Refugees at Germany Concert

We got to spend time in Germany with refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Iran.

Karin and Wilfried Rauscher, the organizers of the Balinger Rock Festival, not only invited 150 refugees to the festival but gave the ones that came backstage VIP access.  This display of hospitality was the most impactful part of my trip to Germany.  Their entrance to the event was free from the suspicion and uninformed bias that they might be used to – rather, they were greeted as the guests of honor.

Philip and I had the privilege of spending some time in their company.  We ate.  We talked about food from the mid-east, soccer and rap music.

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And then we listened to the heartbreaking stories of families having to flee for their lives from war torn regions.  Of plastic rafts and mass drownings in the Mediterranean Sea.  We listened to the stories of the immense hardship these displaced people must go through in order to eventually find safe harbor and sanctuary among the German people – a nation that is sacrificing so much to literally save the lives of people that would die without a place to go.

And there – sitting in the south of Germany with Muslims and Christians, Germans, Americans, Syrians, Persians and Eritreans – I couldn’t help but think how the very thing we were engaged in was, in a way, a silent protest against the dark powers that would try to prevent this integration.

refugees

Reichs come and go.

As do Caliphates, borders, walls, prejudice, terror, democracies and demagogues.

On the other hand

Das Reich des Königs hält ewig.

The King’s Kingdom lasts forever.

I feel like Karin and Wilfried’s actions represented the King’s Kingdom.  And those actions will last forever.  As will the actions of so many hospitable German people impacting the lives of these precious people that have been through so much.  “I was a stranger and you took me in”.

acoustic refugees

We won’t stop playing concerts because of Bataclan in Paris.  We won’t stop flying overseas because of what happened in Brussels or Turkey this week.   We won’t stop using our voice to speak for those that can’t speak for themselves, to plead the cause of the oppressed and the displaced.  Hope’s not giving up.

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From September 2015

Last night I met a 14 year old girl (or so) inside of a brothel in Southeast Asia. She wore on her wrist a Hello Kitty bracelet. Her mannerisms were reminiscent of a child. She was playful and put the bracelet on my wrist and smiled. Her hands were so small, barely reaching from the bottom of my palm to the bottom of my fingers. She didn’t speak English so I did my best with the few phrases I knew in her language to get her story. I also talked to the woman in charge of her. This little girl watched as the cost of taking her for an hour or an evening was discussed. For her, at this point in her life, there is nothing out of the ordinary about two people twice her age discussing her price as if she were a mere product. IMG_3541.JPG 

Why is this girl here in this place a child has no business being near?

She is one of thousands systematically being relocated from the poor country side into the city. There are evil men rounding up these girls from the poor villages either through fraud, force or coercion.

Why am I here in this place where good men can’t ethically justify stepping into?

I’m here to find her and capture evidence of her captivity using covert gear and to add that evidence into a case file on the club that is selling her. We want to find the mechanism, the supply chain, the patterns of recruitment and delivery. And as I head back home to go back on tour with the band, The Exodus Road continues to use this evidence that we are collecting to begin to paint a more complicated picture of the crime syndicate that brought this precious baby into that brothel that I sat in last night. And then, if we are successful, we will partner with local authorities and arrest those trafficking her and bring her to freedom.

I will write more about this girl and others. And why, as hard as it was, I had to leave her there. Looking back at her from the doorway with a sorrow so profound I can’t even begin to put it into words. But for now – if you want to hear more about what we’re doing or get involved you can text the word remedy to 51555

Advocacy, Abolition and Rock & Roll

This is from an article I wrote for CCM Magazine about how we use our rock band to expose and fight against the human trafficking.  This article was written a year ago at the beginning of this chapter and my involvement with The Exodus Road and I’ve been overseas a couple times with them since.
When I first picked up a guitar 20 years ago and started writing songs – I never dreamed that music could take me on such an adventure.  There’s always been something very compelling about trying to capture a melody when I feel like I’m close to finding it – like I’m chasing the echo of a tune we’re all born remembering – trying to put one note in front of another note to try to make sense of my questions and fears and longings and doubts.  But when I started writing songs for our new album, Commodity, there was a sense of urgency.  It felt like these songs were bleeding out of my soul in a way that I’ve never experienced before – like the song was meant to exist.

Writing a counter trafficking album was not something that I set out to do intentionally – it just happened.  The stuff I’ve been reading and paying attention to these last two years especially has had to do with the plight of children in the world.  I’m friends with an amazing photographer named Jeremy Cowart and we’ve talked a lot about Uganda and he’s taken photos and done art therapy with former child soldiers.  The videos of his work in Africa and in Haiti moved me and I started writing lyric.  I was devastated two years ago while watching a video made by Invisible Children to expose the warlord Kony.  He’s kidnapping these boys and forcing them to carry guns in his insane war and my daughter asked me “Dad, why not God protect those boys?” – and the lyric poured out of me.  Because I don’t have an answer for her.  All I have is a song.  And then I started to hear more and more about daughters being sold by the hour at the age of six to sixteen all over the world’s red-light districts – I didn’t want to read about it – I didn’t want to think about it – but then I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I kept on writing these lyrics.

Matt Parker from The Exodus Road approached me sometime during the middle of the songwriting process in a profound moment of convergence.  He heads a coalition of forces that go undercover to find evidence of the trafficking of underage girls and boys – and then they rescue them.  They need exposure – they need funding and he came to me to see if I wanted to talk about what they do.  I felt that same sense of urgency again – a compelling tug at my heartstrings to leverage everything I’ve built in my 15 year career to tell the story of these children – as loud and as often as possible – to tell it at 110 dB from stage – in these interviews – with people I talk with after concerts and at my kid’s baseball games.  But I don’t think that just singing about something will accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish – now is the time, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, to live with dangerous selflessness.  If I’m going to convince people to take the cause of the oppressed I have to be more than an advocate – I told Matt I wanted to do what he does.  My wife says no way.  But then the next morning Matt comes for breakfast and Anna says “take David with you – teach him to do what you do – this will be our legacy”.

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Here I am with Matt Parker after a reconnaissance mission in Southeast Asia

February of this year was my first trip to Southeast Asia.  I shadowed Matt mostly on a bunch of undercover missions and sat in on a ton of meetings with government officials, undercover operatives, police, people that run safe houses and restoration homes for rescued victims and partners in the coalition of The Exodus Road.  I’ve never been to that part of the world and I thought I was prepared for what I’d see because I’ve read so much about what’s going on.  But you never are prepared for what it feels like to sit next to someone that’s for sale – let alone a child.  Or what it feels like to watch surveillance footage of a gang of westerners trafficking eight year old boys on those humid streets.  The next day I was sitting at a restaurant, ten feet away from one of these predators, as the “trigger” in a continued investigation to find more about this gang and how they operate.  Our team followed that guy and found his address that day and followed the guy he met with.  We collect evidence, we build a target and then we make a raid to rescue the victims and disrupt the revenue streams of the traffickers.  My last night there I sat with a girl named June.  She’s 13 or 14.  She’s beautiful and quiet.  She was being offered to me for $60 or so for an hour.  We got evidence of what was going on there on hidden video cameras.  And then we left – but June is still there – and I looked back in the rush to leave (one of the operatives determined it probably wasn’t safe to stay any longer) and I caught her eye for a second.  And I couldn’t stop thinking about her my whole taxi drive up north – and then on the airplane to Japan and all the way back home.

My brother Philip wrote several songs with me and rejoined me as producer after quitting touring with the band in 2010.  The record label the band had left in 2013 wasn’t interested in doing a full length album about sex trafficking – when I presented this idea to song writers and producers and A&R I’d worked with in the past they all said that it wouldn’t work at radio or it wouldn’t sell units and no one I met wanted to write or record these songs.  June’s story is not a happy story.  It’s not encouraging.  And counter trafficking is not safe.  So I decided to make an indie record and have Philip produce it.  I told him when I got home that I wanted to write about June – a girl whose body is being sold against her will – her innocence – her dignity.  And yet I think there was a glimmer of defiance in her eyes.  And maybe hope.  So we wrote about June – and we’re doing everything we can to give her  a voice.

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My second trip to Southeast Asia was over a month ago and I’ve been on tour pretty much non-stop since I got back.  It kind of seems like a dream or a movie or that it didn’t really happen.  I have photos and memories – memories of countless girls I met that were trying to sell themselves in smokey dance clubs – breathing that heavy air on those neon streets.  There’s a constant sense that your soul is eroding doing that kind of work and the fear of never making it back home alive.  But then I came home again and life seems normal most of the time.  Right before a concert last week they played some dub step and I was suddenly back in a brothel in Southeast Asia where they’re selling 16 year old girls.  I had to go outside because it was too much – the music brought back that rush of emotion.  The memories of all the girls I sat with – pretending to be a predator – pretending to be the very thing that I’m there to fight against.  It’s heavy – but I was only there for two weeks at a time – my guys in The Exodus Road are there year round.

Someday, when slavery is a distant memory, they will talk about the day when the righteous rose from indifference.  Maybe these songs will be remembered as having contributed to the resistance.  We all know what it feels like to be reduced to a target demographic – we’ve been used – manipulated – marginalized – targeted and eventually discarded.  Our essence has been strip mined by the cold machinery of industry – squeezing us of our potential – reducing the melodies of our hearts to the lowest common denominator.  Our youth – exploited, our songs – exploited – our tears – exploited.

But we’re so much more than skin and bones.  There is a warmth inside of us that cries out “I’m a soul inside a body – I’m not a commodity”.

Maybe we can forget the notion that we were ever supposed to play it safe – let’s sing of freedom for the child of the front lines of convict in Rwanda and Uganda.  Let’s sing it loud for the girls and boys on the streets of Brazil, or the hills of Laos and Cambodia to the red-light districts of Bangkok – let freedom ring – hear the bells chime like children singing in the spring time.

Strident clamor and appalling silence

This is Dr. King at #EmanuelAME 4 decades ago. IMG_2029

Here’s what he said in 1963 referring the church bombing victims in Alabama. “They [the victims] say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

It was a bit of a culture shock to move from Nebraska into the south – a region still steeped in a culture that honors those who fought to prolong slavery –  a heritage that is built on owning other human beings.  I drive north on I65 a couple times a week to see a monument erected off the highway of a confederate general who was a founding member of the KKK named Nathan Bedford Forrest.  He’s right there off the interstate on his horse with a drawn sword and gun.  This monument was sculpted by the man that defended the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King JR.   He  justified the memorial by saying in 1998, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery”.  13 confederate flags fly around this monument.  The same flag flies today at full staff in the wake of the #EmanuelAME shooting near the capital of South Carolina – a flag that is a symbol of one of the most evil social institutions in our history.  The same flag on the license plate of the murderer – driving on streets named after men who fought to reduce black men and woman to mere commodities. A culture of nostalgia for an era in which black people were enslaved and oppressed breeds this kind of violence.  A system, a way of life and a philosophy that produces murderers like this 21 year old man that premeditated this act of hatred to terrorize the black community.

Those who love justice will speak out on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” -MLK JR

The most alarming thing is that it’s not merely the silence of good people.  Read the comment sections on any posts relating to this.  There will always be good, law abiding, church going, people who blindly continue to defend the majority and the privileged – those who deny the existence of systemic oppression while singing “let justice and praise become my embrace” or “speak out for freedom” on Sunday morning. I dream of a continued movement towards equality, freedom and justice for all.  This shooting reopens wounds that are decades and centuries old.  Anger is the righteous response here – but not without hope.  Prayer – but not without action.  Love – but not without justice.

Exploitation and Abolition

I write from a coffee house on an overcast day in Southeast Asia with my sunglasses on because after a week over here I can not contain the tears.  I realize that if you just go off my instagram feed it seems like such a fun trip.  But I have seen in the last several days far too many children being sold and exploited to hold in this sadness.  So many girls that should be in high school or jr high school drinking cheap taquila and smoking hookah non stop to numb the horrid reality of their employment.  Night after humid smokey drunken night being exploited and used by greedy and gluttonously lustful men.  Here in front of me is a beautiful girl with her little sister or her friend or her cousin.  She’s marginalized.  She comes from the north, one of thousands in a mass migration of the countryside’s daughters into the red-light districts of the tourist cities.  She is coerced or tricked or manipulated or forced into this industry.  And here I am with her – pretending to be a potential client – another damned selfish carnivorous exploiter.

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But I’ve learned to pretend to be such a man and I attempt to do so in the kindest way I can, with subtle and loving gestures hinting at her worth – her internal value and beauty.  She has dreams or had them at one point and I want to hear about them.  She is precious and I want something better for her.  So I talk to her with love but I’m there to capture evidence (through conversation and covert equipment).  Evidence of her age and of the system that has taken her captive.  Evidence that could someday lead to her freedom and the imprisonment of her oppressors.  But then I have to leave that girl.  I might hug her before I leave only to look back for a second as she’s exhaling apple or mint flavored hookah smoke out of her nostrils.  And she waves to me in the way one of my own daughters might.  Maybe she thinks I left her to find a girl I think is more attractive.  Or maybe she is too scared to even look me in the eyes the whole time I’m in there or maybe she doesn’t speak any English so we can only communicate through hand gestures.  Sometimes she only drinks a coke.  Sometimes she’s drank more than a grown man could handle.  Maybe one of her handlers is suspicious of me and I’m worried my cover is blown or that they are on to me and know that I’m wired up.  Maybe she’s listening on in horror as I’ve negotiated with her handler on the price to take her with me for an hour or two and she’s relieved when I leave alone.  Or maybe she’s disappointed when I leave without her because she really needs to send money back home to her parents or uncle who is profiting off of her employment.  Sometimes they’ve been manipulated by the mafia or a loan shark.  Maybe they know what she’s doing but don’t care.  Maybe they’ve been tricked to believe that she’d end up doing hair or working at a nail salon.

Whatever happened that brought this precious child here is irrelevant at this point though.  She is here now and she shouldn’t be here in this hell.  And the majority of the world cares enough to maybe tweet about it every now and then or share a horrific article.  But I met a man named Matt Parker.  He and his wife have devoted their lives to finding these girls and boys.  They uprooted their family from the suburbs of Colorado to come over.  I was on a motorcycle with Matt yesterday doing some reconnaissance on a potential area where children are trafficked or exploited and it was raining.  We rode down a street and there in the middle of the road was a lady that had turned her motorbike over and was laying in the middle of the street.  Cars and motorcycles continued driving by in the rainy traffic.  Matt stopped the bike.  I moved towards the cars and forced them to give us more space as Matt and a couple other ladies helped this wounded woman out of the middle of the street.  We picked up her bike and pulled it out of the street and made sure she was taken care of.  I met a man that pulls over when he sees a woman laying bleeding in the rain on the concrete.  He didn’t keep on driving.  But so many do.  Are we afraid of getting bloody?  Are we afraid of the inconvenience of getting out of our comfortable sedans to get wet in the rain?  We’ve got places to go.  We’ve got things to accomplish.  The comfort and the insulation of our suburban dream.

Matt talked this morning about the day when he and Laura decided to start this work and the birth of The Exodus Road.  History will remember men and women like Matt and Laura Parker.  Along with the few – the nameless ordinary people who did not look the other way when they saw someone bleeding.  Ordinary people who learned skills usually reserved for nation’s agencies protecting military secrets.  Ordinary men who spend nights out in brothels with prostitutes while their wives wait with courage and resilience of spirit.  Ordinary women who give their lives and their youth to the rehabilitation and the repatriation of the victims of this industry.  Women that stay for months and years in an effort to restore the dignity and value that seems hopelessly lost.  I read about a man from the ancient town of Nazereth that was known for, among other things, drinking and spending time with prostitutes.  They called him a drunkard and took issue with the company he kept.  They took issue with the way he did things.  You see a lot of men that claim, in word, to be “followers” of this man.  But also claim that the call or the passion for justice and freedom is reserved for merely a few.  It’s not a call.  It’s a ancient command – Seek justice.  Learn to do right.  Arrest oppressors.  Defend the cause of the afflicted.  This is what Matt and Laura do.  We were all intended to participate in the freedom of other human beings.  There is something about the very fabric of our soul that longs to be involved – I know you can feel it.  It whispers in a deep chamber of your heart that you barely know exists.  Because we’re destined someday to bring the extension of a kingdom of freedom to the farthest reaches of the universe.  But for now – we’re called to be men and women of sorrow – to be intimately acquainted with this grief.  To leave the temporal shores of safety and comfort through the tempest tossed waters of the resistance in the direction of freedom.

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Love is our Weapon – the story behind the song

I have a belief that art has the ability, in a unique way, to effect change. For me it’s always been a well crafted sentence, a photo, a lyric, a melody, dance or film that has most moved me. Here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis:

““The incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry, the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon, are always blowing evil’s whole structure away.”

My friend Jeremy Cowart is a photographer and it was his photography and the stories behind his work that contributed in a unique way to this album and my decision to go overseas to do undercover work. This photo was part of a series called Voices of Reconciliation from Jeremy’s work in Rwanda http://jeremycowart.com/2011/11/voices-of-reconciliation/ Innocent, the guy on the left, is a former child soldier. On their skin is written “Love is a weapon to destroy evil” and here is their story.

Love is the weapon that destroys all evil

“Gasperd, 35, (pictured right) locks arms with Innocent (named after he was forgiven), 38, (left), the man who killed his older brother during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Gasperd and Innocent later reconciled while attending a workshop hosted by the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative and today work together in an agricultural association. They are pictured in the exact spot where the murder took place.”

This photo brought to the surface so much emotion that I wrote most of the lyric to our song Love is Our Weapon right away. My belief in the power of photography and melody has never been higher. A photo inspires a melody. A melody that raises awareness at 110 DB. Awareness that leads to advocacy. Advocacy that inspires action. “I will amplify your voice of peace – riding on the wings of freedom”.

Release Day

Commodity just went live on iTunes:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/commodity/id9132535456panel_1spine_CDdigipak

When Philip and I first started recording this record I realized for the first time – after 20 years of writing, recording and touring – this is what success feels like. No more talking about target demographic – no more reducing the melodies of my soul to a mere product to be bought and sold – we were back in my mom’s basement in high school when we first started writing songs before we could even play our instruments. We were back discovering sonic landscapes in a world before someone told us it was against the rules to dream.

That audacious, naive, childish idea that a song could maybe contribute to changing the world snuck back and found it’s way into my brother’s studio in Lincoln NE the day I picked up a mandolin and he hit the record button. Somehow – after losing so much to the rock and roll dream – I found my way back home. And these melodies chronicle my journey towards freedom. No more passing songs through the sanitizing filters of countless gatekeepers – at some point, I’ve got to write honest melodies and that’s what we did this time. I’m not going to sell out and I’m certainly not buying in – because I’m a soul inside a body. I’m not a commodity. I won’t dilute this blood that I bleed.

You might hear this record and think that my voice is a bit out of tune at times or that the instruments aren’t perfectly in rhythm – I hope you do. Some people might think that it’s against the rules to use the same rhyme sound 8 times in a row or that my grammar is wrong or my theology is off or that Philip mixed the bass guitar way too loud. All of that is probably true. For sure the bit about the bass guitar.

But I hope you hear my soul – technology and a machine obsessed with perfection would drown it out and cage it in. But I will sing above the noise of perceived perfection – I will sing about freedom for the oppressed at 100dB this time around – because I’ve found freedom myself.