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In Polarizing Times, Braver Angels Songwriting Contest Seeks To Reunite America

“Why did George Washington have a fife and drum corps?” Mark House, leadership expert and a dear, politically conservative friend I made at the founding convention of Braver Angels (then called “Better Angels”), asked me. “Washington’s challenge was knitting these disparate colonies together into something that could take on a superpower. What did he get those fife and drum people to play? And what are the songs of our time that can unite America?”

If we’re going to have a chance to find out, it may very well be because of the Braver Angels Songwriting Contest, which closes its entry period tomorrow, on the Fourth of July. In a time of polarization that has been compared to the lead-up to the Civil War, Braver Angels is a nonprofit organization working to unite “red and blue [conservative and liberal] Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.” Among other programs mostly involving conversation, they have reimagined parliamentary debates to create a frame in which “people think together, listen carefully to one another, and allow themselves to be touched and perhaps changed by each other’s ideas,” rather than seek absolute victory.

So why a songwriting contest?

“Music, organically, has been a part of Braver Angels culture since the beginning,” John Wood, Jr., the organization’s Director of Public Outreach, and a Black musician with red-leaning politics, told me. “Good music sets the stage for a healthy society because it gives people a transcendent experience that we hold in common.” Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a veteran musical activist and blue leader within Braver Angels, noted that music “reaches beyond the polemic, in a way that people can hear from their hearts and respond from their hearts, not just with their intellects.”

Sage Snider, Braver Angels’ Director of Arts & Culture and a blue member of the organization, spoke to the community-building power of music in a recent episode of the Braver Angels Podcast:

“Music is a tangible example of how people who have different opinions and even values can contribute to each others’ lives,” she told me.

With the Songwriting Contest, Braver Angels is bringing the power of song to the center of its public offerings. The contest itself seeks not only to “generate lots of different voices and present them as one big conversation,” Snider explained, but also to “generate real conversation through these songs” about the politics behind them.

As part of the contest, Snider reflected on selected song entries in conversation with Ronni Lynn, a singer and red Braver Angels member. “It is an exercise of listening,” Lynn shared. The contest “is an excellent way to hear different perspectives of fellow Americans.” Snider added, “If you listen to these songs, people are expressing their beliefs in a really vulnerable way – it’s really brave – it’s hard to listen to those songs and just criticize these people.”

The spirit of healing has been particularly central to entries such as this one from Tom Prasada Rao, who dedicated his song “Even You” “to the unnamed person…holding a sign that read ‘Sacrifice the weak—reopen Tennessee’”:

“I started writing, horrified and indignant,” he wrote in the song’s description, “but that quickly turned to sadness. I wondered who you’d have to be to hold up a sign like that, what must you be going through? I remembered signs I have hoisted over the years, and I resolved to give you the benefit of doubt…”

Prasada Rao’s song, like more than one hundred other entries, is eligible for various cash prizes—which Snider noted is critically important in valuing songwriters in this time where the music industry is struggling—but Snider emphasized that it’s about more than money: “If I submitted a song, the best thing I could get wouldn’t be a prize, it would be people engaging with the ideas in my song.”

It is precisely that opportunity to be heard that Braver Angels is providing, as the organization explores further directions for incorporating these songs and others into their more traditional offerings, which reach thousands of red and blue members across the country each week. Snider envisions creating a song library that categorizes entries to the contest by theme and makes it easy to use songs to frame issues in workshops and community meetings.

Cynthia O’Brien, a Braver Angels Debate Moderator, ended this week’s music committee meeting by reimagining Braver Angels debates: “What if we gave a three-minute song instead of a three-minute speech? When I say [to our participants], ‘We want you to speak from your heart, your experience; speak so that people can hear you,’ what better way than to do it than in song?”

The contest ends tomorrow, but Yarrow is hopeful that this is just the beginning: “If we are fortunate, we could see the birth of songs that are not only powerful and beautiful but that reach out to people so that they become ubiquitously known, like the way Blowing in the Wind did; and if that happens, that can change the character of the nation’s ability to stand together.”

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