American Hope & Prayer
He was singing a song lamenting the murder of George Floyd when a woman who had stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, said she didn’t agree. Not at all.
“George Floyd was a motherfucker,” she said next, irrevocably upping the ante. “Just a no-good worthless piece of shit with a long-ass rap sheet. Hey — he was a fucking waste of space on this earth, all right? Son of a bitch was a sorry excuse for a human. He deserved it. And hell, if it hadn’t been that cop, somebody else should’ve done it.”
I was onstage in the downstairs listening room at Canopy + the Roots in the former gold mining town of Dahlonega in the north Georgia mountains. Earlier that day, thousands of people had packed the downtown square and its surrounding streets for the annual Gold Rush Festival. The street the venue was on was closed to traffic and lined on either side with vendors’ tents. The crowds would return in the morning for the second and final day of the event, but downtown was empty on this Saturday night. Nearby, a band played outside an Irish pub to a crowd of four.
The room had been used for a private, Great Gatsby-themed engagement party before our show. The women dressed in flapper outfits with feather boas and headbands and sequin-fringed dresses. In the small balcony section, a bunch of bowler-hat-and-suspenders-wearing college-aged guys huddled around someone’s phone watching the Alabama-Tennessee football game while the party raged below and jazz music played. Tennessee won, cementing a triumphal night — at least until that point — for this Georgia boy.
The flappers emptied out and my guitarist, Bret Harley, and I loaded in. Soon, a local fifth-year senior journalism student covering the show set up a camera and tripod and began reporting from the corner of the room.
I met the audience, few though they were, at the bar before the show. The student, the bar owner and sole operator of the evening— acting both as bartender and sound engineer— and a couple from the Chicagoland area who had moved to Knoxville a decade ago, were passing through town, and had stumbled upon the venue. Everyone was kind and in good spirits. The guy from Knoxville had three or four names tattooed on his left forearm — one for each of his grandsons. “I’m still waitin’ for some granddaughters so I can fill up the right side. It’s empty over there,” he laughed.
The mood was light as we played. It was hardly a crowd, of course, but the intimate room was a perfect setting for an audience to listen closely to my long, somewhat dense songs. The sound was excellent and even at this late stage of COVID, I hadn’t played many shows in a couple years. A number of the songs were pandemic-era tunes, so it was an opportunity to get my sea legs on the material. It felt like more than a glorified practice — I was energized and intent on delivering a strong performance.
I started the set playing songs from my forthcoming album, Holidays in United States. Much of it was written in the summer of 2020 against the backdrop of, well, the summer of 2020. Black Lives Matter protests, the still early days of COVID, etc. I introduced one song, “When Will We Go Marching?” by describing the feeling I’d had of wanting to participate in the protests, wanting to use my voice, to do something while in lockdown, but concerned about going out in crowds and bringing the virus home to my family — my wife and daughter, who at the time was 3 years old.
“Why did you want to protest?” the lady from Knoxville, Helen, asked. She wore a broken-in almost cowboy hat fit for a safari or the Australian outback. Her question caught me off guard.
“Why did you want to protest?” the lady from Knoxville, Helen, asked. She wore a broken-in almost cowboy hat fit for a safari or the Australian outback.
Her question caught me off guard.
“Well, there was so much going on then — I mean, you know, police, um…”
“Black Lives Matter,” the journalism student chimed in.
“Yeah, Black Lives Matter, police killing of innocent people,” I asserted, finding my voice after stumbling to synthesize the issues of the day diplomatically. “I was torn and felt cooped up. I was being cautious and not going into crowds, but it was an important moment and I wanted to take a stand and make my voice heard. I felt helpless and disappointed in myself that I hadn’t met the moment in any significant way.”
“Aww,” Helen said. It sounded less like empathy and more like “that’s cute” — a pat on the head for the good boy.
The next song was “I-20.” I forwent an intro and played the song, all seven-plus minutes of it. It is essentially the centerpiece of my new record, which culminates in a minutes-long recitation of names of people of color killed by law enforcement officers.
“Can I ask you something?” Helen called out as I finished the song. Her tone intimated a challenge.
“Ah,” I thought, with a tinge of apprehension, “she’s gonna ask me if I know the story of each person whose name I sang.”
It had crossed my mind before that someone might ask this. Many of the people mentioned are household names. George Floyd. Breanna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. But the litany of names is unrelenting, and plenty of them I found on various databases. I read each person’s story as a form of vetting, but I can’t detail each one cold. Perhaps that’s part of the point. But I’ve wondered whether that’s problematic: Should I sing each name if I can’t bring to mind each one’s unique story and circumstance? Is that in and of itself some kind of cultural appropriation?
Even as I sang the closing section of the song, moments before, I clocked and questioned the intensity of my delivery of the repeating lyric, “Call out the names.” An overly emotive recitation risks the feeling of disingenuousness or, worse, falsity, while too little emotion feels disconnected and flat.
And now, with the song complete and me somewhat spent, I awaited Helen’s question.
The tenor of the room changed as she launched into her diatribe on Floyd. Her voice rose and became heated. She wasn’t quite shouting — we were no more than 12 feet apart — but her words rang out and hovered in pregnant silence.
“Now I’m not a racist, and I don’t care if you’re Christian or Buddhist or whatever the hell ya wanna be, but ya do what he did and live that kinda pathetic life, you deserve it,” she continued. “And if it’d been me doin’ all that shit, then someone should’ve killed me."
When her husband came back, he stood behind her chair for a moment and gestured toward me as if to say, “Don’t worry about her.” He pointed down to her with both hands, smiling, and said, “We’re insurrectionists.”
And yet, surprisingly, she buttoned up her vicious words with a genuine question.
“So, how can you write a song like that about George Floyd?”
I was taken aback, to say the least, and took in the surroundings for any sort of danger in the wake of the outburst. I had never heard anyone express such an unthinkable position. It occurred to me that we might have an actual dialogue about this, but I wasn’t certain.
After a pause, and the shock of hearing her declare such hate aloud, I said, “Uh, you have the right to have whatever reaction you have to the song, so I don’t begrudge you having an issue with it. You don’t have to agree with it. I mean, I know we’re in a divided time in our country, so I understand if I sing it, some people may not agree. But you’re asking me how can I write a song like that and put George Floyd in it given that he’s … all these things you say he is, but, um, I just don’t believe that. I think that’s wrong. So, that’s how I can write a song like this and sing his name.”
I spoke of inequities in our criminal justice system. If a white person had committed all the crimes she said George Floyd had, I argued, I figured they'd be unlikely to have the same rap sheet. The journalism student, who had told me excitedly before the show of his interest in social justice, was chomping at the bit to jump in on the exchange. He explained that Derek Chauvin hadn’t known, as he pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, of Floyd’s background, and therefore his actions were unwarranted.
Helen’s husband leaned in toward her and said, “It’s cool. They’re just playing their songs,” and stepped away to the restroom.
“That asshole beat his pregnant girlfriend, did ya know that? What would you do, huh? You got kids, right? How many kids you got?”
“I have two,” I said, unwisely playing into her hand.
“Yeah, would you let someone beat your wife? What would you do— an intruder came in to beat your family. You’d shoot ’em, right? Would you let someone hurt your family? I bet you don’t even have a gun.” She laughed.
“Uh, no. I’d do whatever I could to protect them,” I replied, uncomfortable with her aggressive questions and displeased at having allowed myself to be put on the defensive.
She kept on spewing random grievances about George Floyd and what I presumed were conspiracy theories I hadn’t heard.
When her husband came back, he stood behind her chair for a moment and gestured toward me as if to say, “Don’t worry about her.” He pointed down to her with both hands, smiling, and said, “We’re insurrectionists.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, and assumed he was using the royal “we” to refer to her as right-wing. I wasn’t surprised, given her positions and willingness to share them in public.
After a few moments, with Helen and her husband in their seats, it seemed the conversation had played itself out.
“Here’s the thing. Everyone I named in the song was killed in an extrajudicial way,” I said. “They weren’t tried, convicted, and sentenced. They were just killed by law enforcement. Doesn’t mean all cops are bad. We probably all know cops who are great people. But in the moment, out of fear or as a form of power or for whatever reason, people of color are being shot, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Hopelessness and division are not messages I wish to convey. In speaking of his song “Democracy,” the late Leonard Cohen once said, “I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart.”
Here, my guitar playing friend Bret spoke up for the first time.
“The cops can’t be judge and executioner.”
“Hey,” said the Knoxville guy, “you got something you believe in. You took the time to sit down and write a song about it. I respect that.”
Before long, heading off any other comment that might swing the discussion back from what seemed to be a sort of resolution, I added: “Anyway, that’s the last of the social or political songs we’ve got tonight. The rest are just songs. Here’s a rock n’ roll number…” and launched into a fun tune called “Down at the High Hat.” Helen and her husband nodded to the song and the tension was, at least slightly, diffused.
As the set continued, they clearly enjoyed the show. She was grooving in her seat, and he was smiling and nodding to the music. Every so often she’d yell out, “It’s cool. We’re cool, ya know? I mean, I dig his guitar playing and I like your voice and the songs.”
The owner, Brandon, came on stage and gave a pitch about supporting independent music and musicians, and passed around a tip jar to the few attendees. I later pulled out the $100 bill that Helen’s husband had dropped into the jar.
Afterwards, we said bye and Brandon walked the couple and the student upstairs and out of the venue. Bret and I packed up.
“That’s up there as one of the craziest audience interactions I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Brandon returned after a few minutes.
“Well, I talked to them some more,” he said. “They told me they were at the Capitol on January 6th. Marching with the Viking guy. So, yeah, insurrectionists. They said they were with their kids and got separated from that guy, and the cops were shooting rubber bullets at them, so they split. Never went into the building. Good thing my wife wasn’t here. She would’ve gotten into a fist fight.”
I drove home, unsettled, going south along the dark mountain road which widened into a highway before it reached the northern suburbs of Atlanta and into the urban sprawl. I curved along I-285 past web-like junctions and then an exit and a few turns until I reached my concrete driveway in my quiet neighborhood.
I wondered at the connection I had felt with my new insurrectionist acquaintances. We chatted before the show. We saw each other. Our lives converged in a tavern around music and a desire for some sort of brief fellowship. I recognized their way of dress. They seemed like people I knew, people I enjoy hanging out with. He was a Neil Young fan. At first impression, she was a force of good-natured energy, laughing and joking at the bar. I felt a compact upon our meeting — that in some way we understood one another. We were familiar with the ritual.
To my knowledge, I hadn’t known or met an insurrectionist before then. But we got along, until a piece of art, a story with a perspective, provoked a defensive anger. It was deemed an attack. My guitar machine may not kill fascists, but apparently it may expose those misled by disinformation.
But what are we to do — look one another in the eye and harbor hatred? It is easy, from the safety of our corners, to take in the arguments of our small communities and media ecosystems, and become disillusioned and even enraged. The truth is, I composed my new album in the throes of the summer of 2020 and the Trump presidency, out of anger and despair about our society and body politic. And yet, hopelessness and division are not messages I wish to convey. In speaking of his song “Democracy,” Leonard Cohen once said, “I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart.” I aim to achieve that high form of empathy and craftsmanship in my songwriting someday.
At times, it may seem like a wonder we are woven together at all in this common society. Our staggering diversity contains distinct narratives originated from across the world. But we understand American culture and the world itself in stark contrasts. Will we hate our neighbors for their susceptibility to beliefs we don’t share? Hatred, bigotry, racism — these prejudices must be called out. But can we separate the hurtful message from the messenger? Healing requires an intimacy. A meeting from a place of openness. A revelation of not only the heart, but our paranoia and fears.
Our mid-performance exchange showed me that we can meet. We can face each other if we can humanize one another. A conversation ensued, albeit a provocative and alarming one. Yet it flared and at last settled without hatred or violence enacted between us. On this night, it may not have moved the dial, but we were in dialogue, reckoning with one another in all our imperfect complexities. The conversation itself may be the ultimate act of American hope and prayer.
Adam Klein is a singer/songwriter and actor from Athens, Georgia, now living with his wife and two young kids in the metro Atlanta city of Tucker. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, and has released seven albums on his Cowboy Angel Music label, including an original American-roots-meets-Mande-roots collection recorded in Mali featuring traditional Mande instrumentation and lyrics performed in the Bambara language. His latest album is Holidays in United States.