US Senate candidate shares with World Affairs Conference audience how jazz creates framework to heal democracy
When Steven Olikara first learned guitar in third grade, he quickly discovered that his musical interests covered artists of all genres, from Kurt Cobain to John Coltrane.
Starting his first band in fifth grade, Olikara noticed something else about music: it transcended political boundaries, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds of people in his hometown of Milwaukee.
That’s how Olikara, now a US Senate candidate from Wisconsin, came to see how music could teach him lessons that apply to politics. Olikara explained how the fundamentals of jazz could help heal American democracy in his World Affairs Conference address, “Finding Jazz in Democracy: Towards More Inclusive, Honest Politics.”
The talk, given inside the Macky Auditorium, featured a jam and fireside chat with famed saxophonist Ernie Watts, who has toured with the Rolling Stones and played alongside Frank Zappa.
Saturday marked the final day of the 74th Global Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The series of events, which kicked off on Friday, featured a host of different topics and experts and was free and open to the public.
Olikara’s passion for jazz began when he started playing in his college jazz band.
“What captivated me about jazz was how free it was, how open it was,” Olikara said.
He described how Milwaukee may be known for its beer and cheese, but is “also the most politically segregated metropolitan area in the United States.” Each group Olikara got stuck in showed him different subcultures from his hometown.
“Our groups were a motley crew of people across these different (socio-economic and political divides),” Olikara said. “I saw something really important: when you create open spaces, which affirm the dignity and humanity of people, the art we create was more dynamic, more original, it was better.”
This, Olikara said, should serve as a metaphor for democracy, which he says works best when open spaces are created to allow diverse voices to share their ideas.
He asked the crowd of about 100 to shout out how they would describe American democracy and the state of politics today. The public said: “corrupt, doomed, polarized, ineffective and broken”. Olikara said he believed the spirit of jazz could “renew the heart of democracy”, using three modes of jazz: self-expression, evolution and listening.
Olikara said that freedom of expression is everyone’s desire. The freedom to express yourself and create new ideas is essential to democracy and to jazz, he said.
Regarding the evolution of jazz and its application, he stated that jazz is fundamentally an evolution and is known as a call and response style of art that relies on sounds and ideas of others, just as democracy should.
“It’s not about the 50-yard line,” Olikara said. “It’s about meeting on a whole new playing field. I think art has really gotten lost in our political discourse. It is not a call and answer. It’s more of a call and stop.
And finally, listening, Olikara said, is one of the greatest skills a jazz musician can possess and a tool for improving American democracy. He said that applies not only to elected officials, but also to residents, who should work to hear new perspectives that don’t just reflect their own.
In addition to running for Senate, Olikara is the founder and president of the Millennial Action Project. The nonpartisan political organization’s goal is to inspire young people to lead and “bridge the gap in American politics,” according to the group’s website.
Olikara applied his own jazz theories while leading the Millennial Action Project. He said the political group’s work led to gerrymandering reform in Ohio, expanded mail-in voting in Wisconsin and helped create a bill to secure funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to to study armed violence as a public health problem. . Olikara said the bill has been passed and signed into law.
“I believe this will be a movement that will transform American politics and pass on a stronger democracy to our children and grandchildren,” Olikara said. “And, every time people say to you, ‘That’s impossible. It’s too hard to do,” just remind them of what Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.