lessons from America

Getting Lyrical for Obama

All three inaugural balls I went to showcased different creative talents harnessed in support of Obama and getting him elected. At the Netroots Nation party it was the innovative use of online technology. At the We the People gala, it was the fruits of people’s own handiwork: button design, quilt-making (out of campaign t-shirts) and cake decoration.

At the African Inaugural ball it was the music that was the stand out feature of the night. And especially the Obama-themed performances. Not only did they capture the joy and hope that people at the event were feeling, but some were also great get-down-onto-the-dance-floor numbers too.

The highlight was emma ik agu, with his ‘Obama is the wind of change’ song. You can get a little flavour from the clip I took:

If you want to hear the full version of the song, listen to it below:

Another hit was this woman (a special guest performer whose name I never found out), with her ‘Obama train’ hip-hop.

Nelima of MinneAfrica blog has a round up of some of the other performers and people there.

Incidentally, the song of choice for the TV networks for much of their Inauguration coverage was’s ‘It’s a New Day’. This was his follow up to the iconic ‘Yes We Can’ song, which put Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech to music. ‘It’s a new day’ was released the day after Obama’s election victory, but somehow didn’t seem quite right then and never really took off. To me it wasn’t euphoric and upbeat enough for that moment back in November, but on inauguration day its tone and message seemed a much better fit. I heard it many times last week, so I’m guessing other people thought so too.

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Young Turks

What do you do if you are a bunch of high-spirited youths in DC at midnight, on the eve of the inauguration? The answer seems to be lead Obama chants, if the guys I met on the metro were anything to go by. They were working the small(ish) crowd waiting for the metro at Clarendon station.

Then they moved on to the train and continued in a similar vein for a while.

It did get me thinking how lyrical and good for chanting Barack Obama’s name is. A satisfying number of syllables and mouth shapes. Somehow “Gordon … Brown” doesn’t have the same melody to it. If you were being cruel, you might say that the flat solid sound is quite appropriate. Hey it almost reminds me of a clunking fist! I think David Cameron fares a little better, as there is more to intone there. Then perhaps it doesn’t matter for either man, as the chances of any but their most faithful supporters coping US traditions and chanting their name in a positive way is fairly slim.

On a more serious note, one of the guys on the metro was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Young Turks”


I asked him what it meant and he said it was promoting (as the blurb on their website goes) “the first nationwide liberal talk show and first live, daily internet TV news show”. Intriguingly, the wikipedia entry about The Young Turks says “The Young Turks is sometimes credited with bringing media attention and support to upstart politicians, especially in Congress. Notable examples include Congressmen Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Eric Massa of New York, Larry Kissell of North Carolina, and Tom Periello of Virginia.” I have no first-hand knowledge of the site or show, so can’t verify that claim. But that is the kind of role that blogs and online communities play so much more in the States than they do here. I would be keen to see similar initiatives in the UK; with people championing less well known progressive candidates and helping to boost their profile and credibility through personal recommendations, online ‘air time’ and other ways of supporting their efforts.

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Mall-rat’s perspective of the Inauguration ceremony

I have already got told off once today for calling what I witnessed a coronation. And my classification is not a judgement on Obama or his supporters, but on the spectacle of the occasion. For was it so much different than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2nd June 1953 (not that I was alive then)? Yes, we lacked the gold, the carriages, the outward trappings of monarchy. But there was still the focus on one person invested with so much popular goodwilll formally attaining power; the adoring crowds; the rows of political and international elites; the taking of an oath; even a rendition (of sorts) of God Save the Queen. And more than that, there was the feeling of a grand historical occasion; of something that makes its way not just into textbooks, but into the hearts and minds of a nation; a day and an event that becomes part of the very fabric and identity of the country and its people.

However, 20 January 2009 was a day for citizens, not subjects; for the celebration of the political as well as the presidential. And that came very strongly through in the crowd reaction to the former presidents and other political figures as their entrance was announced.

First up Jimmy Carter: a hearty round of applause and cheering. On the audio I took of the event, I can clearly hear myself saying (to myself), “if only my tutor could see me now”. I don’t know where David Mervin is now, but he took my final year class on The US Presidency and never warmed to my attempts to resurrect the standing of Jimmy Carter or recognise his post-Presidency achievements as being beneficial to how he and the office of presidency were viewed. Well, this [and Carter’s Nobel Prize] are ample evidence of who won that argument.

Next up, Bush 41. A dignified but not warm welcome for the ageing Bush senior.

Followed by the entrance of Bill Clinton. There seemed little trace of the animosity he aroused during the Primary campaign; instead he was greeted a hero – perhaps as the prodigal son returning to the fold.

Compare that with what happened when Bush and Cheney entered:

I had expected – given the way Americans venerate the office of presidency and the solemnity of the ceremony – for Bush to be shown more respect, even through gritted teeth and reluctant hands. Even I was surprised (but heartened) at the scale of the boos greeting Bush. It may be unprecedented for an outgoing President to be treated in that way.

Now compare again with the way Obama was hailed when he made his entrance:

And also that moment of celebration after the oath had been taken and Obama had formally become the 44th President of the United States.

Incidentally, I believe constitutionally he is counted as taking office from midnight on the 20th, so this ceremony may even be unneccesary. That also explains the lack of panic over the need to re-do the oath: a precautionary measure because of the Chief Justice’s stumbles rather than to repair a constitutional crisis.

And so to those oaths. To me, it was one of the most emotional parts of the day. I had some of that same sense of euphoria and liberation as during those moments in Grant Park, Chicago, as Obama’s victory was officially declared. In both cases, it was partly about relief: this time relief that Dick Cheney was no longer V-P and a few minutes later Bush was no longer President. But also a sense of satisfaction, pride and optimism. Yet there was not the wild celebrations or intense emotional highs of election night. The cold probably numbed more than just feet and hands. But also I hadn’t fully appreciated beforehand the more solemn tone of proceedings. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of flag-waving and cheering to be had at the critical times.

First, Biden’s oath:

And then Obama’s:

In the coming days I’ll be putting more up on this site about the general atmosphere in DC during inauguration week, the inaugural balls and the stories of some of the people I met.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inauguration morning – a view from the ground

Everyone I speak to back here in the UK say the same thing about the inauguration: “it looked cold”. Oh yes, it didn’t just look cold. It was cold. By my softy southerner standards, very cold. How did I survive? Whisky and chocolate. I enjoyed the excuse not only to start drinking before dawn, but also to eat as many Oreo cookies and chocolate-covered pretzels as I could manage. Hot drinks were out: not just because of the insane queues to get a cuppa, but because drinking tea or coffee increased the chances of having to use the porta-potties (more queues again, as well as the unpleasant experience).

My enthusiasm for getting a good spot on the Mall meant that I dragged out Meghan, Lewis and Tracy shortly after 5am and we were on the Mall by 6am – a full 6 hours before that magic swearing-in moment. Here is a satellite image from that morning, marked up with our location (click on the image for a larger version):


Seeing the sun rise over the Capitol was a definite plus and we hoped the temperature would rise appreciably too. That sadly wasn’t the case. The cold seeped from the ground, through the newspapers I was standing on, through my boots and into my feet – despite 3 pairs of socks, including one really thick woollen pair. No matter how wrapped up we were, the cold still got through.

There were some clever people next to us who had brought buckets to stand on: both to keep away from the cold ground and also to see better once proceedings started.

Equally, there were some people near me – I don’t know how they managed – who just curled up and slept on rugs and blankets. One was the ‘victim’ of a sketch by British comedian John Oliver: side-kick to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, but previously one half of the successful duo behind Political Animal and other political satire shows on radio and on the UK comedy circuit.

There was a ‘warming station’ somewhere for those in dire need. It turned out to be a heated coach which you had to queue (outside) for an hour for, and then get a strictly controlled 20 minutes of warming inside the coach. There were also a few grates channelling warm air from the subway ventilation system, and these were understandably some of the most crowded spaces around. Another way to stay warm was with some impromptu singing, though sadly no campfire:

But things really took off when, around 10.30am, the jumbotrons started screening highlights of the special concert held by the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday afternoon. Suddenly the crowd began singing and dancing – as much I suspect to keep spirits up and keep the circulation going, as in appreciation for the music. There were some ol’ patriotic favourites though: American Pie, This Land is Our Land among them.

And then as the main inauguration ceremony got under way, the chants of “Obama, Obama” became more frequent.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Don’t put politics on the shelf

“The biggest mistake my generation made was to put politics [back] on the shelf. Do not put politics back on the shelf, ever. Being in politics is like going to church: you got to put a little on the plate every single week. I don’t expect you all to run for office or to give money to every single campaign that comes along. But you’ve got to stay involved. You’ve got to be a community organiser all the time.”

Those were the inspirational words of Howard Dean, at the Netroots Nation ‘yes we can’ party the night before the inauguration in DC. You can see short clips from his speech below:

Once again Dean absolutely nailed it. That warning and call to keep not just the spirit of the Obama campaign alive but its community-based activism was the most eloquent and passionate expression of a refrain I heard repeated throughout my week in DC. From the Peace Corps volunteers I met at the African inaugural ball now working on public health issues; to the New Orleans woman who is now focused on criminal justice reform in her neighbourhood and on supporting her cousin’s run for elected office; to Lonnee who has set up a social networking site for her neighbourhood and become a delegate to California’s Democratic assembly; to the artist (and button designer) Delia who has become politicised and now will “only take on work she believes in”; to the Swing Semester leaders who are taking on new projects in-between elections; to Sean of 538, who was looking for a home in DC as he starts in his new role as Washington correspondent for the site, expanding their coverage and insights from elections to the process of governing.

It was those type of stories I had wanted to hear and to capture whilst in the States this time. To answer – or rather hear other’s answers – to the question: “What’s next?” Over the coming days, as I continue to write up my experiences, it is that aspect that I will return to; as well as the celebrations and witnessing of history.

And Dean’s words resonate on this side of the Atlantic too. Have there been times we sat back and – perhaps justifiably – concentrated on our own interests and wellbeing rather than that of the community or society as a whole? Were there times we could, or should, have pushed harder rather than resting on our successes? The US has more of a history of electing ‘saviours’ and letting them get on the with the process of governing and making (hopefully) positive change. But did we also do the same in 1997 and subsequently, when we expended so much energy getting rid of the Conservatives and electing Blair, but never followed it up with ensuring we continued organising and campaigning locally, and harrassing the government to deliver on its promises?

Incidentally, this was one of Howard Dean’s final appearances as chair of the Democratic party (so I was pleased to get the chance to shake his hand and say thank you when he was on the way to the podium). A few days later Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia, took over the position. Although he’s also a netroots favourite, and handpicked by Obama, it signals a new direction for the party. And that means an end to the 50 State strategy as we know it. For greater discussion on this, see Nate’s post.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

suffering for my art

Don’t worry, I’m not after sympathy. Not compared to my friend Lonnee and others I’ve met who were in the ‘Purple Tunnel of Doom’.

I just wanted to explain the delay in posting up my diairies of inauguration day and after. Tiredness mainly is the answer. Along with a busy schedule: first on the Hill on Wednesday; then an exhibition on ‘Portraits of Power’ on Thursday followed by meetings at FairVote US in the afternoon.

But another small factor has been the war-wound I sustained on Wednesday. At the metro station near Capitol Hill they were taking down the special inauguration signs and I followed someone else’s lead in seeing a good photo opportunity. Unfortunately, the metro worker was just a bit too quick to clear away the sign afterwards and there was an unpleasant contact between my face/head and the corner of the sign. Here’s a before and after pic, with the latter taken about 30mins later after I had patched myself up. Zoom in to look at my forehead I dare you!



All this is really an extended apology to the wonderful and inspiring people I’ve met over the last few days who have told me their stories, had their photos taken, but not yet seen it on the site. I’m working on it!

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Seeing a new dawn, a new day

A few hours ago I was standing in the Mall hugging Meghan, Lewis and Tracy and crying out “Yes we did”. We had made this long journey (in many ways), dragged ourselves out of bed at 4.30am and survived hours of standing in the freezing cold to witness this moment of history.

morning in america

morning in america




In little over an hour’s time I will back near Capitol Hill, for the We the People inaugural ball. So more photos, comment and stories from this amazing day will have to wait til later. But thanks to all those people who have texted, emailed and messaged me over the course of the day. It means much to me to have great friends to share these special moments with.

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

My Congressman and other stories

Adam Schiff is my new congressman. Or rather my adopted congressman. He represents California’s 29th District, which includes Pasadena, where my blogger friend Lonnee is from. She’d invited me to join her and other constituents at a lunchtime reception he was hosting at his office in Rayburn House, Capitol Hill. Thanks to some good timing and friendly strangers, I managed to skip all the queues outside the building and go straight in. Lonnee introduced me to the congressman, as well as to other key Obama campaigners from the area.

En route to Union Station to meet Meghan, Lewis and new member of our gang Tracy, I stopped to take a few photos of the Capitol. There were a fair few people just milling around, doing the same. And of course the obligatory merchandise sellers.

The evening signalled party time. This time, Netroots Nation’s ‘yes we can’ event. I was disappointed not to meet more bloggers that I knew from the Democratic Convention – this was no Big Tent reunion sadly. But happily did manage to catch up with Sean from 538 (and v briefly Nate as well).

The other highlight of the night was meeting Howard Dean. He of the 50 State Strategy and hero to me and many other progressives. His speech was an impressive mix of celebration and challenge; humility and charisma. I confess I am still buzzing from shaking his hand. There are very few politicians globally who would provoke a similar response from me.

On the metro on the way back, we encountered a bunch of slightly drunken youths merrily singing and chanting Obama slogans. Made the long journey back much more fun.

In just over two hours I will have to rouse myself from my short-lived slumbers, put on numbers of layers of clothes, and venture out downtown for the main event – the inauguration ceremony itself. My bag is packed (full of chocolate goodies to keep me awake and warm) and I am excited. It is going to be some day, as the understated Charlie Gibson on TV announced ….

A beginning. The beginning. But also an end. The end of Bush. But the end of this election cycle and in many ways my journey. Yet the focus is on celebration and history. I’m ready to be a part of both.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

African Inaugural celebrations

(For a slideshow of photos, click here)

My thanks to the Africa Foundation for hosting a vibrant and meaningful inaugural ball tonight. This was not a showy, superficial event for political networking and spotting celebrities. Instead, this was a celebration for local Maryland “brothers and sisters of African descent” – of Obama’s victory, of their own heritage and of Africa itself.

It was a crowd at once more and less diverse than I had expected. There was a strong Nigerian contingent, who with the Ghanaians and Sierre Leonans in the room, heavily outnumbered those with East (or southern) African roots. But contrary to my experiences at some Ghanaian events I have attended in London in the past, there was a surprising number of white faces in the crowd, including a large group of Peacecorps volunteers.

The event didn’t start until well after the scheduled time, and people drifted in throughout the evening. This led to the usual “we are on African time” comments from some people; which always reminds me of one of the key phrases from the British Council’s Interaction Pan-African module I went on: “African time is on time” was the refrain to keep us from being late to sessions.

Eventually the proceedings started, with an MC who dabbled in stand-up comedy but was a professional journalist and runs an impressive non-profit – New American Media – providing a free news wire service for the ethnic press and expertise in African coverage.

The first person I met was Ikeme, a Baltimore resident and one of that evening’s musicians. He played the mbira (traditional thumb piano) but also was an all-round artist and entrepreneur, selling Obama prints he had made as well as musical instruments and CDs.

Bloggers seem to gravitate towards each other, and that’s what happened early on, as I quickly got chatting to a fellow blogger, Nelima. She writes for Minneafrica , a cleverly titled blog covering the African community in Minneapolis.

    She had been following Obama’s campaign since his first stop in the Twin Cities during the Primaries and had heard him on several occasions since. Her cousin lived in DC, so that proved the perfect base for her to come and cover / be part of the inaugural celebrations.

    Jessica was a 20-something local of Sierra Leonan descent, and had come to the ball with two of her friends. She had had no interest in politics and elections before Obama, but – like many people her age – had paid attention this time, eventhough she didn’t become actively involved campaigning. But she still wanted to do her a bit now, and will be volunteering on Tuesday, spending her day as a steward somewhere out on the Mall.

    I’m going to add a few more snapshots of people at the event, after some sleep!

    January 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

African celebrations

I’m off to an African Inaugural ball tonight. Hosted by the African Foundation and a range of Maryland African / Afro-Caribbean academics and journalists. There’s an amazing line up of live African music to look forward to. I am interested in just seeing the people there and hearing what Obama’s inauguration means to them and to the perceptions of their home continent.

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment