Art as a Catalyst for Community
Years ago, when I asked my good friend, David Valentine, to paint something for my future studio, this is what he came up with:
I loved it. It was as if David had somehow channeled his inner-Pollock and catered it to fit my specific taste. I had to put it on display immediately. When I hung it up in my apartment, it stretched the expanse of an entire wall. Then, for the next couple of months, whenever anyone visited my home, I made them stare at the wall and explain what they saw. The responses ranged from, "It looks like ketchup and mustard got in a fight" to "It represents our souls adrift in the universe".
For me, it was the aesthetic invasion of the divine into my living room! Quite honestly, I never knew David had it in him, especially since the only reason he had picked up painting in the first place was to impress his girlfriend, who later became his wife (I guess he was on to something). I figured if he could do it, so could I.
So one afternoon, I invited a bunch of my friends over for a painting workshop. We laid canvases out across the lawn and immersed ourselves in efforts of artistic expression. I didn't produce a masterpiece, but years later, I did end up marrying one of the girls who attended the workshop. (Hint to single guys: Start painting!)
Art brings people together.
Whether you're creating it or admiring it, Art involves community. In songwriting, when people gather for creative work, the artists function like gears exploring the mechanics of collaboration until a moment of clarity is captured. This moment is shared and experienced, then usually, published and presented as a song.
I remember the first songs I ever composed for my band, Beggars Made Believers. It started with a poem called Prayer, written by my friend Christina Wood. I adapted the poem into a song and ventured towards an arrangement by gathering an eclectic group of musicians for an evening workshop on the song. Nothing was written out, no sounds or parts were pre-recorded—all we had before us was a song, a piano, and a room full of possibility. For two hours, our group worked together—humming parts, attempting riffs, and playing with dynamics until the first arrangement of Prayer included Piano, Violin, Flute, Trumpet and Trombone. Later, we added Drums, Bass, and Acoustic Guitar. Here’s an excerpt:
Eventually, the band Beggars Made Believers formed to record a full-length collection of original songs. Our first album, AWAKE, featured over 20 different instrumentalists and vocalists. It was the first time I’d ever done anything so ambitious with my songs.
I believe the collaborative effort that went into recording AWAKE made the product better. Art was created and experienced as a community. Afterwards, we were able to recreate the songs for live events, which shared the music with different groups of people altogether.
Three years later, Beggars Made Believers is on the brink of releasing a second album. The title track for our latest endeavor is Generations Rise, a song I composed on the heels of our experience with AWAKE.
The inspiration for Generations Rise came from a life-changing mission trip to Africa, where I worked with orphans in Zambia. Through that experience, I realized the power of faith to transcend cultural divide and bring people together. The spirituality, music, and passion of the African people moved me to capture my experience with song.
Generations Rise opens with the following anthem:
Let your kingdom come/ and free us/ let your kingdom shine/ within us/ let your kingdom rise/ and push back the night
The word, “Kingdom”, represents people united by common faith, which binds us together in diverse yet glorious harmony. I believe this harmony has the power to break through barriers of language and culture and inspire authentic community.
Eight months after writing the song, my brother Neal invited my band to lead music for JMU ONE, an event he had facilitated on his college campus in order to bring different faith groups together for a joint night of worship. JMU ONE helped me realize that, since Generations Rise was written from the experience of community, the song also possessed the ability to inspire and encourage community.
"JMU ONE had the daring vision [...] to make the Kingdom of God more evident on our campus. It was a movement boldly declaring that we are a powerful force [for] good when we are united. 'Generations Rise' was our rally song. It united us under our common call to live as the body of Christ. Under its anthem-like melody, we were compelled towards action. We were compelled to move forward with our community, to live as the Body Christ called us to be."--Neal Samudre, on JMU ONE
People who had never heard the song before connected with the words in such a personal way that it breathed meaning into their present context. Here's some footage and photography from JMU ONE, along with an unmastered take of Generations Rise:
At the end of the video, you can hear the collective voices of people I've never met singing a song I wrote. Hundreds of students embraced my song and owned the words as if I had never written them. In that moment, I experienced the power of Art to escape the Artist and become zeitgeist, the spirit of a time. It's the feeling of a song passing right through you. I may have been the one to pen it down, but the song never stops. It continues beyond me to affect people's hearts and bring them together to experience something you or I could never fake--something divine.