Unwilling to follow his presidential predecessors into a languid stupor after leaving office, Barack Obama’s latest effort to reinject himself into the domain of public discourse comes packaged as the latest modern fad: podcasting. With the bulk of his former staffers having already convened on the digital medium to form Pod Save America – and his wife having launched “The Michelle Obama Podcast” last July – the former president has one-upped them all, recruiting the venerable Born to Run hitmaker, Bruce Springsteen to cohost his new show, titled, Renegades.
In a conversation that could comfortably be sourced from the moneyed foyer of Leonard Bernstein’s Upper East Side penthouse in the pages of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, the former president and Bruce Springsteen, over the first two episodes of their show, honed in on a litany of topics, though the issue of race in America seemed to dominate their conversations.
Opening the discussion, Obama immediately excoriated his presidential successor, lambasting Donald Trump on every issue from race relations to the Capitol Hill riots. “For 3 years I had to watch a presidential successor who was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in. And witnessed a country that seemed to be angrier and more divided with every coming day. In the middle of all of this, there were the nation-wide protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd. Yet another tragic reminder of just how powerfully racism continues to stain so many aspects of American life. And all that was before the world witnessed a violent mob spurred on by lies and conspiracy theories storm the US Capitol, where I once served.”
Through their dialogue on racial tensions in America, Obama and Springsteen conceded that despite their differences, they have always perceived their respective selves as outsiders and outcasts in society. Obama remarked in his introduction, “On the surface, Bruce and I don’t have a lot in common. He’s a white guy from a small town in New Jersey. I’m a black guy of mixed race born in Hawaii, with a childhood that took me around the world.”
Springsteen, in turn, explained that his own yearning to become an entertainer and stage performer stemmed from years of feeling voiceless. “If you weren’t quiet you wouldn’t have so desperately searched for a way to speak. The reason you have so desperately pursued your work and your language, and your voice is because you haven’t had one. And you understand, you realize that, and you feel the pain of being somewhat voiceless. And so, the performance becomes the mechanism through which you express the entirety of your life, your philosophy and code for living. And that was how it came to me. And I felt previous to that, I was pretty invisible. And there was a lot of pain in that invisibility.”
As the conversation continued, the pair rarely strayed from dissecting in their echo chamber what Obama referred to as, “the central dilemma of America since its founding: the issue of race.”
First fiddling with race relations through the lens of art and music, Obama asked Springsteen about the impact and influence of black music in post-WW2 America. Springsteen explained that, “to play south of Freehold, you had to know some soul music. Because it was called greaser territory. Grease is where the guys had ¾ length leathers, shark-skin suits, ties, hair slicked back, pointy black shoes, nylon see-through socks, all of it, taken from the black community. And that was the style, including the music that they loved… As a young musician, you are immersed in music and in the African American culture that inspired the music that you loved.”
Obama added his observation on Western culture’s adoption of black music, saying, “there is this notion that black folks are the other. They are demeaned, they are discriminated against, they are looked down upon. And yet the culture is constantly appropriating and regurgitating and processing the style that arises from being an outsider and knowing the blues and having suffered these scars and having to make stuff up out of nothing. And rock and roll is part of that process.”
Springsteen, in agreement, took Obama’s remark a step further, “in America we have loved black people and brown people when they’re entertaining us. But when they want to live next door, we remain a tribal society. It’s part of our tragicness, that continues obviously to this day. I don’t think it’s ever been more essential a subject as it is at this very moment. And I think, why is it so hard to talk about race, why am I pausing here? To talk about race you have to talk about your differences, you have to talk about, to some degree, deconstructing the myth of the melting pot — which has never fundamentally been true. Admitting that a big part of our history has been plunderous and violent and rigged against people of color. We are ashamed; ashamed of our collective guilt. We would have to admit and to grieve for what’s been done. We would have to acknowledge our own daily complicity. And to acknowledge our group membership and that we are tied to the group history of racism.”
As the conversation continued into the second episode, Springsteen elaborated on the formation of his famed E Street Band, and the ineffaceable, booming saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, whose iconic solos adorn and elevate such unforgettable staples in Springsteen’s canon as “Jungleland” and “Rosalita.” “The integrated aspect of the E Street Band obviously was when I saw Clarence. Clarence was just great. He just had a sound that raised the roof, he was just one of the greatest sounding sax players I’d ever heard.”
Meandering back to present day, Springsteen and Obama shifted the discussion to the death of George Floyd and his confrontation with police last summer. “After George Floyd’s murder, I started reading James Baldwin,” Springsteen explained. Quoting a passage from Baldwin’s 1963 essay compilation, The “Fire Next Time,” the New Jersey rocker went on to endorse collectively paid reparations, saying, “Here we sit today, where it feels like a reckoning is being called for. Is the country ready to deconstruct its founding myths, its mythic stories, its mythic history? Or is it prepared to consider reparations? Do you think we are at that place right now?”
Obama replied in consensus, adding that in his view, America’s centuries-long economic boon was largely fueled by the 89-year period of slavery between the country’s founding in 1776 and the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865. “If you ask me, theoretically, are reparations justified? The answer is yes. There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe note even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.” Springsteen was quick to add, “they built the White House.”
The former president continued, and towards the end of the show, effectively went on to blame the American public, specifically white American voters, for what Obama described as an inability to unanimously agree with his policy agenda. “This then brings us to, could you actually get that kind of justice? Could you get a country to agree and own that history? And my judgement was that as a practical matter, that was unattainable. We can’t even get this country to provide decent schooling for inner-city kids. What I saw during my presidency was that the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action, all that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program, struck me as politically not only a nonstarter, but potentially counter-productive.”
Renegades is available to stream on Spotify.
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