The COVID-19 crisis has eclipsed so many stories that would normally garner more attention — firing guys just doing their jobs; ramping up airstrikes while endorsing a global ceasefire; robot fans in Taiwanese baseball (full disclosure: I am a Rakuten Monkeys fan). The virus also overshadowed the passing of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers, who died of heart complications unrelated to COVID-19.
The composer of “Lean on Me” — the anthem of solidarity if there ever was one — Withers’ death struck me as particularly poignant as Washington washes its hands of (injects Lysol into?) any sense of global solidarity during this worldwide emergency. Rather than rallying world leaders to save lives or even the global economy (with the realpolitik realization that consumer confidence cannot be fully restored until the virus is quelled in every corner of the world), the President has instead bullied allies, blamed frenemies, closed borders, and impeded the global systems meant to coordinate unified responses in exactly this type of crisis. Despite America’s desperate desire for a cure, our government has refused to join an $8 billion global drive to develop, produce, and deliver a vaccine to every nation and has instead set course to travel at “warp speed” in its own direction.
Back on earth, obituaries have celebrated Withers as one of the “most impactful soul musicians of the 20th century.” Maybe it’s because he recently passed, maybe it’s the timelessness of his works, maybe it’s just six weeks (seven weeks?) of quarantine, but looking out into the world, I see Withers everywhere.
I see Withers as I wonder when our four-month-old son will be held in his “Grandma’s Hands” again. I see Withers in the jobs he worked before he became famous — jobs that are some of the most exposed to coronavirus — in the Navy, in factories, as a milkman (Instacart workers deliver much more than milk today), and, moreover, in the compounded risk communities of color have tragically faced. I see him with every headline’s updated death toll, as it’s more and more bleakly obvious that there “Ain’t No Sunshine” in lockdown life.
The song demonstrates solidarity’s resilience at a time when the President has publicly incited division.
Lockdown has transformed every part of life and funerals are no exception. My heart hurts thinking of Withers’ closest who were unable to grieve together in an unobstructed memorial. I think back to the memorial of a Withers’ contemporary, Isaac Hayes, which my father somehow got us into in 2008. A grand event at a Memphis megachurch, it was lavish in celebrity, matching Hayes’ larger than life persona (some of which is on display during the finest seventeen-minute cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” you’ve ever heard). The understated Withers wasn’t at Hayes’ memorial, perhaps because it was the kind of spectacle he avoided after walking away from the spotlight in the late 1980s.
In his prime, Withers was so famous that he headlined the Zaire ‘74 music festival in Kinshasa alongside icons James Brown, Miriam Makeba, and B.B. King. Zaire ‘74 preceded the legendary Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight championship and was meant to promote solidarity between African and African-American culture.
Whether in central Africa or the US, Withers performed with a sense of humility and humanity. “Lean on Me” epitomizes this — it inspires solidarity, promises fellowship at the end of every tunnel. Quoting it limits its effect, but hearing it proves that its honesty is its greatest strength, which is probably why communities across the country have chosen it as an anthem of hope during this crisis.
The song demonstrates solidarity’s resilience at a time when the President has publicly incited division. Decades of policies investing in fear of rather than support to our neighbor has created a reality where “we have stockpiled thousands of nuclear weapons but not enough ventilators.” The President seems clueless that global cooperation worked to check the spread of the Ebola virus in 2014.
In a season of meaningful anniversaries — Holocaust Remembrance Day, International Diplomacy Day, May Day, and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — we must remember our shared humanity and reinforce global cooperation to ensure all lives — particularly the most vulnerable — are safe and healthy. As a wise Withers once ruminated, maybe the darkness of the hour, makes us seem lonelier than we are.
Pushkar Sharma has worked for the United Nations in Kosovo, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Colombia, and Myanmar in peacekeeping and political affairs. A 2020 Fellow at the New Leaders Council, his work focuses on advancing a renewed commitment to the global rights-based order; he tweets @PushkarMSharma.