It dawned on me as I was riding the train home afterward that there has never been any time in my life when I felt the government worked the way it was stated to. It didnt need to completely live up to the ideas of Rousseau or Locke, but the failures have long been more than theoretical. And in that moment, I had no hope that our institutions could deliver us, no tangible model of a healthy civic life, no belief that justice was anything but a sarcastic joke. I sighed with a deep sense of disappointment.
My first and defining political disappointment was the election of President George W. Bush. As a teenager forming my identity in the tradition of Black musica tradition where discipline, creativity, and mastery are highly valuedwatching an anti-intellectual like Bush ride to the top on nothing but cronyism and extreme wealth was a bewildering slap in the face. Furthermore, at age 14, I was starting to understand some of the racism of the Republican Party (it would take me far longer to understand the racism of the Democrats). The day Bush v. Gore was decided was the day my faith disappeared; the corrupt decision revealing that everything I was taught about the sound moral function of American government was a lie.
From then on, any time Id discuss politics, it was to insinuate, decry, or condemn the brokenness of it all. The Patriot Act was a gesture toward totalitarianism, Dick Cheneys wars in the Middle East were for oil, the resistance to global warming was based in greed and induced ignorance. George Bush didnt care about Black people. Everything seemed to prove my thesis, and yet deep down I wasnt yearning to be right. Deep down, I sought a vision of the national communitya knowledge that my leaders and country folk could be relied upon, a calling to grow myself in such a way that they could rely on me. I was seeking the same sense of shared responsibility I found every night on the bandstand, where democracy, negotiation, and common objectives were practiced in real time.
When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, my disbelief in government was as strong as ever. Still, I played the national anthem at an impromptubut voluminousparade on 125th Street in Harlem. I danced with a roaring crowd, my fingers on cold brass, the thrill of victory racing through my bones, making the November night air bearable. But Obamas victory didnt transform the government into something I could believe in.It just meant that the conspiracy had failedthe establishment corrupt and disorganized. So, in my most triumphant political moment, I played the national anthem not for the country, but just for my friends and our own naive sense of victory. And, Id come to see, it really was naive: Throughout Obamas presidency, the rise of the tea party, the rights vicious opposition to any attempt at progress, and Fox Newsheavy fearmongering would all continue to feed my disbelief in a functional government.
After those eight years and the 2016 election disaster that brought us here, I found that I had slipped into a place where I didn’t truly have a life-affirming vision for the future of the country. And that place is terrifying because without a vision, all that we are left with in this country is a gunmetal grey injunction to get yours, justified by the cynical gesticulations of an invisible hand or the bombastic religion of American consumerism or the desperate realization that we may not have much time left.
Then what was I playing for in front of the Barclays Center? Just to dance with the crowd again, to stunt, to get credit for showing up, to increase the numbers that sit next to my name on the internet? How uninspired, how selfish, how meager.
But as I rode the train home, I had another thought: Music is beautiful. As an artist, I am here to make beautiful things, and as a Black artist, I create beauty through the musical tradition that has made American music worthwhile:R&B music that makes people dance at weddings, second line music that leads parades at funerals, Gospel music that makes people praise their God in church. But, if I dont believe that the world of which I am a part can hold beauty or be moved by it, or that the tradition with which I am charged can alchemize existential terror into a brighter future, what am I really offering besides noiseand sanctimoniousness?
In the wake of that protest, Ive come to understand that an inescapable part of my jobone I am still learningis to hold on to the hope that the world can be more beautiful than it is. Perhaps I must make peace with the corruption of the past so that I can fight for a fairer future. Perhaps I can choose to live and play in a way that others can rely on and thus make the world more reliable. Perhaps I can help elucidate how a bandstand full of Blackness may be the best example of participatory democracy America has ever produced. Perhaps I amand perhaps we arethe ones who can make America what it must become.
Marcus G. Miller is a world-renowned saxophonist and mathematician based in Harlem, New York. He wants to increase the curiosity, imagination, and beauty in the world. Find him at imaginewithmarcus.com and on Instagram @imaginewithmarcus.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of whats happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.