In this 2012 TED Talk, Robert Vijay Gupta announces to the world that he will be stepping into the footsteps of the Medicinal Musicians and Community-based healthcare pioneers that preceded him. Referencing people like Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Gupta tells us of the neurological benefits of music and his work with the homeless population of the Skid Row neighborhood in Los Angeles. Listening to Gupta as he stands up on the stage in a, according to TEDMed, several thousand dollar-per seat auditorium, playing classical music and referencing intellectuals it is hard not to feel conflicted about his proclamation.
Today we hop online and see so many snake-oil salespeople and saviors superficially taking action to save the world. Often, their action is unsustainable and unable to effect positive structural change. It makes it difficult for consumers to discern the sincere from the insincere. So, as Gupta presents himself as an obviously educated man, praising other educated men, and playing what I’ve been told is Bach, it is almost impossible not to wonder how sincere he actually is. And if he is sincere, what is his plan to serve the homeless population of Skid Row?
His solution, Street Symphony, is a nonprofit that “brings the light of music into very dark places.” By offering incarcerated people as well as the homeless, formerly incarcerated and mentally ill people of Skid Row, opportunities to engage with music, Gupta hopes to successfully apply music therapy concepts, like melodic intonation therapy, to positively impact their lives.
Despite the aesthetic of privilege that veils this lecture, Gupta conveys with real depth the value of music in medicine as well as the importance of his application of such value. By referencing the topical example of music in neurology, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ use of music in her therapy after being the victim of an assassination attempt, as well as the work of other prominent modern neurologists, he convinces the audience of the value of Medicinal Music. And, through his personal experience with Nathaniel Ayers, a once musical prodigy battling with homelessness and schizophrenia that uses music as a therapy, Gupta takes another step, showing that Medicinal Music has the potential to create real value for critically underprivileged and often forgotten communities.
After watching the lecture, I was certainly intrigued by the narratives and goals that Gupta shared. But, I am also a privileged and educated man listening. This is a TED Talk, and I am the intended audience. The existence of privilege in this lecture, just like the medium of the lecture, are all tools that Gupta employs to generate interest for his cause in the privileged.
Since this 2012 lecture, Gupta has continued Street Symphony and in 2018 received a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Gupta has certainly proven his sincerity to the cause with his dedication over time. Today he refers to this dedication as his “creative ‘sadhana’ – the Sanskrit word meaning ‘daily spiritual practice.’” This is even more impactful considering the strain that following his creative “sadhana” has created in his personal life. Gupta shared with the L.A. Times that “[Street Symphony] has a real financial impact on [his] life.” This MacArthur grant is a life buoy, not in the sense that Gupta has been drowning, but instead that he no longer has to keep swimming so vigorously.
The MacArthur grant is one metric by which we can assume that Street Symphony has made a real impact in the Skid Row community. But, a more real metric is what the organization has accomplished within the community. Today Street Symphony has put on over 400 free concerts for severely disenfranchised communities. Since 2015 they have presented yearly performances of Handel’s Messiah, and have launched a program that pairs professional artists with members of the homeless community. And, on top of that, the organization has grown with the community that it serves by giving career opportunities to participants.
I have still not resolved the conflict that stirred while watching Gupta’s 2012 lecture. Has the impact been as he initially claimed? How has the community that Street Symphony serves been positively and significantly impacted? Just like Paul Farmer’s work with the global poor’s impact is controversial, so is Gupta’s work with the Skid Row communities. Both applications of community-based outreach could be described as ineffective due to their inherent limitations in impact and as potentially harmful given the power that the privileged have over the population the programs aim to serve. Paul Farmer’s Partners In Health, while good at providing medical assistance to the community, does not impact the other, arguably more, fundamental problems that the community experiences and has been subjected to backlash from the community in several of their locations due to these limitations and uneven power dynamics.
With some caution, I am inspired by Gupta’s lecture and work. One could also argue that problems only exist in the current models of community-based outreach because not enough people are doing it. If more people do it then maybe a more fundamental impact would be achieved. So, I look forward to seeing how Street Symphony continues to evolve especially after the infusion from the MacArthur grant and the current pandemic.