By Matt Peters
On June 23 of this past year, the night of the Brexit referendum, I retreated to the back patio of the venue in San Francisco where my band had just finished playing and I nervously pulled out my phone to check the results. At the time, we were on a West Coast tour with Montreal’s Plants and Animals and through the open windows behind the stage I could hear them begin to strum the first few chords of their set. Their music is soaring and hopeful, exactly what you would want rising up through a peaceful California evening while having your faith in humanity restore.“LEAVE”.
“BRITAIN VOTES TO LEAVE!” in big bold lettering. “NO REMAINS!” The headlines blurred into each other as I skimmed from article to article. Leave? How? The ‘Leave’ movement was like what would happen if a Grade 7 Social Studies class were put in charge of a political campaign. Surely the birthplace of Shakespeare and gravity would be able to see past “Britain minus EU equals Now you’re rich and beautiful and don’t have to share.”
I sat out back on some reclaimed anvil (or whatever passes for a chair these days) for some time, trying to make sense of this apparent sea change. I probably posted some daft rationalizations on social media to make myself feel better about the whole thing, but the question of “how did we get here?” kept nagging at me. This was just a blip, a momentary lapse of reason, I told myself. At least Trump still has no chance, right? Right?! Sure, bud.
Jesus Christ. How did we get here?
Remember 2012? Not the shitty movie – the year. No? It seems too long ago to recall? Oh, come now. Okay, I’ll do my best to remind you.
It was a simpler time back then. Music with guitar was still half-relevant. Our iPhone 4’s would crash when loading the Facebook app, so we occasionally had to look up and have conversations with each other. Weird, huh? The Arab Spring had yet to completely fracture into military coups and civil wars, and most of us didn’t know what a Red Wedding was yet. Still not ringing any bells? Okay, well, we dabbled back then in a now long-forgotten mental state called “optimism.” Yeah you’re right, it is sort of a funny sounding word. If you can’t remember what it was to be optimistic, just imagine feeling exactly the opposite of how you do at this precise moment. That feels pretty good doesn’t it? Well, that’s what it was like back in 2012. Is it starting to come back to you? Gangnam Style… the Cubs still sucked… yeah, you’ve got it.
If you spin it the right way, 2012 really was a sort of fairy tale. Obama was re-elected in a landslide, two states had voted to legalize pot, and three states were rescinding their ban on same-sex marriage. For a short period there was a real sense that our generation’s defining story would no longer be the Reign of Bush 2.0. Positive social forces were commandeering the grand narrative and progressiveness was crawling out of the dorm-room bong-water and into the light of day. Oh 2012, what a beautiful halcyon dream you were.
From the reality-check-zone-of-no-return, a.k.a. 2017, this dream looks so painfully naïve. The previous eight years lulled many of us on the left into a false sense of security. While we were busy patting ourselves on the back, the very same populist spirit that had carried Obama into power was being hijacked by loud, divisive voices. They offered oversimplified explanations to complex issues, which validated an alarmingly substantial xenophobic and insecure demographic. The truths we thought were self-evident were not to 46.1% of the population, and their rejection of this progressive vision for the easy fix of Trump’s America said so much about how little we really knew each other.
Those of us privileged enough to have been able to ignore this spectre of ourselves were thrown into a state of shock when Brexit passed and when Trump was elected. But for African-Americans, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, there was less surprise, because the fight had never ceased. It was an ongoing struggle through the Obama years, and it was well documented in the resonant, provocative work created in this period by artists like Kendrick Lamar, Anohni, Solange, and Frank Ocean.
As a straight white male artist I have to try to understand my role in all of this too. Where was I? I guess I was probably moving inward with the rest and ignoring the outside world in favour of introspection (as if there weren’t enough albums ‘Recorded in the Cabin’). But moving forward I need to respect the realities that surround me. I need to be a better ally. I need to be a stronger community member.
The coming years will no doubt be extremely difficult for many, but most of all for those who find themselves in the crosshairs of Trump’s reinvigorated far-right. If a lesson can be learned from all of this, it’s that we can’t let our guard down, even if it appears that “things aren’t so bad.” We need to support our gay friends, our African-American friends, our Muslim friends, our female friends, and even our right-wing friends. Because during Trump’s administration there will be attempts to further normalize behaviour like mocking the disabled, creating ethnic/religious registries, interning immigrants and refugees, grabbing someone’s p****, shitting on the truth, re-widening income gaps, building walls, and altering history to a point where if we’re not careful we’ll glance up from our iPhone 11s in 2020 and barely recognize the world we live in.
As that June night in San Francisco was winding down I finally wandered back into the venue to catch the rest of Plants and Animals set. They were nearing the climax of the song, Flowers, that features the refrain, “We’ll all be together / Or we’ll never be together again.” When the final chorus hit, the rest of the band dropped out until only Warren, the singer, was strumming his guitar and singing. Perhaps it was the poignancy of the words themselves or the nakedness of the moment, but without prompting, the audience joined in. What a profound thing it is, to see a room full of strangers freely singing in unison. Who knows what the next four years will hold, but it is paramount that we watch out for each other. We’ll only make it if we all make it.
Matt Peters is a musician and writer and the frontman of critically-acclaimed local band Royal Canoe.