2017-07-27
Michael StipeMichael Stipe is best known as the lead singer of the popular band R.E.M., but recently, he's been focused on the ongoing devastation in the Gulf Coast region. To raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Stipe recorded six versions of the song "In the Sun," by singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur. For some of the versions, he was joined by other stars, such as Chris Martin of Coldplay and Justin Timberlake. All six are available for download on iTunes, with all the proceeds going to Mercy Corps.

In January 2006, Stipe traveled to New Orleans and returned shaken by what he saw. Several weeks later, he spoke to Beliefnet about the trip, his efforts on behalf of Katrina's victims, and the role of God and faith in natural disasters and their aftermath.

 

Why are you doing this fund-raising project now in particular?
 
When we first started working on the project, a lot of people who were working on it were thinking, myself included, that we need to get this out as soon as possible because it will be a moot point after a couple of months. Of course, the Gulf region will be cleaned up, and people will be moving back into their homes. As it turns out, six months later, it's still pretty cataclysmic what's happened down there, and there's not a lot of progress in terms of the response.
 
You've referred to the disaster as "Old Testament" in its scope. What did you mean by that?
 
I followed the story like we all did on TV, and the images we all saw in the first weeks after Katrina. And it was devastating to see. Television and photographs have an abstracting quality, whereby you can see something and feel like you've experienced or feel the emotional impact of having seen it. But honestly, having been to New Orleans since Katrina, nothing can prepare you for what it's like still, and that's the real shock. I really felt like it was biblical in proportion. It was like something out of the Old Testament. There was ruination down there that I've only seen in Pompeii.
 
Were there one or two images in particular from that visit that stuck with you?
 
A haunting image of devastation
There's an image that really, for whatever reason [stuck with me]--maybe, I'm a poet, that's what I do, I write lyrics, I think a lot, I'm an artist--in the lower 9th Ward. For miles, there's nothing but people's entire lives laying in the mud. And it's where the levee broke, and--it wasn't reported much--a barge blasted through the levee, and the water was, I think, 30 feet tall, taking out an entire neighborhood. So all these people's stuff is still there. There's trees standing. There's not much else. The trees are dead from the water. All their things are laid out in the mud. As a photographer and someone who wanted to document this, I couldn't take pictures of it. It was too personal and too real to even photograph.
 
But the image that really struck me was: Maybe three or four blocks from where the levee broke, there's an 18-wheeler truck. And mind you, you're standing and you look completely around you, and all you see is devastation, and not a bird, not a dog, not a human being. The roads are barely passable by cars six months later. And there's an 18-wheeler truck that's turned upside down and someone's couch is perched on top of it. Now, in six months, no one has gone and thought, This might fall on somebody, we should at least go and push the couch off the top of this overturned 18-wheeler. That image, to me, was maybe the most powerful.
 
After Katrina, there was a sense in this country that this time we wouldn't drop the ball and lose interest after just a few weeks, but it seems that we have. Why do things fade out of consciousness that quickly, and what can we do to fix that?
 
Stipe, wearing a gas mask during his visit to New Orleans. Photo courtesy Mercy Corps
There's a lot of things coming at us all the time, it's really hard to focus on what's real and what's important. So I don't know that we're necessarily callous people or that we have as a nation a low attention span. It's just the inundation of information, and I think that affects your ability to prioritize what is really important.
 
You combine that with the abstraction that occurs with seeing things on television, and it would be easy to dismiss something, or to think, "Of course the government's taking care of it. Of course these people have places to stay. Of course, their lives are slowly, perhaps, coming back together." And having been down there and seeing it, and having recognized that there's nothing black and white, there's nothing simple about what's going on there, I'm here to tell you that that's not the case. People are desperate.
 
I admit to being among those who assumed that things are improving.
 
It's not moving anywhere close to as fast as it should. There's some million-and-a-half people displaced by this hurricane, and people are still looking for family members. People have family members missing, who are probably still in the houses, and it's tragic to me that someone would have to return to not only a destroyed home, but to find one of their loved ones laying on the floor, dead, having been left there for five months or six months.

If you could talk directly to the people of New Orleans, is there some message of hope you would offer?
 
Offering hope to Katrina's victims
I'm the guy who's forever glass half full, and whatever I've done as an artist, there's always just a shred of hope, at least. I do think there's hope. I think the one thing I can do, or anyone can do, would be to remind these people, who are our brothers and sisters in this great idea we call the United States of America, to remind them that we're there standing beside them, and that we've not forgotten, and we've not allowed the story to move on through the news cycle, and whatever their standing, whatever their race, whatever their position before this hurricane, that we recognize that they've fallen and that we're there, standing beside them, to be with them and guide them through whatever process it might take to come back to some level of normalcy, whatever that is.
 
That, to me, is at the very essence of the tragedy of Katrina, beyond the obvious disaster and devastation, that it really challenges us as Americans to question what it is that we are and who it is that we are. This is our time, these are our people, and 20-30 years from now, I want to know we did everything we can to stand beside them and not to offer them pity, not to offer them a helping hand, that's not what they're asking for. What they're asking for is partnership. And what they need is to know that we're there.

 

That's a good segue to talking about the song you recorded, "In The Sun."
 
Why he chose "In the Sun"
As I found out about Katrina, I couldn't stop singing the song in my head for days. I knew that I wanted to do something as a singer, as a public figure. I felt like as a singer, maybe the most effective thing to do would be to put out a song--and in this case, several versions of the song--with all the proceeds going toward an organization that is on the ground in the Gulf region, helping these people come back to some degree of normalcy.
 
I wanted a song that people could listen to and maybe feel something. And it wasn't cheesy and it wasn't this overblown anthemic thing or this big ballad. Just something that had some heart.
 
So it made sense to me to go to iTunes and to ask them to donate as much as they could, to go to all the people that worked on this project, all of whom were happy to do it free of charge and to offer their services and their skills and their talents, which to me felt microcosmic of what I think is going on in this country. Everybody wants to do something. Nobody's quite sure what they can do.
 
What in particular about this touched you so deeply?
 
There's a line in, I think, the third verse, about seeing something that's happening to someone and recognizing that watching that has forever changed you. And that's for me at the core of it. There's a disproportionate number of people who were left behind or who were not able to get out who are lower income. There's a disproportionate number who are black. Martin Luther King is one of my heroes, and it strikes me, it's dumbfounding to me, that 40 years after civil rights, we have a situation like this going on in this great country. And I just think we're better than that. I think that we can step up and rise to the occasion and recognize that there are injustices that need to be addressed. And this glaringly spotlights that.
 
I was struck by the chorus invoking God's love and kept thinking of coverage we did on Beliefnet, asking the question of where God was in the disaster. What do you think about this question?
 
There's a southern term, "Bless your heart"--or "Bless his heart," or "Bless her heart"--as I grew up with it, it has more than two meanings--it has several meanings, and some of them can be kind of mean-spirited--but in essence you're kind of sending someone off on their path, hoping for the best for them. And that's what I think the chorus of the song, "May God's love be with you," is kind of doing. Whatever you find God to be in your life, whether you're seeking refuge or perhaps even angry at the situation that you found yourself in, may God's love be with you.
 
Do you think God's love was there in New Orleans?
 
To me, God, and particularly in a situation like this, comes in many different forms. And those forms, when one is desperate and down, it might be very simply a kind gesture on the part of a stranger or someone that you know who you might not have expected that from. Fundamentally--this is in the Bible, it's in the Koran, it's in everything I've ever read--we need each other. "No man is an island." That's not in the Bible, but there it is. We really need each other, particularly in trying times. We need to know that there are other people there, thinking of us, praying for us, standing beside us. For me, as an American, that's where this strikes me as a great opportunity in our time to be who we are. It's maybe dumb to say, but we the people are the government of this country, and we need to stand beside our brothers and sisters who have fallen and who have been directly impacted by this tragedy.
 
What does this tragedy say about the sense of community and shared responsibility in this country today?
 
We're living in such divisive times, politically and otherwise. And in these divisive times, I think unity is really important. And that's what I think we as Americans need to provide and need to show. The most godly way to respond to something like this is to put everything aside and say, "You are my brother and sister, and I am here. I have not forgotten. I have not turned my back. I've not allowed the news cycle to dictate whether I am paying attention to the circumstance you found yourself in or not. I am here."
 

What role does your faith and spirituality play in this effort on behalf of New Orleans?
 
Following Jesus' example
I don't really speak publicly about my particular faith, but I came from a Christian background--my parents are Christians, Methodists--and my people come from Mississippi on my mother's side. The stories that I heard about my great-grandfather and the way he responded to various situations in his life--a man that I never met but I knew through stories--speaks to me volumes about faith and about spirituality and about what's good and what's right. And it's really, really simple. If it's the teachings of Jesus that you're following, it's really easy to cut to the chase and get down to what did this man's life really represent. And how much of that is acknowledged in the Bible? I think a lot. How much of that can get muddied by people's interpretation of the Bible and perhaps not recognizing that a lot of it is allegory.

 

Faith in general--and I am speaking about Christian faith in particular because it's what I'm most familiar with--is an individual thing. But I think it's easy to get lost in it and to maybe allow other people to tell you what is and is not right. I think a true Christian, and I'll use my parents as the shining example in my life, recognizes what the teachings of Jesus represent and what that means to them, and then, in the not-simple day-to-day living and breathing those teachings, what paths do you take, what choices do you make, what do you support, what do you not support?
 
If there's a schism in this country, it might be not between the people who have faith and the people who don't have faith, but people who have faith that is, in my opinion, pure to the teachings of Jesus and people who have taken that and turned it into something for other reasons, be that power, be that intolerance or ignorance. And that's where a schism might have occurred in this country presently.
 
It sounds like you admire your parents greatly.
 
My parents are, in my opinion, the paragon of Christian faith. I also come from a long line of Methodist ministers. My father kicked the traces and joined the army rather than becoming a man of the cloth. And I kicked the traces even further and became a pop star. So there you have it. But that is a fundamental part of my upbringing, and my love for my parents is profound and incredible. To everyone, I think, your parents mean a huge amount, for better or worse. In my case, it's for the better.
 
Do you have a favorite prayer you can share with us?
 
I can't quote directly, but there's a song that I'm thinking of. There's a song that means a huge amount to me, and in a way, I think represents the most profound hope and faith. It's called "Wing." It's written by Patti Smith. There are lines in that song that are about helping someone, and hoping for someone, wishing for the best, trying to support them through your prayers, and your thoughts, and your dreams.
 
Is music spiritual for you? 
 
For me, music is epiphany at its finest. Revelation. There's release that I find in music that I rarely find in other art media. Music is a balm for the soul. It started the trajectory of my life. As it stands now, I've been in a band since I was 19 years old; I'm now 46. That's a long time to focus on one thing. It clearly means a huge amount to me in my life.
 
Which artists out there today do you find particularly spiritual or meaningful?
 
What I find spiritual and meaningful might be a little too subtle or a little too raucous for other people to find the same. The one thing I can think of, because I just downloaded this last week: Brian Eno, of all people, released some of the greatest and some of the most subtle records of all time, and he put out a pop record last year that I finally downloaded, and it's really kind of incredible.
 
There's three records that I can think of if I wanted to recommend to someone who wanted to explore my idea of music as a spiritual force. There's a record that came out in the early '80s by a composer named Arvo Pärt. The name of the record is "Tabula Rasa." It's one of the most stunning pieces of music ever put down on tape. There's another record that's available on iTunes--a friend of mine downloaded it, which was shocking to me because it hasn't been available for years--called "I Will Not Be Sad in This World." And it's by an artist named Djivan Gasparyan. And finally, and this is a really weird one, I know that you just interviewed David Lynch, but the soundtrack to "The Elephant Man" is for me one of the greatest records of all time. There's a beauty there and a spirituality for me that is enormous.
 
Before we finish, can you tell our audience how they can best help the Gulf region?
 
What we all can do to help
I don't even know how to do that. But if there was one thing I hope this little project would achieve it would be to help spotlight, six months later, that the disasters that occurred last year with Katrina and then the response to that disaster is nowhere near over. And if there's anything that Beliefnet viewers and listeners might take from this it would be to find some way to make it clear to people that have been directly impacted by this that we have not forgotten.
 


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