David Byrne: The Power of Democratizing Making Music and Art

There are pleasures in producing as well as in consuming. This is true for many things–indeed, this blog’s existence depends on it. David Byrne illustrates this fact beautifully for art and music in his book How Music Works (pages 267, 291 and 296):

The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different, and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming these things. And yet for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves–they’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation. 

In Salavador, Brazil, musician Carlinhos Brown established several music and culture centers in formerly dangerous neighborhoods. In Candeal, where Brown was born, local kids were encouraged to join drum groups, sing, and compose songs and stage performances in homemade costumes.

The kids, energized by these activities, began to turn away from dealing drugs. Being malandros was no longer their only life option–being musicians and playing together in a group looked like more fun and was more satisfying. Little by little, the crime rate dropped in those neighborhoods; the hope returned. And some great music was made, too. 

A similar thing took place in the Vigario Geral favela located near the airport in Rio. It had been the scene of a massacre in which a police helicopter opened fire and killed scores of kids during a drug raid. Life in that favela was about as dead end as you could get. A cultural center eventually opened under the direction of Jose Junior and, possibly inspired by Brown’s example, they began to encourage the local kids to stage musical events, some of which dramatized the tragedy that they were still recovering from. The group AfroReggae emerged out of this effort, and, as with the Brown projects in Salvador, life in the favela improved. The dealers left; their young recruits were all making music. That, to me, is the power of music–of making music. Music can permanently change people’s lives in ways that go far beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved by a specific composition…. Music is indeed a moral force, but mostly when it is a part of the warp and woof of an entire community. 

Roger Graef, who has written about the effectiveness of arts programs in UK prisons, believes that violence, like art, is actually a form of expression. Prisons, he says, are therefore ideal arenas for art creation and expression. Art can serve as an outlet for the violent feelings of inmates in a way that does not harm others, and that actually enhances their lives. Making art, Graef writes, “can break the cycle of violence and fear." 

He claims that the remedy for violence is an agency that will defeat feelings of impotence. Historically, religion has successfully done this, and the rise of fundamentalism might be viewed as a reaction to increasing feelings of alienation and inconsequentiality around the world. Making music might act as an antidote to those feelings too, as those cultural and music centers in the Brazilian favelas attest. In those Uk prisons, the quality of the work is beside the point, as it was in Brazil. And, unlike religions, no one has ever gone to war over music. 

However, grant-giving organizations often take the opposite view. Most arts grants focus on the work, rather than on the process that the work comes out of. The product seems to be more important than the effect its production process has. Sadly, Graef learned that it is hard for many of the inmates he worked with to continue making art outside of prison. They find the professional art world elitist and its "posh buildings” intimidating. Without a support system, and with their work being judged by criteria that are foreign to them, they lose the outlet for frustration that they had discovered.