Skip to content

Esperanza Spalding on Knowing Your Ballot

With the most important election of this generation looming–and the conversation around the ethics, corruption, morality, and overt xenophobia associated with the presidential campaigns continuing to heighten–SPIN asked politically-minded musicians to speak on issues that matter. For November’s digital cover story, these artist op-eds will look at police brutality, racial profiling and identity, immigration, welfare reform, climate change, and more, to ask: What’s going on?

The following is taken from Esperanza Spalding’s own words, as told to writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Right now, we're in a shell game with this election. We're watching the guy who does the trick of moving the shells and trying to get us to pay attention to where the pea is hidden. That pea is this presidential election. It's something we’re frantically trying to focus on, when what really matters is everything that's happening around the shell game. What matters are your governor, your mayor, your State Senate, the U.S. Senate. Who is running for representative in your district right now? As we saw with the Obama administration, it kind of doesn't matter who the president is if the House and Senate are fucked. I feel like we all just got totally blindsided during both Obama election cycles, and everybody was so mesmerized with the potential of this man becoming president, that we forgot to pay attention to everyone else on the ballot.

There's a lot of people up for office on the ballot! Those elections really, really, really, really matter. We don't want a dictatorship, right? These are the positions that affect your day-to-day life. They affect what happens in Congress and the House and they affect the President's ability to make decisions, whoever that president may be. Take Oregon, for example: In some places in the state, entire school districts are funded by logging revenues. It's unfair, and ties educational funding directly with our ability to survive on this planet for very much longer. This is what is important to pay attention to when voting--critically reading the past voting records of those running for governor, or senator. Voters should be looking at how people up for election engage with justice and human equality—what they’ve said and the platform that they claimed for themselves, on and off the record.

Basically, you have to be active in the political process if you want to get the results you want. There's unfortunately no other way. There's no passive way to have relationship with the political process here, because it's not a dictatorship, and it's not a monarchy. You have to be open to conversation and communication.

As a musician, my job is to facilitate conversation; to delight, bring people together, and create space where it's safe to explore ideas and emotions. During this election cycle, I actually think that's a really important part of overall social transformation. We've got to be able to come together in the spaces where we can't actually stand each other, you know? Honestly, that is the really important function that art and performance art can serve in a time of great social upheaval, when we're looking to be more coherent. We're trying to find a complicity with each other as humans, and right now we feel so divided from each other. It is also my job as a performer, as a creator, to tell the truth about what I see and think and feel. When something affects me and I'm living it, and I want to get involved, I want to share what I heard, or what I know, and it feels urgent--that's when I have to put it in the work.

[caption id="attachment_id_214768"] Esperanza Spalding on Knowing Your Ballot Illustration by Tara Jacoby[/caption]

Musicians want people to be able to have a common experience with strangers, with their fellow citizens. That has been transformative for me, in that I'm in a room filled with strangers, some of whom I agree with, some of whom I don't. And in the medicinal forcefield of musical performance, I look to see if  I have discovered something, or if I have had a revelation, or gained a new perspective or a new insight. Honestly, one of the greatest discoveries for me in a space with someone that I didn't agree with--i.e. if someone gets upset with me after a show disagreed with their religion or their political view--is realizing that during the show we were all cool. During the show we were experiencing the same song and the same groove, so we got along until we came back down. That's been a great revelation, and maybe that's part of what reminds me that music is a healing space. For that time that we're together, we're cool, we're together, we're having this common experience, and I, I really appreciate the space for that.

This is why musicians have been vocal in this election. Breaking out of stereotypes or molds—that's what everyone is trying to do, no matter who you are. We're trying so hard to find answers for the issues that we face in terms of, environmental degradation, economic, social disparity, disparity of access to resources. For me, there's this challenge of deciding: What do I tear down and what do I build up? Whoa. Maybe I can just break the structure apart, and look at the pieces that are helpful, and then see where there's a void, and use my imagination to create a piece that will help me get to the reality that I want to live in in the future. That, I think, is the mission of breaking out of stereotypes. You have to be willing to acclimate yourself and the people around you to engaging with a truer version of yourself, one that's more aligned with the way you want to live your life.

The same idea of breaking the structure apart can be applied to your ballot. Don't get lost in the shell game, pay attention to everybody on your ballot. In fact, go to to see a version of the ballot that you're going to meet when you go into your voting booth.

Esperanza Spalding is a jazz musician from Portland, Oregon. In 2011, she became the first jazz artist to win the Grammy for Best New Artist. Her most recent album is Emily’s D+Evolution, which was released in March 2016.