On a guitar, the difference between an A minor chord and an A minor seventh chord is raising one finger off the fretboard. It seems like a tiny change, but if you listen to a song with the minor seventh chord played in place of the minor chord, you can immediately hear the difference. A minor chord is melancholy, evoking sadness, while a minor seventh chord lifts the mood and creates anticipation for what comes next. Minor seventh chords often come before a resolution, because they compel the listener to breathe in before the following chord allows them to let it all out.
We don’t know why certain sounds create certain feelings in people. Talented musicians can tell you which order of chords or keys will create an effect, but it’s much harder to explain why the music does what it does. Why should playing a sequence of sounds in a specific way evoke delight, sadness, pleasure, or nostalgia? Why does an A minor chord do one thing in one song and a different thing in another?
Few of us ask ourselves these questions when we put on an album or go to a concert, because listening to music lives largely in a place beyond consciousness or waking knowledge. We don’t spend much time thinking about why music works; we just take joy in knowing that it does. Music, art, dance, and poetry are united by this inexplicable effect that they have on our physical and psychic selves; they move us to dance or, sometimes, to tears.
It makes sense therefore that wherever you go art is the thing that survives. Music, art, dance, poetry are all expressions of a desire to reach beyond the physical world. Art, in all its forms, is a conversation about intangible truths between those who make it and those who experience it. This is true whether it is an elaborate arrangement of a full orchestra or a mash-up created by a teenager in their bedroom. An artist invites us to experience, and we respond by taking it in.
Important art, regardless of its form, lives on with those who experience it. You may not remember the details of a deceased parent’s or child’s face or body, but decades later their favorite song will still evoke their presence. And each experience is different, because each person brings to art their own assemblage of experience. To me, this is what separates art made by people and art assembled by computers. Art generated by algorithms is one-sided, because a computer cannot feel. Art is not just about the product; it is also about the process that the artist goes through to create it. Regardless of how elaborate the code or programming is, a computer cannot participate in a dialectic with the viewer.
Art is part of a broader tapestry that make human existence worthwhile. Art is one reason we resist tyranny. We are increasingly aware, for example, that democracy is about more than elections and voting. There are many countries in which people can stand in line to pick a candidate from a list but in which those voters do not live in a democracy. The list of candidates may be predetermined through political suppression, or perhaps there’s an authoritarian administration that arrests or kills anyone who dares to offer something different. The performance of democracy does not make a democracy. Democracy is about the space that we have as human beings to affirm our dignity by participating in the conversation about how our societies should be governed. And part of that dignity, which is worth fighting for, is the freedom of all those parts of ourselves that experience art.
When I was thinking about how I wanted to finish this series of essays, I knew that I wanted to end on a note of hope, because hope gives purpose and meaning to struggle. All the previous essays have focused on many ways in which the world is broken, and I wanted this last one to express why I think it is important to know and care about these things. In its simplest sense, hope is the belief that things can be better. But hope is more than just a feeling. As Mariame Kaba, a practitioner and philosopher of abolitionism, reminds us, hope is a discipline. It is why people organize; we believe that we are capable and deserving of better, and we want people to come together and try to get it. Hope is taking that belief in a better future and doing something to make it more attainable. People without hope embrace the nihilism of low expectations; they become resigned to taking what they can from the material world and reducing their existence to accumulation. People who have hope fight—even when the odds seem long. People who have hope know that a life that is whittled down to chasing objects is a life poorly lived. Hope is constantly renewing one’s commitment to the possibility of a deeper collective existence.
I asked myself as I was thinking this essay through: “Nanjala, what gives you hope?” And no matter how much I turned the idea over, I always ended up on a form of art: a painting that made me feel anchored, a song that inspired action, or a poem that reminded me that people have survived worse and made breathtaking beauty out of it. Whether it is the music of Black churches in the US South or apartheid-era South Africa rising above racism and infusing soul-shaking power into familiar religious music, or female prisoners like Bożena Janina Zdunek memorizing and writing poetry in Auschwitz—this is what I mean when I say art is the thing that survives: These are the things that people hold on to when the cruelty of others robs them of their peace, safety, and indeed dignity. Art reminds us what it means to be human—not money or objects or even ideas. It inspires hope.
The last five essays have tried to draw attention to things in the world that are broken, from the perspective of people who are often forgotten. They do not tell you why and how each of those places was imprinted in my being. But one thing that unites my personal experiences of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Madagascar, Sudan, and the Central African Republic is finding hope in their art. Dancing with the dervishes in Omdurman, Sudan, or through the streets of Port-au-Prince during carnival did more than bring me joy. It invited me into a conversation with the cultures of these places that continues today. It anchored me in places when they felt intense and unfamiliar, and it reminded me that beyond the politics that distinguishes nation from nation is a universal desire to make art.
The inability to articulate hope and other human values in international relations is an expression of the emptiness at the heart of our ideas of what society is for. In international relations, we are bombarded with the idea that self-interest and war is inevitable and that the purpose of statehood is to make a handful of people wealthy. We look at Sudanese people rejecting a military regime for three years and have no idea what to do with the hope of millions of people that they can live in a true democracy. So we ignore it and focus on resuscitating the husk of the state—a government without the people.
Those of us who work in or write about politics routinely forget why we do politics in the first place. The purpose of all this—the state, the international system, money—is to protect those things that art understands. It is always easier to write about structures than about values or hope. But the structures are not ends in themselves. The point is using those structures to create societies in which everyone, regardless of wealth or ability, can experience those things that art unlocks: joy, freedom, purpose, possibility, and hope.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was the hardest of the six essays to write. It can feel frivolous to write about hope when it feels like anyone with a platform should be sounding alarms about the horrors of the world. But even in a world that feels like it’s falling apart, we owe it to each other to save room for hope.