“What Will Happen to All That Beauty?” was inspired by novelist/activist James Baldwin’s 1963 essay, “The Fire Next Time,” which I read on an airplane from Austin to Madrid in 2017. I was introduced to Baldwin’s work in college, but rediscovered him in the building crescendo of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was then robustly maligned by the right as being anti-patriotic, anti-white, and anti-American.
At that time (and still), I was searching for credible and authentic voices who could successfully employ rhetoric and poetic language to cut through the topical intransigence of the moment. Baldwin--a black, homosexual poet/intellectual with an upbringing in the ministry--was singularly equipped to peel back, expose, discredit, and ameliorate the discourse of his day.
“The Fire Next Time” concludes with a repeated use of the line, “What will happen to all that beauty?,” which Baldwin employs in the final pages of the essay in order to postulate about--and issue warnings against--a violent race war in the event Amercians fail to reconcile our racial history and present. Baldwin claims it is the duty of “semi-conscious” whites and blacks to raise the consciousness and compassion of others in order to protect against continued race-related atrocities.
As I read Baldwin’s essay, his words invoked music in my head, which even the roaring jet engines of the airplane could not subdue. I “heard” the line “What will happen to all that beauty?” in call-and-response fashion, much like it appears in the ending of the song, being delivered in a deep bass voice like Leonard Cohen or Barry White. The verses of the song were all inspired (and appeared on the spot) by imagery in Baldwin’s essay, with only the song’s bridge to appear sometime later, like a puzzle waiting to be solved.
The accompanying music in my head sounded like a groovy synth-pop song; I heard it as synthesizer-based rather than built around the guitar. Even on the plane, I heard the synth melody line that appears in between each line of the verses. In retrospect, I believe U2’s collaboration with Leonard Cohen on “Tower of Song” from the music documentary I’m Your Man may have crept in; or perhaps, “First We Take Manhattan,” by Cohen was a sonic influence.