Stages

I Believe We Will

Ammar texted me late Friday afternoon. “Can you write a campaign song for us, something I could pull out at events when people ask me to sing?”

“Hell, yes!”

“Just something off the top of your head, about country over party, and bringing people together.”

“I’ve been wanting to do this anyway. Let me take a shot at it.”

I’d known Ammar Campa-Najjar for nine years, first as a student in my philosophy class at Southwestern College, and then as a friend. We’d stayed in touch through the years as he finished his double major in philosophy and psychology at San Diego State University, and as he ran the Obama re-election campaign San Diego office in 2012. The following spring he was working at the White House. Lori and I flew out to visit him. He spent the next few years in Washington, first at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, then at the Department of Labor, getting the education of his life in both the private and public sector. We talked often on the phone. I could hear it in his voice. He wanted to come home and find a way to serve the region that had given him everything he had. And when local congressman Duncan Hunter came up for reelection, Ammar saw an opportunity.

It’d been a long, exhausting week. It’s hard to cook up a decent dinner on Friday night. After Ammar’s text I hopped in the car and headed over to the neighborhood taco shop. On the way over a chorus started rising up in my mind. At a stop light I grabbed my phone, opened a voice memo, and hit record. When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow, may the people lead and the leader’s follow, to that shining city on the hill, I believe we will. The beginnings of a chorus. The next morning, guitar in hand, the rest of the song spilled out. Some songs come fast like that. By 9:30 I was texting a voice memo recording of the finished song to Ammar. “I LOVE IT!” he wrote back.

I Believe We Will
America belongs to you and me
America’s a promise we can keep
If we sweep away the lies that say
That there is not enough
To make a place, full of grace for all of us
When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow
May the people lead and the leaders follow
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will

Underneath the mask we’re all the same
So no more keeping score and placing blame
Yeah I believe that we’re the ones
That we’ve been waiting for
So sail with me and we will reach the other shore
Of the shining sea and waves of grain
To the mountains high across the plains
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe

Later that day I reached out to Jeff Berkley, an old friend and brilliant producer. He texted me right back. “I’m in,” he said, and we huddled up on who the best players might be. I’d handle all the guitars but we needed bass, drums, and organ. Soon I was tracking down Larry Grano, Rick Nash, and Sharon Whyte, who all jumped right in. The first opening in everybody’s impossibly busy schedules was Wednesday evening. We booked it. That meant I only had a few days to put the song through all the many rewrites, revisions, and refinements that usually take weeks or months to unfold in any normal songwriting process. But this wasn’t normal. The election was in three weeks and we had to move fast. I sang the song a thousand ways until every note of every line settled into its forever home. (You don’t control this part of the process—the song tells you what it wants to be). I re-jiggered the ending over and over until it finally felt right. It was done. Then Ammar’s text came in.

“Can you add something about the 50th district or the campaign? And the phrase ‘country over party?’ Just so people can identify it with us specifically?”

Ugh. A rewrite? Now? But I had to try. I let go of what I thought the song should be. This song wasn’t about me. It was for Ammar and his all-important efforts to bring real representation to California’s 50th congressional district. I needed to make this song into whatever the campaign needed it to be. Collaboration is hard—I’m used to writing songs by myself. But I love and trust Ammar. So I wrote another verse and chorus and put it in the middle of the song.

Country over party every time
We’re going door to door and changing minds
El Cajon, San Marcos, Escondido, Temecula
We’re digging deep, lifting up the best of us
Duncan Hunter’s lies are hard to swallow
When the people lead, the leaders follow
To that shining city on the hill
And I believe we will, I believe we will

I didn’t want to make the song this specific—I wanted it to be more universal about the themes of Ammar’s campaign, but he was right and I was wrong. Now it was the fight song we were looking for—big ideas and concrete details—something his thousands of volunteers and crackerjack staff could rally around and feel inspired by. Something Ammar, a talented singer with a beautiful voice, could sing at events. Something to keep us all fired up and ready to go. There was still a lot of work to do. Long hours, endless phone calls, unrelenting print and television interviews, thousands of doors to knock on, long hard days and long hard nights. The good people of the 50th district deserve to finally be heard and have a real voice in Washington. This is all for them. We can sleep after November 6.

No matter how this election turns out we know we changed the lives of thousands of people. Win or lose, Ammar will be fine. He’s a national figure now. Millions of people know his name and his story. He’ll be 30 years old in a few months. He’s just getting started serving this great country that gave both of us, the sons of immigrants, everything we have.

Together, we’re stronger than we are alone. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America. It is from our union that our strength comes. We will weather the darkness that sometimes sweeps across the landscape obscuring our greatness. We will gather in the clearing, and we will walk together toward that shining city on the hill. I believe we will.

Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Join his mailing list at www.peterbolland.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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