Then Pokei Klass—you remember Pokei, the man pictured on the wall of Mark Johnson’s bedroom—appears on the double bass from Gugela, South Africa, where Johnson has finally tracked him down. Django Degan thumps his congos over Grandpa Elliott’s harmonica, and an extraordinary South African chorus called Sinamuya (focus on the large woman on the right, the one with the pink necklace and the golden belt) sways with the rhythm in Umlazi. Stefano Tomaseli (the man with the headband over the big hair) comes blazing in on his sax from Pisa, Italy, with vocal harmony from South African Vusi Mahlasela. Then we’re back on the Santa Monica sidewalk with Roger Ridley, and the song is over.

It is a soaring moment of hope. It also the perfect bookend to a video that made me feel this way at the beginning of the year, when Jesse Dylan directed Will.i.am and everyone from Herbie Hancock to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Yes, We Can,” the most powerful political video in black and white I have ever seen. That one began this way:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a president who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land.

Back then I could barely allow myself to hope that America would finally rediscover its better instincts and elect the most compelling presidential candidate I have seen since John F. Kennedy took office, the same year Ben E. King sang “Stand By Me.” To my astonishment, that earlier video’s refrain came true in November: “no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”

Now pause for a moment, to reflect on what a gigantic achievement that is.

Twenty years ago I wrote of another promising moment from my youth: “We did experience hope in 1968: hope and ambition and amazing joy. But to millions of us, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination felt like the resounding chord that ended Sgt. Pepper’s: a note of stunning finality. For me, at least, I hope the memory of that trauma and all the others of 1968 will now begin to fade away, so that our dream to make a better world may one again become vivid.”

With Barack Obama’s election to the White House, it finally has.

 

More in Full Court Press

Winners & Sinners

Read More »

Charles Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis and 1968 in America. He has been media editor for Newsweek, a member of the metro staff of The New York Times, and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he covered the press and book publishing. To learn more, visit charleskaiser.com.