James on Jazz: Compassion in the age of social media Part II


Vijay Iyer, Twitter and speaking your truth


Editor’s note: This is the second part of the article “James on Jazz: Compassion in the age of social media.” In Part I James wrote:

What resonated with me, was the timeliness of what Lewinsky said about our right to freedom of expression. She said a lot of things that made sense in terms of what’s happening with social networks like Facebook, and Twitter. “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard. But let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.” 

The power of self-expression in the age of social media furthered resonated with me while watching a recent interview with pianist/composer and Harvard professor, Vijay Iyer. Appearing on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show, Iyer was interviewed by guest host Gayle King. During the talk, he discussed his first trio album, Break Stuff for ECM, and provided details of his back story.

Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer

Iyer, a 40-something Asian American who can poetically bridge jazz, pop, hip hop, classical, Indian, and electronic music, is also a MacArthur Fellow, which awards, among other things, $625,000. When asked about the fellowship, Iyer said the money basically allows him a middle-class salary over a period of five years. Iyer also acknowledged that he was cognizant of the many jazz musicians living in or on the verge of poverty.

King went beyond the accolades by asking Iyer about his “unexpected” (her word) comments about Ferguson on Twitter, and some of the unkind words that followed. King asked why he would put himself out there on Twitter, and Iyer replied that this [Ferguson] affects all of us, and the people who made and continue to make this music. For him, there is an obvious connection that others just don’t see.

Iyer said, “Being a person of color in the United States, it tends to be on your mind — how difference works. And how difference and power are intertwined.” Furthermore, in a Billboard interview posted online in January, Iyer was asked about how other artists such as Nina Simone, Max Roach, and John Coltrane processed events of the day by way of their music, and whether or not that is relevant or even necessary now. Let’s just say, Iyer was not afraid to go there on social injustice issues.

During the interview Iyer didn’t just talk about being an artist in terms of status and service, something he talks about with his students, but he actually demonstrated the act of doing so by appearing on the popular Charlie Rose Show and acknowledging his debt to the African American community. And he didn’t just credit his heroes like Monk, but other living artists that have nurtured, employed, and taught him.

In the King interview, which aired in February, his answers were equally bold. He expressed things that few Black or White artists are willing to express publicly. Iyer acknowledged on national television, that his involvement in an art form that comes from the Black community is the reason why he is here — because of that community. Iyer explicitly said, “I’m here because of Black people, Black nurturing, Black love.” In response, King smiled, and said, “I’m in favor of Black love.” If this wasn’t a “drop the mic” moment, I don’t know what is.

Vijay Iyer.  André P. Meyer-Vitali/
Vijay Iyer.  Photo by André P. Meyer-Vitali/Creative Commons license

Speaking to the ways in which we consume our music nowadays, Iyer then pointed out that if somebody’s going to click, follow, or like [on social media platforms] because he is a musician, and they heard something that he did that resonated with them, he wanted them to hear what resonated with him, as well.

Which brings me back to something that Lewinsky said during her TedTalk about speaking with intention, and the need for cultivating more “up standers” instead of bystanders. She said, “We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion.”

At the end of their engaging talks — and this may sound strange to link the two — but both Lewinsky and Iyer shared something in common: they highlighted the importance of empathy, communication, and being yourself, which can be hard in the brutal age of social media.

Perhaps, Lewinsky summed it up best when she told the audience, “Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion and to live online and offline, in a more compassionate world.” I couldn’t agree more.

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.comYou can also find James on Twitter at @Robin_James1.

Part One: James on Jazz: Compassion in the age of social media Part I