What music teaches us about multiculturalism

Diversity can be frightening. Music reminds us why it matters.

Photo: Luke Chesser
“Dissonance is our way of life in America” — Duke Ellington

On the one hand, it seems obvious that cultural diversity enriches life. Few of us complain about the many culinary options that are available to us these days, from Indian to Italian, and everything in between. How can you hate on tacos and sushi?

On the other hand, multiculturalism is really hard. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great when it’s an individual matter of pick-and-choose. We love to consume cultural diversity on our own terms. But is that as far as we’re willing to take it? Is that level of superficiality even morally and politically tenable in today’s society?

Our Collective at The Sanctuaries is an experiment in putting relationship at the center — building multicultural communities that fuel spiritual growth, artistic collaboration, and social change. I have no illusions about how difficult this can be. Just take a look at the front page of the New York Times these days, and it’s immediately obvious how much fear and suspicion still exists towards people who look, live, let alone pray, differently.

So how do we move from multicultural consumption to multicultural community?

Music has a lot to teach us. To open our rehearsal at the Collective last night, one of our artists led the group in a centering practice drawn from the world of music, called “toning.” The idea is simple: close your eyes, take a deep breath, and as you exhale, hum (and hold) a note.

“The beauty is the chaos,” she explained in her introduction to the practice. And sitting there, eyes closed, surrounded by a symphony of sounds, I was deeply moved. Yes: music can show us the way forward.

Everyone has something to offer.

Upon hearing that we’d be singing, a number of us confessed how awful our voices are, and, in some cases, how tone-deaf we felt. Maybe we should sit this one out. But no, the artist leading the practice refused to let us off the hook. And I’m so glad she insisted on our participation. Even the lowest and most tentative of drones added something profound to our symphony.

Everyone can contribute something. This is particularly true when it comes to building multicultural community. No culture is more or less valuable than another. And no culture should be left out, dismissed, or ignored. Ironically, I often find that white people tend to minimize their own cultural commitments, complaining that they don’t really have a tradition of their own. The very pervasiveness of whiteness in turn renders it invisible. Not only does this perpetuate inequality, it can also lead to the fetishization and misappropriation of that which is perceived to be exotic. The lesson is clear: claim your voice.

Don’t fight the dissonance.

While we were “toning,” none of us could control whether the diverse notes would work well together. And often, they’d clash, some sharp and some flat, some high and some low. It was chaotic, unpredictable, and yet energizing, even beautiful.

Much has been written about the important role that dissonance plays in classical music and jazz, in particular. Duke Ellington mobilized the metaphor of dissonance to describe his experience as a black man in mid-20th century urban America. “Dissonance is our way of life,” he insisted. “We are something apart, yet an integral part.” The reality of people of color being set apart due to structural injustice remains a serious issue facing this country. Multicultural community must address this inconvenient truth, while preserving the power of dissonance to hold difference in an enthralling way. The goal is not to erase differences in power, not difference itself. There is beauty in chaos.

Embrace the unexpected harmony.

At the end of the centering practice, the group agreed that we had collectively created something rather incredible. In the midst of our varying levels of confidence, ability, and tone, it somehow came together. Throughout, we found ourselves stumbling upon unexpected harmonies, synchronicities of sound and soul.

As much as we may talk about the place of difference in multicultural community, we must also embrace the points of connection — across, not despite our differences. We’re better together, and we’re together more often than we think.

I’ll close with this Android ad I recently found, which beautifully illustrates the poverty of “monotuned” communities.


Rev. Erik Martínez Resly is the Co-Director of The Collective and an artist, community organizer, and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.

The Sanctuaries is a diverse arts community with soul in Washington, DC.