A Playlist That Conjures the Ferocity and Flair of Detroit
How can we develop a deeper, more human and multifaceted understanding of the past? Economist Rob Johnson (who was the guest on Ep. 22 of our At a Distance podcast) knows all too well that studying data offers some answers—but that it doesn't represent the full picture. “Analysis of political economic dysfunction can help us understand the depth of the pain,” he says. “But it is only the arts that really penetrate our hearts with the essence and meaning of what the experiences entail, and what we can learn from them.”
Johnson, who serves as the co-founder and president of the New York–based Institute for New Economic Thinking, an interdisciplinary collective of economists and thinkers who develop inventive methods to better serve communities around the world, firmly believes in the visceral power of art to color all that he does, whether activating global initiatives with some of the greatest economic scholars of our time or starting conversations via his podcast, Economics & Beyond, which draws on his extensive knowledge of everything from the climate crisis to the impact of music on public policy.
The latter subject, and Johnson’s reverence of the arts more broadly, stems from his upbringing in early 1960s Detroit, where he was raised by a physician and jazz pianist father and a choral-singing mother who served as the development director for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. From an early age, he says, “I was exposed to the rawness of the city and the experiences of art, particularly music. The Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art had a profound effect on me, too.” Johnson’s childhood also coincided with darker moments in the city’s history. “I experienced a haunted house of humanity,” he says. “A place that disintegrated into industrial decline and racial turmoil, including the 1967 riots, white flight to the suburbs, wicked discrimination, and the nation abandoning Detroit and blaming the victim in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.”
Witnessing how artists, particularly musicians based in and around the city, grappled with these realities through song has served as an enduring source of healing, hope, and inspiration for Johnson. These songs remind him that pain can be an impetus for action, and can be used for the better. We recently asked Johnson to put together a heartfelt playlist for us that represents what Detroit means to him. “Detroit has been the seedbed of creation for so many songs,” he says. “This list could have been over a hundred songs, and still large quantities of brilliant music would be left aside.” Below, he explains his personal relationship to each song.
Listen to Johnson’s Detroit “In Our Hearts” playlist on Spotify.