A Prisoner’s Vision, A Gangster’s Paradise: Voices of America Inspire Through the Ages

by Derek Holser, Tastemaker in Residence

2016 presents yet another interesting year in the American Experiment. On the one hand, this country remains the most prosperous nation in the world, with innovation and opportunity in multiple business sectors, and weekly stories of communities moved to action and bringing aid to those in need. 

On the other hand, conflict and anger roil through our culture, with some decrying our history and common experiences as merely a continuation of an oppression that began the moment the first Europeans settled the coastlines of Virginia over 400 years ago.

As in every dispute, neither side is completely to blame, and as many politicians have pointed out, “there is far more that unites us than divides us”. This is true only so long as we are willing to enter thorny conversations with open hearts and minds, and as always in the case of The Spirited Table, an extra place at the dinner table.

For better or worse, the collective fate of those who call America home remains intertwined. If history is any indicator, we will continue to experience memorable and moving speeches from civic leaders and men and women of faith, as well as memorable meals with friends. Yet speeches can only do so much, and meals don’t last forever. 

One cultural element, however; brings people together more than any other. One aspect of the human experience is common no matter where you live, no matter what you’ve done. That element is music. What else can gather diverse groups of people? What else better unifies our disparate dialects? From Cajuns in the Bayou to Braggarts from the Bronx, from Laid-Back in LA to Texans with a Twang, nothing unites our voices like a transcendent song. 

More often than not, its music that transcends. Music unites and identifies allegiances and alliances, and helps us say what we feel even when we aren’t sure what it all means.

From the beginning of civilization through today and beyond, music gives a voice to the unseen and chastises the overbearing. Throughout America’s experience, music has built a bridge across which forgiveness is forged. This post highlights two men whose lyrics illuminates this very dynamic.

By a coincidence of birthdate, these two men from different eras are linked. By coincidence of birthdate, our nation’s founding was inspired, and our nation’s healing continues. The two men who share this birthday are Francis Scott Key and Coolio. An unlikely duo, I’ll admit, but read on and you’ll see (as in all people) there’s much more than meets the eye.

Francis Scott Key, who wrote of the inspiring sight of the American flag during the War of 1812, and Artis Leon Ivey “Coolio”, who wrote of the tragic sights of the modern American urban centers, were born 184 years apart. Mr. Key was born on the east coast, in Baltimore, Maryland. Coolio was born on the west coast, in Compton, California. At first glance it would seem that these two men, separated by time and race, couldn’t possibly have much, if anything, in common. 

Francis Scott Key may have eaten soft-shell crab and worn knickers. Coolio may enjoy “swashbucklin’ shrimp” and wears a straw hat. (at least that’s what I gather from his book, Cookin’ with Coolio: 5-star meals at a 1-star price)

But these men have far more in common (like most of us) than one would think. Not only do they share a birthday, they have experienced plenty of births. FSK had 12 children, Coolio has 6.

Not only were they both born in the United States, they both wrote songs that united the people in these states against a common enemy. 

In FSK’s case, the enemy was the British armed forces, returning to recapture the recently won republic. In Coolio’s case, the enemy was the hopelessness and violence in the streets of his hometown, rising to reinforce the wretched isolation of modern inner-city America. While the Star-Spangled Banner became a rallying cry for warfare and later became our national anthem, Gangsta’s Paradise became a sober reminder that equality has yet to arrive for all.

Both men gave voice to a people in need of hope. Both men’s lyrics embodied the urgency of the moment. In Coolio’s case, his lyrics are as apropos today as they were in 1995:

Everybody's running, but half of them ain't looking
What's going on in the kitchen, but I don't know what's cooking
They say I've got to learn but nobody's here to teach me
If they can't understand it, how can they reach me

His haunting reminder of the ignored and overlooked, the marginalized and the mistreated tells us all that we still have work to do. Following the mission of The Spirited Table, I believe it all begins with inviting others to a meal and a meaningful conversation.

If we all listened more than we spoke and ventured beyond our isolation, I bet we’d discover that we are just like Coolio and Francis Scott Key – more alike than different – and most of all desirous of a culture that respects all and fully provides everyone with equal opportunity. I believe it’s possible, no matter what the media shouts. I believe we’re capable, no matter the day’s violence. Do you? 

I believe in a Spirited Table that welcomes all races, creeds and classes. Bound together by our shared land and held together by shared experiences, we can see a community inspired and engaged. It all starts with a simple invitation to join us at The Spirited Table. 

In the words of Francis Scott Key:  O say can you see?