What Barack Obama Told Me at a White House Christmas Party

Taylor Rice (Local Natives) gives us words of wisdom as the inauguration approaches.

VOICES is a new Talkhouse series in which artists will discuss current events through their own unique lens. For each article written, the publication donates to a charity of the musician’s choosing. Taylor chose Planned Parenthood.
Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

In the three months before the election, I sang “I have waited so long, Mrs. President” nearly every single night to people all over the world, and on cue the crowds would erupt into cheers. The song “Fountain of Youth” was not written for Hillary Clinton (it envisions a world where it’s as normal to hear “Mrs. President” as “Mr. President”), but it certainly took on that context in the weeks leading up to the election as my band moved from supporting Bernie Sanders to getting kids registered to vote to campaigning for Hillary.

I thought our Mrs. President would be here by now. The day that we all realized that she wasn’t going to win split me in two, as it did so many people. It was such an incredible shock, and many of us have our story about how those hours of expected celebration slid into confusion, disbelief and then overwhelming sadness. Mine was on a tour bus traveling from the U.K. to Paris. I stayed up until noon, drowning in panic and infuriatingly spotty Wi-Fi until it was clearly over.

I want to share three things that have shaped me since that split in time: a revelation, advice I got from our current president at a White House Christmas party, and specific things to do today to move on and fight back.

The Old Feeling of Normal Isn’t Coming Back

The pulsing waves of grief have continued to flow in and out of me since Election Day. Sometimes I forget for a while, but after weeks of it flooding back in right when I’m starting to have a grand old time again, I’ve realized something important: the feeling of “normal” I used to have isn’t coming back.

For the last eight years, my friends and I have felt a general sense that things were OK —or at least heading in the right direction. That America was getting more open by the moment. That extending rights, liberty and just plain kindness to all types of people in the U.S. was an undeniable avalanche, primed to blanket the country in a peaceful acceptance of all. As humans we want that feeling of equilibrium so much that we’ll do mental gymnastics to pretend we have it, or tell a story of how it’ll quickly return to us. We tell ourselves that we don’t need to panic; we are on an arc, a pendulum swing. THIS IS NOT THE APOCALYPSE. And while it’s unclear yet if it is or not, the truth is that America is a fundamentally different place now — and for the foreseeable future.

I flew home from a month-long tour in Europe to a very different country than the one that I left behind. We used to take for granted certain values of fact, truth and compassion as permanent pieces of our society’s fabric. Take a deep breath, and now let it go. That world is gone now, and for the time being, we have to fight for these values. Accept this as your new normal.

What Barack Obama Told Me at the White House Holiday Christmas Party

Sometimes as a musician, you feel like you are, for sure, the luckiest human being on the planet. The job takes you places where normally only Nobel laureates are allowed to go. In October and November, I had the great fortune to spend time in and around the White House — and with some amazing people who work with the Obamas.

I was moved so much more than I expected to be, and came away feeling incredible gratitude and respect for our President and First Lady. My tiny peek behind the curtain made me feel that the government is not just some black box ominously running on corruption. It is imperfect, but it’s made up of human beings who deeply desire to make our nation better than it is, to help people here and all over the world. Going to the White House both just before and after the election made me feel what a loss it will be to see the Obamas go. Which brings me to my moment with POTUS.

The White House Christmas party really spares no decorative extravagance; every room looks like a massive Christmas gift just exploded in it. Barack and Michelle came down the stairs to a crowd of about one hundred and fifty of us gathered in the residence. He gave a gracious speech with no written notes, off the cuff but clearly from the heart. He thanked his staff for the incredible work and dedication they have given to him over his eight years in office. It was an intense moment, filled with both joy and pride, but also an embedded sadness about what will happen next.

Afterward, in my moment with him, Obama generously gave me some advice about what I should share with my audience. What he said was simple but poignant, and right now we all need to hear it: “Tell them to never give up.”

So, now I’m telling you. Don’t give up. Don’t settle now that you’ve suffered a loss, now that it feels hard. Everyone has influence, and we choose every day whether to use it or not.

Practical Advice: Do These Three Things Today to Join the Resistance

OK, you’re ready to not give up. Now what? Here are three things you should do today to get started:

1) Purchase a Subscription to a News Source

The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic — it doesn’t matter, just choose one publication that devotes itself to fair, investigative journalism and subscribe to it. A huge problem in this election was that news outlets were a slave to ratings and advertisers. Help fix this problem by supporting quality reporting.

2) Buy and Read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is my hero. She helped me realize that I was a feminist and opened my mind to a thousand things I never knew I cared so much about. Her book Hope in the Dark explains that the path of resistance and success in what she calls the “Global Justice Movement” is not singular, but made up of thousands of streams all pushing toward a common goal. The way that major victories of justice have played out over time is almost always unexpected and incremental. This book will help to feel less overwhelmed, and to fight even when it’s unclear how you are going to win.

3) Find Your Personal Contribution

Figure out something that you are personally suited to do. Volunteer at a refugee center. Book a ticket to march on Inauguration Day. If you’re not Muslim, bring flowers to a mosque and tell people that you accept them. Donate money to Bernie Sanders (he still emails me all the time asking for money). Figure out how to campaign in your state for the mid-term elections. Don’t worry about the end goal right away, just throw yourself into something and start.

On November 7, I was so sure that we were just about to turn a corner as a people, ushering in a new era of love and acceptance, rejecting sexism and fear. I wrote the lyrics to “Fountain of Youth” feeling that the younger generations had a better handle on the direction the world is supposed to go than those who’ve held power for a long time.

I thought we’d have our Mrs. President by now, and although she isn’t here, I am still waiting for her. I know that she’s coming. It’s going to feel really good to sing “Fountain of Youth” the day we elect a woman as President of the United States.

(Photo credit: Johnny Hernandez)

Taylor Rice is the vocalist and guitarist for Local Natives.

(Photo credit: Nathanial Wood)