Earlier in 2017 I received one of the most unexpected phone calls of my life – a young man named Evan introduced himself as the current student body president of Ashland High School (my alma mater) and asked if I’d be willing to be the keynote speaker at their graduation. I’d never felt so honored and immediately starting working on a speech that took me months to write.
Two weeks before the event, I was teaching workshops in Spain when I heard about the a murder in Portland, OR. and received a message that one of the victims in the attack graduated from Ashland. If you haven't had a chance to read about the three men who put their lives on the line to stand against hate, you simply must. Growing up in Ashland, a town of high-minded ideals that are too often lost in rhetoric to become real action, I was amazed to hear about how one of our own, Tilly Namkai-Meche (he deserves to be named), exemplified our values, even at the threshold of death.
I decided I had to rewrite much of the speech even though there was only a week before the event. I couldn’t let such heroism that was born and bred in my hometown go without addressing it. I didn’t want to take focus away from the students celebrating their graduation, so I mentioned the incident only briefly, but for me it is the reason for the speech. I didn’t get to say so during the event, but this entire speech is inspired by these brave people who had the kind of integrity that leads you to put your life on the line for what is right. Tilly, this address is for you.
Greetings, class of 2017!
It’s an honor to address you during this celebration of your early education. Today is your commencement, though I’ve always thought that was a funny word to mark the end of high school. To ‘commence’ is to begin. so what exactly are you commencing with today?
I’ve heard people say this marks the beginning of ‘real life’, but I don’t buy that. The relationships and experiences in the first 18 years of my life weren’t any less real than those that came after. In fact, sitting right there are friends I made when I was a student at Ashland Middle School more than 20 years ago. These people are more real to me than many I’ve met since. So take a second and look at the people around you. What you have learned from them is infinitely more valuable than what you have learned in class—it’s definitely more valuable than anything I can tell you and it’ll certainly stay with you longer.
I know what I’m supposed to do here. I’m supposed to give you sagely advice, perhaps offer you some hope you can find success in this new, post-High School world. but the thing about advice is that people rarely follow it, and that’s okay. The best (and worst) part of life, as far as I can tell, is getting to make your own mistakes.
Nevertheless, I will do my job here I will offer one piece of advice appropriate for a musician to give: Listen. That’s it. Just listen.
First: Listen to others
Listen to those who are different, to those you don’t agree with. Those who seem foreign and strange. Be curious and be open, it’s how you will grow the most.
I grew up in Ashland, and it’s a special kind of privilege. I have since lived all over the country and have rarely found such an open and intelligent community. Ashland is a place that values progressive thinking and new ideas. I have been reading about the work students at Ashland High have done over these last few years, and I’ve been impressed. I applaud those students who’ve up-ended the decades old tradition of homecoming to create a more inclusive environment, and to those who are working hard to build awareness around sexual assault to make our community safer and more supportive. Y’all are heroes, and your work has been recognized and discussed across the country. But, like a lot of small towns without a great deal of diversity, we don’t have to deal with the messiness that comes with clashing cultures and values.
When I was younger it seemed impossible that we could have prejudice, and couldn’t recognize it, even when it came out in subtle ways. Some of you may have noticed that I don’t look like your typical Ashlander, but I never saw myself as terribly different than the people around me. I grew up running around these woods, climbed up the back of this bandshell when I wasn’t supposed to, convinced the tourists to try the Lithia water on the plaza. You know, typical Ashland stuff. Sure, I’d get the occasional question like “where are you from?” Oregon. “But where are you FROM rom?” ….Oregon “Isn’t your mom, like, an Arabian princess?” As if Middle Eastern royalty ends up in small towns in the pacific northwest. but I had the same values and beliefs as the people around me, and that was way more important than my skin color.
College, however, was a different story. When I left to attend college I unwittingly made one of the most formative decisions of my life: I moved to the South, Nashville, to be specific, and for the first time really felt like an outsider. It is bizarre to experience culture shock within your own country. Ashland is a place where everyone knows how to spell “quinoa”, while Southern cuisine was designed to cause diabetic shock. This is a place that puts marshmallows and their sweet potatoes! it will hurt your pancreas just to look at it.
I remember my first night in Nashville, I opened the windows of my dorm room and outside was a sprawling building that took up a city block with a giant glowing sign that said BAPTIST. Only later did I learn it was a religious affiliated hospital, something I had never heard of. Don’t be confused, they don’t only offer care to baptists, but the baptist church funds this hospital as part of their ministry. Religion is, of course, a big deal in the south. Within two blocks of my school’s campus were 6 churches of different denominations. There were also, perhaps coincidentally, 6 different steakhouses.
Growing up in Ashland, I had not spent a great deal of time around deeply religious and vocal Christians. It was a new experience and one I found fascinating. The South is actually an amazingly diverse place, but it is still, often, a segregated one. Certainly I encountered racism and bigotry there, but (and it took me years to realize this) not any more so than I found in Ashland or anywhere else, it just looked different.
It’s hard to be surrounded by people who don’t share your values and it can, at times, feel lonely. But people in the South are incredibly kind, hospitable, and curious. Many had never met a west-coast liberal, and even fewer a Muslim. And a lot of them wanted to talk, so we did. We stayed up many late nights talking and sharing, but also listening. Southerner’s are excellent listeners, they are polite, thoughtful, and leave you feeling heard. They had questions about fasting, prayer, and polygamy, and listened well to my answers. My questions, on the other hand, were a little more abrasive; I particularly remember asking my friends if they thought I was going to hell, and they would very politely tell me yes. That could have been the end of our conversations, finding a major point where you disagree with another person often is, but for us, that was only the beginning of our discussions. Through those conversations we learned about each others beliefs, we discussed our differences and uncovered our similarities. Through those conversations I learned I was often just as judgmental as the people I condemned as close-minded. Through those conversations I learned that there are actually very few bad people in this world, that most people want to make the world a better place and had never had to consider another point of view on how that might look. It was certainly true for me.
September 11th, 2001 was right at the beginning of my second year in college, I woke up to a phone call from my mother who was worried I would be the victim of racist attacks. All of you are too young to know this, but before that day, terrorism in this country was not associated with muslims or the Arab world but rather with people like the uni-bomber, and Timothy McVeigh, and other names only your parents know.
It was the first time I became self-consciously aware of my ethnicity. People from back home were really worried about my safety just because I lived in the south. Sept. 11th made me realize I grew up around a prejudice of my own, against those who thought differently than me. I NEVER felt worried for my safety in the South, I knew I was surrounded by good friends who understood me not as a collection of ideas and beliefs, but as a fellow human being. People who, the year before when I asked them, would tell me I was going to hell, those people were the ones with whom I felt safest because we had talked, and listened, and understood each other.
Such conversations, such listening, is transformational. One of those friends, by the way, the first one to tell me I was hell-bound and would pray for me daily, is now a physician and spends his time advocating for the scientific community and against willfulness ignorance, something I grew up believing the deeply religious never did. He is still, as far as I can tell, just as devout as ever, but during his education he learned a vital truth: The world is complicated and messy and beautiful.
I wish it were black and white so I knew what was good and what was evil. The scary truth is that the people you disagree with might be right. Even worse, you might be horribly wrong about how you believe the world should be. That’s ok! Act anyway, but when you realize you were mistaken all along, be strong enough to accept that. Be gracious and open and humble. Humility is at the heart of listening.
So, listen to others, but also listen to yourself
Miles Davis said, “Sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” We live in a world filled with so much noise, and are constantly being bombarded with information and people telling us how to live, and what we should do, how the world should be. Your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your community will constantly be pushing you to live and be a certain way. They’ll try to tell you what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what is not. I courage you to cut through the noise and listen deeply to yourself. We all have a constant chatter in our heads repeating all the “shoulds” we’ve grown up with, but cut through that and you’ll find a deeper, inner-voice. That voice is your integrity.
No one can teach you integrity, it’s something we learn by example and practice with courage. To know yourself, to able to hear your truest inner voice is the greatest freedom, because from there you can act in full alignment with your integrity. It’s the kind of freedom that makes difficult decisions easy. It’s the freedom to act when you might otherwise be still. It’s the freedom to do what’s right even when it’s scary or uncomfortable, and the freedom to stand up for decency and demand a kinder and more loving world, even in the face of violence. Last week the world saw an example of such integrity in Portland from one of our very own Ashland High graduates, and I hope we can learn from it.
In every moment of our lives there will be hundred’s of choices in front of us, but there is always one that stands out as ‘the thing to do’. And in each moment we all know what that thing is, but only rarely do we take the time to listen to it. Find that balance between listening to the those around you and yourself. Without that balance you can fall into the trap of “doing your duty” or “following your passion”. This might seem like hypocrisy coming from someone who has pursued a career in music, but “following your passion” and “doing what you love” is totally a trap. I can tell you it leads to a shallow search for gratification and validation from others. Such a life is a hole that can never be filled. For the most successful artists their work isn’t just a passion. They know it matters, that they are helping bring new ideas and possibilities to the world, opening people up, helping them feel human and connect in ways they may have forgotten. Their art is a service to others. So, don’t just do what you love—that’s what hobbies are for. Instead, find your mission. Listen for what the world needs and look inward for where your unique offerings intersect with that need. Then you won’t have to do what you love, you will love what you do.
So, that is my advice to you: Listen.
In reality, this isn’t just advice I hope you will hear, this is your responsibility as human beings and members of whatever community you find yourself in. You have big shoes to fill: people who have sat where you are sitting now have become nurses, entrepreneurs, lawyers, diplomats, activists, scientists, and heroes. Listen to your calling and serve others so you can make the world better than it was when you found it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re about to start your career, travel the world, college, military, it doesn’t matter – you don’t have to wait before making the world a better place. Your graduation, your commencement, your new beginning — that is the threshold between when you prepare to make your mark on the world, and when you actually go out and do it. I look forward to seeing the dent you make in the universe.