Marvin and the American dream

I went to the US Embassy Independence Day party yesterday (celebrated a day early) – the huge military compound was transformed into a theme park for the night. The Colombian guests sang their national anthem with gusto, but the Americans gave a pretty poor rendition of theirs (just as the British usually do). Sometimes listening to the American anthem sung tiredly, you can forget what a majestic song it is. Never moreso than in the mouth of Marvin Gaye. Nothing moves me more than watching his version on YouTube. I discovered it a few years ago and started watching it obsessively, singing it while making coffee, humming it in meetings, driving my friends to distraction by incessantly repeating the exquisite penultimate line. I was thrilled by the bravery and creativity that took an iconic, slightly rowdy, not very beautiful tune and turned it into a sexy R&B melt-in-your-mouth chocolate bar, relying only on a drum-machine and the odd chord. Marvin Gaye is one of the great musical geniuses of the last century and his phrasing is amazing.

The occasion is moving too. Addicted to drugs and sex, Marvin is only months away from a cataclysmic argument with his mad dad that left him dead (shot) just as he was reclaiming his status as THE great black artist in America. You have to watch the video. He comes out in front of the crowd as they wait for the NBA final in his shades and for the next three minutes or so holds them in the palm of his hand. The crowd. Not his shades. He is everything a great artist should be. Natural, cool, surprising, complete. Building slowly and effortlessly he lifts the emotion of the song as it climaxes, ever so slightly putting his shoulders into it, and never losing control of his mesmerising voice. An astonished and enthralled crowd is blown away.

When I watch his perfect rendition it reminds me what the United States was meant to be, what it could have been, before it all went so wrong. It is not like the Jimi version, the other classic, which sums up an ecstatic era of rebellion and new possibilities. It is thoughtful and soulful. And painful. Because the slightly colourful but still noble aspirations so clearly expressed in the words of the song are set, in my mind at least, against the reality of racism and inequality at home and violent imperialism abroad.

In 1983, while Marvin was singing in a basketball stadium, Ronald Reagan’s White House was busy funding and supporting some of the most deadly regimes of the twentieth century. Pinochet was still murdering and raping his way through Chile; further north, the murderous gangs of El Salvador ravaged peasants, human rights leaders and priests; next door in Guatemala the civil war that had raged in the hills ever since a US-sponsored coup in 1954 was getting more and more brutal; Nicaragua was at war with a US proxy army – the contras. In Colombia in 1983 armed bands of paramilitaries, strongly linked to the army (trained, inevitably, by the US) were remerging. Their previous emergence in the 1960s had been an explicit part of US counter-insurgency strategy in the country. The history books will record that any perceived threat to US economic interests in twentieth century Latin America was brutally put down, with not even a cursory glance at the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

But it was not always thus. In the early years of South American independence from Spain, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, with their iconic constitution, their audacity in imagining a new way of running a state, had inspired Simón Bolívar and his followers as they wrote the constitutions of Gran Colombia (which initially included Venezuela and Ecuador), Peru and Bolivia. Although it soon became a strong trading competitor threatening Colombian economic development, the political vision of the leaders of the United States was one of the main reasons that Colombians were brave enough to fight renewed attempts by the Spanish to reclaim their colony. The Star Spangled Banner is a kind of weird but ultimately, I think, quite an evocative homage to that vision. And the word spangled pleases me.

Skip on roughly 150 years and a slightly drug-muddled Marvin is wowing the crowd while economists down the road are laying the plans for the neo-liberal era. The United States, which had grown to untold prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th century using all manner of policies to protect its growing manufacturing and agricultural base from competition, led the assault on the rights of today’s poor countries to do the same. Policy choices that didn’t fit in with those defined in Washington were not, and are still not, an option for those countries reliant on aid to keep their economies afloat. We are only now emerging from more than two decades of narrow-minded policy enforcement which led to slow or no growth in most of Latin America and the reversal of years of development and poverty reduction in post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile profits for US companies grew at record levels as the US forced other countries to accept rules and policies that suited its well-developed economy and multinational companies.

When Marvin sang of freedom he probably didn’t have Latin America in the forefront of his mind nor, if I am honest, would he have been meditating deeply about trade liberalization and the price of chickens in Ghana. Knowing as I do his other works I am yet to find reference to the killing squads of Central America or a detailed critique of World Bank structural adjustment policies.

But he was certainly aware of the barriers and injustices poor people still faced in his own country, the land of the free (he sings that word with his voice stretched, his muscles flexed), not least black people, with the added burden of centuries of racism to contend with. And I am sure that some of those listening in the stadium heard his crystal vocals as a political call for black people to reclaim as their own a nation they had helped build as slaves. Marvin was not only sex in dark glasses. He was also a civil rights icon. And this, his final televised performance, was his last word: “This is not your country, it is mine too.”

The anthem ends with a question: “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” If anyone at the US Embassy was thinking of the words at all last night, the final line came out as less of a question, more of a declaration, taken for granted. But in Marvin’s mouth the question is still very much alive. And the answer today, as in 1983, is “No”.

But there are some hopeful signs, the most obvious being the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency, carried to victory by a generation of Americans yearning for something different. For change. Obama will find it hard quickly to turn around the rapacious military and industrial machine that the USA has become, and he doesn’t seem to understand the harm done by American economic policy to the poorest countries (let’s hope he reads my book). But he appears to want his country to live up to the universally inspiring values of its founding fathers, and he has himself inspired a generation of Americans to begin again on the road to justice and a decent life for all, not just at home but abroad as well. He came out reasonably quickly in condemnation of the coup d’etat in Honduras that has everyone sensible on the continent worried again about the real strength of democratic guarantees in Latin America.

Is it too much to hope that the Iraq disaster, growing state powers elsewhere in the world, and a tentative consensus among the “experts” about the disastrous hubris of the neo-liberal experiment, might mean change is on the way? Let’s hope the new president has a listen to Marvin and a good think about where his beloved country, with its blessed ideals, went wrong.

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