Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash talks art, activism


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Rosanne Cash, the winner of the ninth annual Visionary Leadership Award of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas talked about her career as a singer-songwriter, activist and author at the Morse College House on Tuesday.

Her talk, titled “Heart and Brain in Equal Parts: A Conversation about Writing and the Creative Process,” drew roughly 70 attendees, including students, faculty and other Yale community members. During the talk, Cash shared her insights on her personal creative process as well as the relationship between art and political activism.

“I always thought that if world peace happened, or if great movements in society happened that lifted us all up, it wouldn’t happen because some politicians spoke to each other,” Cash said. “It would happen because art and music changed people enough that they could speak their convictions and access their own feelings.”

When speaking about art as a medium for social change, Cash said that “all art and music is political,” because through art we “develop compassion and empathy … and when you know that other people suffer, you want to do something about it.” She recalled feeling a sense of “community and love between audience and [the] performer” in her own concerts, and added that spreading that feeling around the world was a form of “activism that doesn’t require talking about issues.”

Cash noted that songwriting was not “a predictable process.” She added that “if it was, it wouldn’t be a creative act.”

Rather, she said that artistic creation is “half-inspiration and half-discipline,” and that it is important to “refine [one’s] skills” so that the artist is ready to create when the inspiration comes.

Cash also gave advice to students aspiring for careers in music, emphasizing the importance of maintaining balance between promoting one’s music in the industry and focusing on the creation process by honing one’s technical skills and “figur[ing] out who you are and what you want to say.” She recognized the difficulties of being a new artist in the current digital era, but advised young people to “focus on the work rather than on the attention — and then you’ll get the attention.”

Cash said she is looking to the future of her career with excitement. Currently, alongside her husband, she is working on a musical about Norma Rae — based on the true story of union organizer and activist Crystal Lee Sutton. Cash said that she is also trying to be “proactive” and “graceful” about potential limitations that time may bring onto her career by taking care of her voice and recognizing the potential necessity of revising her repertoire to fit the change in her vocal range.

Sam Brakarsh ’21, who attended the event, said he appreciated how Cash “recognized the value of art beyond art’s sake,” and said one of his takeaways was “a reminder that the role of art in social justice” at a larger scale is not only about “dialogue and individual empowerment,” but about “a creation of community and communal identity.”

Grammy award–winning saxophonist and lecturer in the Yale School of Music Wayne Escoffery, who was also present, said that although he is a composer and Cash is a songwriter, he liked her insights on there being a way “to be an activist without dictating your political ideas.”

Ross Parish ’21 said that his parents had been Cash’s fans since before he was born and that Cash’s ideas on writing resonated with his own writing pursuits.

Janet Kazienko, a pediatric nurse at Yale Health and a longtime Cash fan, said she admired the artist’s “ability to look at her career throughout her life and see the differences in it.”

The Visionary Leadership Award was established in 2010 and honors a leader whose trailblazing work is impacting the world.

Carrie Zhou |


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