's written for a lot of my favorite music and culture magazines. And he's really connected to the music industry. So when we decided to do an episode about music in this moment, I said, "I gotta get Bonsu on the line." How are you doin'?
Thompson: I have my days on a macro level. I am truly blessed. The family's pretty healthy. I'm in good health. But, you know, it's just I go through a lot of anxiety.
Lee: I think we're all goin' through some level of corona induced anxiety through the quarantine. But we're findin' ways to push through. And for a lot of us, it's music.
Thompson: Oh, I mean, yeah, music is a lifeline. It's been since birth honestly. It's almost, like, a part of my heartbeat.
Lee: And, you know, Instagram and social media has been this great kind of vehicle for the music. Have any of the moments that we've seen stood out for you?
Thompson: Oh, I mean, history is being made during these times on Instagram.
Thompson: Have you been attending D-Nice's home school parties?
Archival Recording: Trump is crazy.
Archival Recording: Welcome to home school at Trump quarantine.
Thompson: It's given me life and joy (LAUGH) and strength.
Archival Recording: The biggest party in the world.
Thompson: So for those who don't know, DJ D-Nice is a legend in hip hop.
Archival Recording: I've been makin' records since 1986, man. I was, like, 15 years old.
Thompson: But then Club Quarantine. He's deejayin' from his apartment in L.A.
Archival Recording: BX all day. Let's take it back to my first record. Let's go. We're celebratin' all over the world. Let's go. (MUSIC) Yo, what's up (INAUDIBLE)?
Archival Recording: D-Nice is a friend of mine. And, you know I've been to a number of his parties throughout the year. And I just assumed it was just a regular party. I think it was on a Thursday. I randomly went into it, check it out, hear some music.
Archival Recording: We're over 8,000.
Archival Recording: We're over 8,000 right now.
Archival Recording: And I stayed in there for, I think I maybe came in at the midpoint and stayed maybe throughout the whole night.
Archival Recording: We're about to crack 10,000 in this room. We're about to crack 10,000.
Archival Recording: Went back Friday night.
Archival Recording: Home school. Melvin, we love you. Let's go.
Archival Recording: It was even better. We got up to over 20,000 people.
Archival Recording: Let's dance now.
Archival Recording: And then Saturday night, it was historic.
Archival Recording: 50,000 people in here. 50,000 people in this room. And we are celebratin' together. Yes, we understand what's goin' on out here.
Lee: And on Saturday night it cost 100,000 viewers.
Archival Recording: We got 100,000 people in here rockin' with us right now. This is absolutely insane. We started this party five days ago. 100,000 people. Let's go.
Lee: Club Quarantine pulled together Oprah.
Archival Recording: Oprah's in here.
Lee: Bernie Sanders.
Archival Recording: Oh, my God. Bernie Sanders is in here too. This is just to (NOISE) (UNINTEL PHRASE). What's up, Bernie?
Lee: Stevie Wonder.
Archival Recording: We love you, Stevie Wonder.
Lee: Michelle Obama.
Archival Recording: Michelle Obama's in here. Michelle Obama's in here. (LAUGH) I don't know why I'm nervous. 'Cause, you know, I already deejay for her. But I'm still nervous. Like, this is just crazy. Are we gonna play somethin' for Michelle? Michelle, this is for you.
Lee: And we're all there with everyone we know as well. (LAUGH) Like, it was an amazing experience.
Archival Recording: (IN PROGRESS) that we're all one in here together. We're celebrating together. We're fightin' this together. Once again, it's D-Nice. Oh, my gosh, Rihanna just stepped in her. Ri-ri, what's up?
Thompson: I wasn't prepared. I wasn't expecting the community value and the fellowship that ensued. I mean, people were actually talking on the comment sections if there was an actual party. Like, somebody, you know, might pop in and go, "Bonsu, what are you drinking?" Saying, "what's up?" to each other, doing virtual high fives, everything.
"Can I have this dance?" And having been separated from everybody, you saw, like, how much your body thirsts. It's almost like you're thirsty, but not realizin' how thirsty you are until you start drinking water.
Lee: Right. (LAUGH) And you realize how much you needed it.
Thompson: Exactly. Like, your body tells you like, "It's not gonna be a sip. We want this entire bottle." That's how it felt.
Lee: Speakin' of taking things and people for granted. And this time it's been rough on a lot of those gig workers, including workin' musicians. And that brings us to a really interestin' musician that the Into America team talked to. She's a Indy musician who's really figurin' out how to be creative. And figurin' all this out from one of America's music capitals.
Rachel Baiman: When people listen to music, they're feeling the emotions and the closeness of somebody else, even if they can't be in the same space as them.
Baiman: My name is Rachel Baiman. And I live in Madison, Tennessee, which is on the northeast side of Nashville. I'm a touring musician primarily. I play fiddle and banjo, guitar. I write songs.
Baiman: My husband's also a profession touring musician. And, you know, we're hustlers. We just do what we need to do. And if there's a month where I don't have enough gigs, then I'll go find something else to do in that month and make it work.
Baiman: I had two big tours lined up. It was gonna be about ten to 12 days in March. And then I had this big U.K. European tour lined up for May and June. I usually play with a trio. So I had bought two band mates plane tickets. I had applied for work visas. I'd hired a publicist to promote the tour.
About maybe the end of February, my husband started saying, "Man, I'm getting a little worried about this coronavirus thing. And I'm worried it might start affecting our gigs." And whenever he would bring that up, I was like, "I just can't think about it." 'Cause I knew in my head. I was like, "All right, that's a lotta money that I'm gonna lose if this gets cancelled."
Archival Recording: As it has been virtually every night since February, our lead story tonight is the coronavirus outbreak. Today the World Health Organization officially calling it a pandemic, literally. The whole world is talking about this outbreak. None of us is unaffected by its impact.
Baiman: I left for tour on Thursday. Played one show in Asheville. And then the next day the whole tour was cancelled. And we just turned around and drove right back home. And then within a week the rest of my tours had been cancelled. And I spent a whole week just kind of sitting there watching this all crumble and just thinking like, "What am I gonna do? You know, what's gonna happen now?"
Baiman: I'm looking a debt of about $6,000 in addition to not making any money for two months.
Baiman: I was in a really big panic for maybe a week. And there was a lotta people that were able to kind of take that feeling and immediately turn it into putting together online festivals.
Archival Recording: Thank you, guys. This is really fun to get to do this. I've been feeling a little down today just with the circumstances. I know we're all struggling in different ways.
Lee: So this is when Rachel gets involved in one of the first virtual music festivals. And the name is really clever. I happen to love it. It's called Shut in and Sing. It's been running four or five nights a week since mid-March. And basically you pay for a virtual ticket. So all the money actually goes to the artist. Everyone's live-streaming from their homes. It has this kinda cool do-it-yourself, DIY, kind of feel to it.
Archival Recording: My name's Rachel Baiman. And set to be opening up this live stream for Amy Wright tonight. I really loved hearing Lucy play as well.
Baiman: You know, people who wanted to see the show had to buy a ticket. They had four artists each evening. Each artists would play for about half an hour from their own home. Audience members can comment. There's a constant, like, chat box going. And then they can tip.
Baiman: They are background a lot of different artists at different levels and their career and trying to distribute the money really equally among everyone. It's very much coming from a perspective of let's help everyone.
Baiman: I asked my husband George to play a few tunes with me.
Archival Recording: That's George Jackson on the fiddle and vocals. George, they think we're a beautiful duo. Thanks for playin' with me. (LAUGH)
Baiman: The chat box is a really fun thing about live streams.
Archival Recording: Hey, thank you all. I'm tryin' not to be distracted by the comments. But I appreciate reading them between the songs.
Baiman: So it's very warm, fuzzy. It feels great. Now, on the flip side, like, for me, this platform crashed in the middle of my last song.
Baiman: Everyone's like, "What's happening? I hate this. This is the worst." Like, you know, you also see that.
Archival Recording: Okay. It's working. We're gonna start over on that song. And then we're gonna get our next guest on. Thank you all for sticking with us. And you know, we're just figurin' out this new life that we lead.
Lee: That was Rachel Baiman from Nashville, Tennessee, talkin' about the Shut-In & Sing virtual music festival. What do you think?
Thompson: I love it. I mean, a lot of musicians and deejays are finding innovative ways to get a buck for their skills in really innovative ways, really to kind of compensate for this lack of income.
Lee: So Shut-In & Sing is still goin' on by the way. You can find a link on our show page.
Lee: So Bonsu, you know, we've found life through music during these tough times. But the music community and all of us really have taken some pretty hefty losses. We've lost some music greats to COVID like John Prime right there in Nashville last week who the man was an absolute legend. He was only 73. But also Ellis Marsalis. When you think about the legendary family, his lineage, what he's mean to New Orleans, a city that has weathered storm after storm. And now this. This is a big blow, man.
Thompson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, my condolences to the Marsalis family. I mean, he is a godfather. And, you know, outside of giving us these great musicians, these great jazz musicians, I mean, the work that he also put into Louisiana, into New Orleans during Katrina. I mean, and for him not to be able to be celebrated Louisiana style is just a tragedy.
Lee: He died on April 1st. He was 85 years old. And I spent years in New Orleans. And New Orleans has been special to me. I spent may days, many afternoons in second lines where you drinkin' in line behind a brass bad. The second line funerals, what it means to say good-bye in New Orleans.
And for that community, not to send the great Ellis Marsalis away is one of the deeper blows, I think. You know, this whole COVID-19 situation, it's cut saw, cut saw, cut saw. (LAUGH) Each wound, it burns with another level. And this is a bad one, man.
Archival Recording: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Lee: There's one song in particular that I will think of when I think of Ellis Marsalis. And it is Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: So when you were a kid, did you play any instrument, sing? What role did music play in young Bonsu's life?
Thompson: Oh, man, music was everything. Always been my lifeline. It's always been my escape. It's been my therapy. And I really feel for teenagers right now. 'Cause they're not getting that fellowship. You know, they're not being able to go to the park and huddle and maybe free-style, you know, like I used to do.
Lee: I don't think COVID-19 will shake that love music in young people. Our team was also thinkin' about kids and music. School was cancelled all across the country. But also think of the spring recitals, the concerts, the kids that family were really lookin' forward to cancelled. But our team found one choir and an intrepid choir director in Seattle who said simply, the show, or at least part the show, must go on.
Abby Assadi: My name is Abby Assadi. I live in Seattle, Washington. And I'm in tenth grade. I sing in the Seattle Girls Choir. And I'm a first soprano.
Jacob Winkler: My name is Jacob Winkler. I am the artistic director of the Seattle Girls Choir.
Assadi: We're really, really close as a community which is amazing. And we'll have sleepovers and things like that which is really fun.
Winkler: There is a very real sense of family in it for me as well. An important part of this whole job is seeing the difference that it makes in our choristers' livers.
Assadi: I found out that the March concerts were canceled by Jake. I think he sent a message saying that, you know, we wouldn't have any more concerts. And I just remember feeling really sad.
Lee: Bonsu, remember, social distancing started really early in Seattle before anywhere else in the United States.
Winkler: Right. Listen, for those kids it's heartbreaking.
Lee: Choir director, Jacob, had to get really creative. And he did.
Winkler: There is a composer named Eric Whitacre who is sort of the movie star of choral composers. The first virtual choir I ever saw, 2010, he did a virtual choir. And that had 185 people who sent in their parts.
Winkler: We had a major fundraiser that was scheduled for March 14th, the shutdown being enforced on us by the coronavirus seemed to be actually a perfect opportunity to try that sort of fundamentally different approach.
Assadi: So the first step was learning the music.
Winkler: The first thing I did to put this together was, I recorded the piano part. Then I made a video of myself conducting to the piano part. I put that on YouTube, sent that link to our members. And they then viewed that video and they made a video of themselves singing the part.
Assadi: In the video I'm wearing headphones. Because I'm listening to a track and a video made by our director, Jake, also piano track underneath with a metronome going. So we can all try to be on time together.
Assadi: And I'm watching the video while I'm singing, watching when the cut-offs are, things like that. Recording it separately was really hard. I was talking with some of the other girls. And they were all saying, you know, it took so many takes, like, hours.
Winkler: Some of our members agonized over it. (LAUGH) And they spent two hours trying to get the right take to send to me.
Assadi: When you're singing by yourself, you have nothing to base your pitch off of, your rhythm off of other than the conductor obviously. But there's some sort of feeling that I can't really describe that you get when you're singing with a group that is lost when you're singing by yourself. If the person I'm sitting next to makes a slight adjustment I can hear that and adjust my voice to theirs to make sure everything works out.
Winkler: They all sent me videos. I took the audio out of the videos. And then I brought it into an audio editor. And I lined all the parts up and then mixed all the sound together.
Winkler: And then I ran it through digital reverberation software to have it try to simulate that acoustical space that you get when you're in a concert all.
Winkler: And then went essentially through the same process again of getting all the videos to line up so that when you see the singers lips moving it matches the audio that I had already mixed together.
Assadi: I'm sure it was really hard to get it all to line up. But it did.
Winkler: You know, I didn't start a clock every time I worked on it. But it was a lotta time. I think overall I probably spent about 30 hours on it.
Assadi: My favorite part of the experience was probably seeing it all come together. I was a little bit dismayed maybe when I sent in my recording 'cause it wasn't very good. But then it all came together.
Winkler: The last time I looked it was up over 32,000 views.
Assadi: We would have never performed for 32,000 people or however many have viewed it, which is awesome.
Assadi: My friends who might not come to a concert, I got to send it to them too and say, "You know, this is what I do after school. This is why I can't play in sport all the time."
Assadi: Even though we're social distancing, if there's some sense of community that's been brought out of that that is kind of new and wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been on this big, huge shut-down, the importance of music is to keep our spirits up. We're in this situation and may as well make the best of it.
Assadi: Singing or listening to music is a really great way to still feel connected even in this time when we're super disconnected. But always music is important. It always makes me feel good.
Lee: That was Abby Assadi and director Jacob Winkler of the Seattle Girls Choir talkin' about their virtual performance of the song No Time. You know, the painstaking work it to make that happen, and the dedication and commitment not just by conductor Jacob, but the kids, I'm blown, man. That's (LAUGH) amazing.
Thompson: How many kids were there?
Thompson: Amazing. I mean, I felt the young lady when she was talking about singing by herself as opposed to with a choir. I mean, the reason why choirs are so powerful is because it's just combustive energy. It's a combination of energy that makes this one great energy. I definitely feel her on that, you know.
Lee: And somehow they made it happen.
Thompson: Amazing. Amazing, yeah. What's grabbing your attention these days?
Lee: You know, there have been a bunch of random moments that have just filled me with some warmth. And, you know, during these dark days, you know, I take all the warmth I can get. There was a nurse. And I'm not sure exactly where she was. But you could tell it was kind of the end of a long day and a long shift. And we have all heard the harsh stories that our front-line health care workers are goin' through. This woman is leaning on a wall. And she's singing Amazing Grace. And it's just washing over everyone in the room.
Lee: And it just did something to me, man, where it was so beautiful.
Thompson: It just runs through you to the core. Well, man.
Lee: The next moment that stands out for me, it does a little somethin' different. From the mouths of children, there's great joy. Take a listen to this one.
Child's Voice: Don't worry about a thing. 'Cause everyone thinks it's gonna be all right.
Thompson: I love it.
Lee: For those of you at home who haven't seen this, if you look at this kid's face with all confidence and his beautiful little smile singin', "Everything's gonna be all right," I believe him. I just look at his face. I hear his little voice. And I believe him.
Child's Voice: I woke up this mornin'. On my horizon. Three little birds were on my doorstep. Singin' sweet songs.
Thompson: Is there a more fitting and necessary song right now?
Child's Voice: No. Blowing through.
Lee: I don't think so. I think he got it right. (LAUGH)
Child's Voice: And they sent this message. You, ohh-ohh.
Thompson: And should we add to that? I mean, use the music. It's always been a medicine. It's always been there for us. So, you know, whether you're tryin' to get through the virus or just tryin' to get through quarantine, this medicine has always been there for you. And, you know, it's at your disposal now. Use it.
Lee: Bonsu Thompson, you can find him in all your favorite magazines. Let's add screenwriter to that, journalist, music lover, and you're so tapped in, man. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. We really, really appreciate it and are better for it. Thank you.
Thompson: Appreciate you, bro.
Lee: That was my friend Bonsu Thompson. He wrote an oral history of the night we talked about when more than 100,000 people joined DJ D-Nice at Club Quarantine on Instagram Live for Medium. You can find a link to that in our show notes.
Lee: And before we go, one more way people are connecting right now through sound. It's not technically music, but it's sweet all the same.
Lee: Maybe this is happening where you are. Each evening at a designated time, people, just regular people, whoever feel so moved, they clap and cheer, bang pots and generally make noise for all the first responders and essential workers who are literally putting their lives on the line for the rest of us right now.
Lee: It's a reminder that we are not alone.
Lee: We still have neighbors and communities and that we are rising up to support each other.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Special thanks to our colleagues at NBC for sending in their own recordings of the 7:00 p.m. clap around New York City. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.