Ashley Monet & Brandon Dixon: Artistic Healing and the Future of Detroit


Actors, activists, and co-founders of the WeAre Foundation, Ashley Monet and Brandon Dixon, talk to Rob Johnson about how Detroit can once again become an engine of American culture, ingenuity, and progress.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Ashley Monet, an actor, and Brandon Victor Dixon, also actor, producer advocate. And together they are the cofounders of the We Are foundation, which I am very proud to have just joined their board. Thank you both for joining me today.

Brandon Dixon:

Thank you for having us Rob.

Ashley Monet:

Happy to be here.

Rob Johnson:

So I keep hearing that song from the average white band. We got work to do. We’re in this place, this COVID virus. I mean there’s people been understanding despair since the time Donald Trump got elected saying the system is rigged and he beat 15 Republicans and then obviously Hillary Clinton in the general election and the depth and breadth of disruption in despair has been very, very painful. But I think the COVID virus is an unmasking that has taken us further. And I’d like to hear from the two of you today, how do you imagine the effect of this crisis and how it affects what you would like to achieve for our society through your new organization, Weare.org?

Brandon Dixon:

Well you know Rob I think, what’s interesting is that Ashley and I come from very different places. We have very different backgrounds, but we have both found ourselves. Our journeys have brought us to these pillars of art and advocacy and with the We Are foundation, these are things we’ve been working to synthesize and right now I think this COVID-19 pandemic really highlights I think a moment in time for us as a society where the importance of the connections between us as human beings are being highlighted. I think more so now than ever. And it’s been a growing element of the last couple of years I think in our global society. But we are finding, I think particularly right now, acutely, that when your systems fail you, what do you have?

You have the connections between human beings and usually when systems fail, what you find is they fail because of the lack of connection between human beings. And now for both of us, professionally and educationally, we’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time in the arts and we have found that the arts is the most exponentially transformative force when it comes to bridging gaps, breaking silos and transcending difference. And right now I think looking at this COVID-19 pandemic and looking at our organization, it’s about thinking about these issues of human connection and thinking about how to further use the power of the arts to increase the strength of that connection, kind of like this when our systems are breaking down.

Ashley Monet:

And I think it’s also important, in times like this, people can turn into themselves when things get very scary. When you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills or when people in your family are getting sick, everybody gets very survivalist. But in truth, it’s when we come together that we can really overcome anything and it’s arts that can highlight that and give us that truth.

Brandon Dixon:

Yeah. For a little bit of just as an example for everybody, I think it’s important to note that throughout human history we have seen in civilization that arts and artists have attracted and retain the attention of the masses and that they not only have the ability to entertain and delight, but they inspire, they educate and they inform. We know that a poem, a song or a play can transform a generation. And we’ve seen examples of that and Picasso’s Guernica, books like To Kill a Mockingbird, songs like Lean on Me or plays and musicals like West Side Story and Hamilton the musical, which for me in recent history has created so many examples of art kind of breaking down silos and beginning to bring these areas of art and advocacy into further focus.

And so for us, the We Are foundation is about focusing and harnessing that power of the arts that we’ve seen be exemplified throughout history and during times of catalytic change. It’s about harnessing that to seize the narrative of this moment, and looking at where we are right now in this challenge, there is a narrative that we can tell about our society that focuses on fear and division, or we can create a narrative that focuses on connection and focuses on what we did and what we do when things fell apart and fall apart around us. And I think that this is a moment that we really need to seize. We need to pay attention to the challenges that people are having on the ground and are having as a result of circumstances that they were in prior to this. And focused on what we can do to really create a unifying narrative going forward.

Rob Johnson:

You know, it’s a good thing this is on audio podcasts because I’m sitting here grinning, both because I love what you’re saying but I want to tell you one of my guests recently, a woman who’s now in America with a green card but from Nigeria named Tolu Olubunmi and she’s worked on issues related to migration and otherness and how undocumented people are treated. And when I asked her a question similar to what I asked you at the outset, she talked about how when she was feeling afraid and isolated, just as you described Ashley, what she did was she talked to a woman who’d been kind of supportive, not really a therapist, but kind of a mentor. And the woman said, “Go back to the place where you were happy and reimagine that and strengthen yourself.” And the reason for my grin is not just that it’s good advice, but the place she described in our podcast she went to was the soundtrack of Hamilton.

And she sat with that and she went kind of introspective and then started seeing crisis as opportunity. And she emerged, how they say, vital and strong, which is her nature. And our listeners can find that on the same constellation and lists that this podcast will be, but Tolo already had, without knowing you, had already received energy in the way you describe from the things you have created. So it’s an encouraging sign. The two of you and I have gotten to know each other a little bit.

I mean I’m very sympathetic and I knew Rick Keating and Steve Gluckstern knew this because of my family’s involvement in the arts. My mother worked with the Detroit symphony and was a singer. My father was a physician and a very, very accomplished jazz pianist and he had lots of people like Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy and others were acquaintances and sometimes patients of his medical practice and that artistic scene in my life was so powerful that I’ve often told people that I viewed what my parents communicated through music in preparation for dinner. My mom would be in the kitchen singing, my dad would be at the piano and I listened to how hard was his left hand? Is she singing along with him or are they wrestling? Can I sit down at dinner tonight and can I ask for an allowance? The car keys. Explain a bad report card. And the music was my compass as to the emotional context of my family and I always trusted the music as an art form that was telling me more truth than words. So I love how you’re describing the way in which what you might call, we need this in our education system, in our way of seeing and feeling. Brandon, you talked in our conversation earlier about the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, mathematics. But the arts have to be infused in the language. I don’t want to be silly, but it’s the heart of the matter.

Brandon Dixon:

No, I think the thing that people have a very limited definition of art or what it means to be an artist, right? They think of it just as people who paint or sing or dance, and really for me being an artist is more about the philosophy, a philosophy that you apply to your life and you apply to the development of your personal skills. You can be a surgeon, can be artistic in the application of his skills. A lawyer in the application of an argument. Same thing with an engineer, an algorithm can be an artistic feat. It’s really about how do you drive your skills and your knowledge of self to a point where divisions fall away and you can create a deeper connection with self and the consciousness of others around you. So it becomes about how you approach things, not just what you are doing.

I had a conversation with some students down in Florida, a masterclass for a national arts scholarship and I told them, “You’re not working to become an actor or become a singer. It’s not a final destination. You’re a conduit. It’s a path to something. So now you’re going to use your acting, use your dancing for what? A storytelling for what? What is the why of what we’re doing?” And I think that’s the thing that people need to start to embrace. As you said STEM is nothing without steam. Ff we are honing technical skills, they’re worthless unless we can apply them to human interaction, to human achievement, to human growth. The best app is not the one do things for you, but the ones that help you to learn to do things more quickly for yourself. More efficiently for yourself. And those are the things that we need to hold on to. And that we need to drive forward. The crucial importance of. I need to allocate funds. Even in when we’re talking about these stimulus packages that are coming through or as New York is trying to form a economic reopening plan. And you don’t include any representatives from theater entertainment which generates billions of dollars a year, which accounts for thousands upon thousands of jobs and supports a secondary and tertiary industry. You want to really expand the manner in which you think about arts and how they apply to our lives and our culture and how we build as human beings. The stories of the why. And there’s nothing more motivational for human being in the why.

Ashley Monet:

And when you look at STEM, we’re looking at the machine of things, the algorithm of things, how we build things, but what do we use those things for? And art informs the why that Brandon was talking about and informs our culture and our community. So learning science with what why. We’re trying to make human life and human experience a better experience so that we may commune and exist together. And even in these times, many of our colleagues are artists. And even in this time we’re watching people turn to art. People are at home, trying to handle all of the things everybody is trying to overcome.

But people are listening to music and creating things and I’m watching people draw for the first time or even redecorate their house. All of those things are informed by the art that you’ve consumed your entire life. And for me, from a personal place, art can change lives in ways I think that people don’t actually realize. And there have been some articles about people being at home in troubling domestic situations or emotional or physical violence. And I couldn’t help but thinking of a friend of mine that noted that a particular artist had really gotten them through a domestic violence situation, that their lyrics gave them the empowerment to overcome that situation. And I know it sounds very romantic, but hearing so many of these accounts, one-on-one, it really pushes me to try to bring the arts and the ethos of arts and the idea of people coming together and making something or building something together or participating in their democracy together to form a better life for your community isn’t as romantic as I think that some people try to make it seem.

Rob Johnson:

Well one can, how do you say, push the pendulum all the way to the other side where the Cartesian enlightenment thinking, which was founded essentially in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, is this pretend antiseptic quantitative value free way of seeing, except it’s not. That’s a mask. That’s a disguise and the search for meaning, the search for values, the search for why, is something that’s very inspiring. What was the name of the book years ago? Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, but where do you get the “Do It Anyway?” Where does that come out of?

Brandon Dixon:

I’m unfamiliar with the book, but fear is an indicator of what needs to be done.

Rob Johnson:

But Ashley, you were talking to me as we were preparing for this, about the disparity between communities and about the need to enlarge our sense, our awareness of what community is. This pandemic illustrates many, many things that in fighting the disease, we’re embedded in a very large community. It’s all over the world. But I’m interested because the nature of the work that I’ve agreed to do with you, the distance between the prosperity of adjacent communities in Detroit is something I’ve always found horrifying. How did the two of you see the role of the arts and the nature of healing in a place like Detroit? What is it that you hope to impart by choosing that as one of the platforms that you’re going to build your reputation and impart goodness to the world?

Brandon Dixon:

I think one of the keys for us in Detroit is the unique history of Detroit. The unique tapestry that is Detroit. Different communities, but linked together through the very specific culture of Detroit. In in my professional experience, one of the shows I developed was called “Motown You’re All I Need”. And as a result I spent a lot of time with Berry Gordy Jr. and the Motown family and time in Detroit over at Hitsville and in libraries and just trying to get to know the city and get to learn more about the culture. And I’ve always been struck by the extraordinary art and artists that have come out of Detroit, but also that the art that they all created was so embedded in the social exchanges of the time.

And so, when we look at Detroit, amidst all these kinds of these disparities that you talk about with respect to different communities in Detroit, when we look at the area, there are communities that we want to help support and bring resources to, but in focusing on the Detroit area, it’s the specific culture and the integration, the already integrated and connected nature of the arts in Detroit culture that we think make it specifically a wonderful area in a community whereby an arts fueled narrative can potentially take hold. It’s really largely due to the specific culture of the communities in Detroit and as we have gotten to connect more deeply with our partners in that area, we are finding that that potential was even greater. But as Ashley was mentioning, the issues that are happening right now as a result of COVID-19 are really just exacerbating the state of things. The economic and the limited health infrastructure that most of these people in these communities were dealing with before as part of a lack of political agency, political cohesion and I think connection to both the local and national politics of their area.

Rob Johnson:

In my own experience, I’m kind of grinning again, because in 2016 I went back… The Institute for New Economic Thinking did a two day conference at the Charles Wright African American museum and Wayne State University. It was called “Tomorrow’s Detroit’s and Detroit’s Tomorrow.” And William Barbara was our keynote speaker. But in preparation for this conference, which was three days after the presidential election where Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I went around with a photographer friend of mine on bicycles all around downtown Detroit to make a montage of the street art that would be used as backdrops for the panels over the two days. And as it turned out, the people at the company, Shinola, lent me a bicycle. There were 25 of these bicycles made and they were designed to commemorate Muhammad Ali who lived in Michigan. He lived in Western Michigan place called Berrien Springs in the last portions of his life, or I guess I would say after he was a boxer.

And the story was that Muhammad Ali was about a 12 year old boy and he went on his bicycle to the Louisiana home show where new household goods and things were on display, like a little fanfare or a convention on new products. And while he was inside, his bike was stolen. And when his bike was stolen, he went into a rage and a woman said “There is a gentleman downstairs from the police department. Come with me and they’ll make out a report.” And when this young boy, who at the time was called Cassius Clay, got down there he was very feisty and very animated. And the gentlemen said to him, “After I finished this report, I want to know, would you like me to train you to be a boxer?” And Muhammad Ali by getting his bike stolen, was jolted by an episode into becoming a boxer. And I was riding around with this photographer as he told me the story and we stopped in front of a mural that was drawn on the side of a wall and it said, “A star is born through immense pressure.”

And we have had our share. The beacon of light you see in the dark is our fair city rising from the night sky. When we walked back to our bikes, the gentleman said to me, “What was the experience, like the stolen bike, in your life that made you who you are?” And I looked at him and I said, “It was growing up in Detroit with the race riots. Martin Luther King’s assassination the next year. It was the Vietnam war. It was the labor management conflicts where one of my Little League baseball coaches was Walter Ruther’s body guard when Walter Ruther died in an airplane that was bombed.”

And so I said to him, “I grew up in a cauldron and it changed my way of looking at things because Detroit was a place where they blamed black public administration. They blame the victims and they seem to be trying to assuage the anxiety of the rest of America. When Detroit, which had been the center in the automotive realm for many years, the center of the US economy and the violence and the velocity of decline created what we now call diseases of despair.” And I remember watching a television show, it was around 1990 on CNN, and the caption on the show was “Detroit, a city that throws a shadow over tomorrow.”

The work that you’re doing with the arts, which touch me and take me to that place where was like the crucible of my existence is so powerful and Detroit is a place that if it is healed, I will think will create a sigh of relief in many parts of America because what happened to that place is dreadful and very contrary to the notion of community and all being part of a nation. Ashley, you’ve said to me that you need to restore people’s faith. That as members of a community they have action, they have some license or way to improve things. How do you envision… The arts can create the warmth in the heart, the impetus, the enthusiasm, but how do you envision giving people that faith that they’re not disenfranchised, they’re not just spinning their wheels?

Ashley Monet:

Right. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, which is the South with all the Florida perks basically. And Jacksonville is the biggest city in America area wise. And so with that, when you have such a large city, there are pockets that just get forgotten. So anything, low income or anybody living in poverty, the school systems, the jobs, those areas are just forgotten. And so then people down there don’t participate in their democracy because they walk outside of their front door and they see that there is no value in that. That’s how that is viewed.

And when I look at Detroit, I see a lot of similarities there. And you were talking about the murals and I really love that, and where Brandon was saying about studying the music, some of the greatest art, and athletes actually, have come out of Detroit. And so that in itself to me is the love language of Detroit. And so being able to connect with people via the arts is something that I think is retainable and I think it’s to speak from a personal place or very simply, given that Detroit is predominantly the black population that that is really a catalyst to be able to connect with people in a way that pamphlets and information just doesn’t. But I do think it is a great hurdle to overcome in the Detroit area when so often things have have plagued or hit communities there and the government, for all intensive purposes, doesn’t give the people in lower income places what they need. You overcome the things that have hit the community.

I mean I was doing research and got into a rabbit hole about the housing crisis in the thirties and when there’s systemic prejudice that comes all the way from the top and that’s what you’ve experienced generation after generation, it can be disheartening. And I think that using art to remind people that we are together as opposed to all of us being a separate entity, and that there are more of us than there are of them and that sure, your vote doesn’t count singularly, but your vote counts if all of us are voting towards the greater good of our community and the things that are plaguing our community. And I think that this time, while when it first hit, being the cofounder of an organization that was trying to do really specific events that required people to come together at first, to be put simply, I was bummed.

I was like, “I don’t know how we’re going to reach people now.” But what it has done is really highlighted that our local government really does have agency over us and that we can truly participate in that and we can really see how our local governments are affecting us. And I think that that in itself inspired people to participate and you can point to that, and it’s very real and it’s very current right now. And I think that one of the revamped initiative that I’m working with is creating an artist coalition of the actors and the musicians and the fine artists in the area that right now can’t create in the same way that they usually do. They come together and really create localized content to engage people and excite people and turn an eye to the issues that are happening very specifically in different communities and trying to highlight the things that they could be doing and voting towards. And also just reminding people that they are in this together.

Brandon and I noted that things come in waves during this time. Sometimes people feel the energy in the air feels like there’s some sort of panic, but then there are these waves where it feels like everybody’s calm because everybody is going through this together. And I think that there is something in that. And I would like to mind that to try to bring people closer together.

Brandon Dixon:

Rob, I think when it comes to the veteran, which the arts can really directly help heal these disparities, some of it is kind of in these elements of both personal and public narrative. And I think the power of active messaging cannot be underestimated. The messages we tell each other about each other. We tell each other about ourselves, we tell ourselves about ourselves. And when we look at these elements about individual power and collective power, these are the levels upon which we have to work, particularly in areas like Detroit. When you talk about kind of how things have been gutted systemically for generations, that means you have generations of young people and now older adults who do not have as much personal agency.

It was not necessarily instilled in them. And then collective agency as well. And so there needs to be a restorative process. You look at a lot of the activism, like the waves of real, powerful, substantive activism that have happened in our country came throughout the sixties bridging into the seventies and eighties right? And these were hugely like explosive times for the arts and for culture but also for education and universities. That’s where a lot of these kinds of movements synthesize and group. The arts are the synthesis of the humanities, right? It’s the science of the humanities. History, literature, philosophy, anthropology. And so I think as I said, the active messaging needs to come to bear how we talk to each other about what we are capable of, how we talk to the members of our community in areas like those in Detroit that have been disenfranchised. How we talk to each other about what we are individually capable of and then what we are collectively capable of on a greater level. But I think the arts have the ability to spread those messages in a visceral way.

Rob Johnson:

I sense you’re right. A podcast I made last Friday and this is Monday with a dear friend of mine, Ed Pavlic, who is a poet based in Georgia, but comes from the Midwest, comes from Chicago originally. Ed’s writing about all kinds of things that are very tender in relation to racial animosity and otherness, but Ed also wrote what I think is the most penetrating understanding of James Baldwin and how Baldwin listening to the Detroit artists to Aretha Franklin’s song from the album Aretha Arrives called, “I Wonder,” had an epiphany and he had seen himself as a very successful person in public debates, but he saw himself as creating polarity and animosity even when he was winning the debates and he said that Aretha, when she sang, spoke both to the people and the person and he then transformed with the help of his friends, Ray Charles and Harry Belafonte, the way in which he approached inspiring change and I know we have Ed’s podcast posted very close in time with yours, but I must introduce you to him, the two of you, and he would have an awful lot to talk about and explore and he would be very invigorated learning from you. On election day… Oh, I’m sorry. Please go ahead.

Brandon Dixon:

No. I was just saying, but you’re right and as I see it, the vehicle matters. The vehicle of communion. It can be the difference between understanding and not.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I’m always amazed. When I was in high school, there was a study done that said that Detroit had the most number of places of worship per capita and per square mile of anywhere in the world and I recall Henry Ford had spent a lot of time in the ’30s and ’40s building up places of worship in many denominations, but I’ve always had this sense that probably more than any other type of music that gospel music conveys that notion of togetherness and community. My friend and neighbor, Anthony Hill, but here in New York wrote the book, “The Gospel Sound,” and he had produced a couple of Aretha’s records, but the psychology that’s revealed in gospel music has the characteristics that I’m listening to the two of you describe wanting to infuse into society.

Brandon Dixon:

Is gospel music the only place you have seen those elements realized in that way?

Rob Johnson:

I wouldn’t say it’s the only place. I mean, I would say just watching John Coltrane’s quartet in jazz or seeing a beautiful inner weaving and improvisation among musicians, but there is something about gospel music where the performers interact in the interaction, like in the Kojic Church of God in Christ, the interaction between the musical artists in the congregation and the minister I think takes it to a higher level of intensity. How would you answer your own question?

Brandon Dixon:

I think… Well, just keeping, I think keeping the example of Detroit and the nature of music you’re hearing in Detroit, I feel and obviously you experienced it more firsthand than I did. I feel that a lot of those same elements were certainly a part of a lot of the Motown music, the pop culture of the day, but the Motown music that came out of that time, there was an exchange between the people and the musicians and I think also particularly what’s interesting about this actually and in watching this it’s now making me think about the Last Dance and talking about the bad boy Pistons and again their connection to the people of Detroit, the feelings of the people of Detroit versus the way the rest of the world sees them or is looking at them and the ability for the people to take the things that were there and use them as an empowering synthesis of exchange and so, I think that’s also why the pop music of that day, the pop music of Detroit, which is Motown also possessed those elements.

What’s interesting about what you’re saying here, Rob, is that you’re identifying an area in which you were seeing a lot of these coming together, these elements that we want to bring into other elements of society in the same way. I think you were talking with John Powell, I think about how there are elements of… You have certain thoughts and ideas about how the military is and whether it’s good or it’s bad or what it does, but there are elements of the military construct process environment that in which you were seeing some of the ideals of society manifesting themselves, but at the same time those ideals are manifested in investments in people that are going to serve a specific purpose.

It’s not investing in them for their own benefit or their own independent. It’s investing in them within a specific construct and I think the thing we’re identifying again, this gospel music, there’s a synthesis of elements within a specific construct and it’s like how do we expand that into these other realms and these other elements? But I think now Detroit and in particular, as you talked about, I think Detroit has a particular connection to those things as a result of the specific history of the city.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I remember on election day I walked into a store and the security guard was a man named Ulisis who had been a friend of my father’s years before and I said to him, “What’s going to happen in this election?” And he looked at me and he said, “Oh Mr. Johnson, when there’s nothing on the menu anybody wants to eat, nobody comes to the restaurant. People are going to stay home,” and I asked him how he thought of that in the context of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and his view was that the Clinton years with NAFTA, criminal justice reform, welfare reform had been very discouraging and that Trump was discouraging in other ways, but that Trump had come right after the Republican Convention to the Economic Club Of Detroit and made a speech where he scolded the management of the auto industry for losing jobs for the community.

I left that shuttering because I thought Ulisis was very insightful and had always been rather quite a wise man, but I saw the statistics of that presidential election of the 100 largest cities in America. The lowest percentage vote for Donald Trump was Detroit, 2.9%. DC was about 3.9%, but the key, you’re talking about a city that had something under 800,000 citizens, not registered voters, turn out relative to 2012 when Obama was reelected against Mitt Romney. It was down in the city of Detroit by 122,000.

When you’re talking about roughly 98% of the people who did vote voted for Clinton and I think that at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Jesse Jackson got up and gave a speech and he talked about how he couldn’t understand the city of Detroit and the Michigan electoral votes that resulted from there staying home when everybody was willing to stand two and three hours outside the Charles Wright Museum to visit Aretha Franklin and that we had to repair our politics and my sense is that we are at the cusp of helping people see that they have to come together and they have a responsibility to each other and one of those responsibilities is active participation in the political process. We can’t afford despondency and my sense is that you’re well on your way to helping people see the necessity of engagement.

Brandon Dixon:

I think your point of what you said at the end there is probably the heart of it. We can’t afford or rather it’s what we can’t afford. I think one of the elements here is that there’s this thought that at one point it looks like to me is there’s a feeling at one point black America was fully enfranchised in the government and then something happened and so-

Fully enfranchised in the government and then something happened and so any time people get up, they say, “Well, why won’t people come to the table or why didn’t people follow up?” Or, what has happened that is preventing people from, and it’s a combination of never having been a participant in the first place, having been stepped on people who were participants in the beginning. And also as individuals have come through to say they’re going to change things or make things more equal, finding that that has not really translated to levels that are tangible to them in their lives.

And so I think that that is an element that is at play and in moving forward, part of it is, for us, is looking at these communities of which we are a part and saying, look, we understand some of the thoughts of futility with respect to participating in a political process. The challenges that are before you are such that you must be operating on all levels in order to create any sort of forward momentum. You cannot just be operating one dimensionally. It means you have to operate on the educationally psychologically, spiritually, politically. And so you have to begin to start forming political coalitions that at least when the government does not respond to you, you as a collective can hold them responsible, hold them accountable.

That’s the only way to start to establish some sort of political agency, so that you’re not always asking for things, but that you can start to demand things. Things become a requirement. And I think that’s part of the messaging that we’re working to identify, it’s these elements of understanding of what collective power means, but also these elements of understanding how to comprehensively attack the problems that are before you.

Ashley Monet:

And I think it’s also taking people or showing them what collective power could be, could look like, can do, because you were talking about the comment on showing up for Aretha Franklin. Brandon mentioned in the beginning that we come from very different backgrounds and I come from lower middle class growing up right next door to poverty and growing up as a young black girl, literally no one is talking to you about politics or voting or democracy. These conversations aren’t happening. The communities that people are looking at and asking why they are not voting are communities that are trying to survive. And when one is trying to figure out how to feed their children, these conversations within organizations or within our communities about the state of the world are very privileged conversations to have.

Having the time and education to just sift through articles on the internet and find out where the truth is, or where you can find it. Those are all things that are a great privilege. Those conversations aren’t happening, people aren’t showing them or telling them, people are trying to figure out how they’re going to get to work and who is going their pick up their kids. And all of these other things that people are consuming their lives with because systematically, they have had very few options to survive in this country at all. And so just looking in a blanket way at these communities and saying “Black people need to vote more” I think for me in building out these initiatives and these events and these campaigns, I’m really trying to look at things in a very macro way obviously, and how to leverage the resources that we have overall, but you really have to look at how you can actually reach people.

And I think looking at neighborhoods and trying to reach people in neighborhood organizations and engaging local politics and local neighborhood groups, because one of the things we talk about in the organization is sometimes to change people, I would argue all of the time, to change someone, you have to literally touch their lives. And these people have never been touched. They’ve been forgotten almost entirely. And so you have to find a way to reach them. And that’s why we are trying to use the arts to do that. When you look at Detroit it has, I believe, the highest poverty rate in the country, something around 30%. And even within that, it’s like 47% of children in the Detroit Metro area are living in poverty. It’s how do you reach them? And I think art is the universal language that we can use to reach people.

Brandon Dixon:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Brandon, where did you grow up? I heard from Ashley that Jacksonville was where she had her formative experience. How about for yourself?

Brandon Dixon:

I grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is just outside of DC.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Brandon Dixon:

I spent most of my youth, I went to school at the National Cathedral in DC. So a lot of my childhood spent running around in the shadows of Congress and Washington, our favorite people. And then from there, I moved to New York City and I’ve been here ever since, but I moved here obviously to continue my artistic journey. But it felt lik at all the shows I’ve done, they pretty much led me back to the halls of advocacy.

Rob Johnson:

When I listen to the two of you, this kind of fusion of politics and art and heart, it reminds me often, as I was listening to you in this last 45 minutes or so, of Bob Marley, who I always felt somehow knew how to connect love with politics, better than any artist that I had had perceived.

Brandon Dixon:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

And I once had a sailboat for, I don’t know, about 14 years, I guess, and I took it all over the world. In part, because I wanted my children and my parents who were sailors from the Great Lakes to have experience together. And I said, I like to go to where there’s no airport and where there’s no highways, so you can see what I’ll call Mother Nature as God created it. But I said, my ulterior motive was to prove to my children by traveling all over the world, that it was Bob Marley, not the Beatles who was the most popular musician on earth and everywhere you went, everywhere you went, Tonga, Noumia in the New Hebrides, Solomon Islands, just many places in off the coast of Africa.

All you had to do was take a Zodiac into the dock and start walking and you heard Bob Marley. And so my hypothesis was right, but later I did a stint of running a blues label called Rooster Blues Records with a famous man who, as I ran it, continued to produce. He was the founder, named Jim O’Neill. And he found an artist who was, in my opinion, the blues Bob Marley, whose name was Willie King. And when you are asking me had I heard in any other genres and artists that reminded me of the feeling of gospel music, I tend to agree with you that the things that came from Motown and came from stacks, which is sort of a fusion of gospel and pop and became what we call soul music, which was essentially like secular spirituals and secular gospel. But this guy, Willie King, did a call and response with his other singer, Willie Lee.

And he made a song that I have to excerpt for our episode and the name of the song was “Let’s Come Together As One Community.” So I’ll probably have to sample 30 or 40 seconds of that, because I think first of all, he answers your question. But secondly, he underscores the kind of spirit that the two of you have imparted to me today. And I think I’m very fortunate to be able to work with the two of you and both myself and the listeners are very fortunate to listen to your important message that you’ve shared with us today. I want to thank you both for being here. Any final thoughts?

Brandon Dixon:

Well, we feel the same. We’re grateful to you and to anybody listening. We’re stepping into a time where we cannot underestimate the little things, the little thoughts, the little gestures that open doors a little wider for each and every one of us. And I think that’s where we’re at right now.

Rob Johnson:

Very good. I’m sure we’ll meet again on this podcast in a few months time, and as your work in Detroit and other places continues to progress, but once again, thank you for being with me today.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guests

ASHLEY MONET is Co-founder and Executive Director of the WeAre Foundation. She is a graduate from Harvard University in affiliation with the Tony Award winning American Repertory Theatre and studied abroad at the world-renowned Moscow Art Theatre School.

BRANDON VICTOR DIXON is a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award nominated Actor, Producer, and Social Advocate and Co-founder and Managing Director of the WeAre Foundation. His company WalkRunFly has produced multiple works including the Tony Award winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch and he is the co-founder of Qurator: The Movie Ratings App (available on iOS/ANDROID).

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