Singing a Song to the 81%: An Interview with Daniel Deitrich

On July 17, 2020, Trax on the Trail Research Assistant Haley Strassburger and Founder Dana Gorzelany-Mostak interviewed Daniel Deitrich, the South Bend Indiana singer-songwriter who created quite a stir with his praise anthem “Hymn for the 81%.” Read on to learn more about the song that Religion News Service called “a cocktail of prophetic fire and Christ-like grace.”

Haley Strassburger: So, to begin, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what led you to songwriting?

Daniel Deitrich: I grew up in Southwest Michigan, [and attended an] Evangelical church called the Church of God. I started playing music in my youth group, and in high school I started a band and started writing for that. It really wasn’t until more recently that I started writing church music. So until the last few years, it was just sad love songs, break-up songs, and songs about being a dad. Then more recently, leading worship for church and just couldn’t find songs that said what I hoped our community could sing together. So, I started writing songs that we could sing as a community. [Check out Daniel’s music on Spotify.]

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: Can you discuss the genesis of “Hymn for the 81%” a little bit? And, maybe talk a bit about your compositional process?

Daniel Deitrich, “Hymn for the 81%”

DD: Sure. It probably started the night after the election, so we had just started meeting as a church. We planted the church in 2016, and we weren’t even meeting on Sundays yet, we were just doing these experimental gatherings on Wednesday nights. I just remember so many of my friends, especially friends of color, LGBTQ friends, just really distraught about this election. And I was bummed as well, but you know, it just took on a whole new meaning. It goes beyond politics. […] People really don’t feel safe now that this guy has been elected. And so, those emotions and everything, were stirring inside me. The enthusiasm with which people of faith voted for Trump was really disconcerting to me. And then the continued support of Trump was even more disturbing. So I could almost understand the “oh, I’ll vote for this guy because I always vote Republican, Supreme Court, et cetera.” But then, to see people continue to support and defend really abhorrent actions by this administration. It made me feel like “I’ve gotta say something about this.” So those ideas and emotions were rolling around, and then it was probably towards the end of last year that [I came up with] one of those key phrases from the song, “why don’t you live the words that you put in my mouth.” Like, “you told me to love these people, you told me to defend those that can’t defend themselves.” All the people, and all the voices that instilled those values in me, [were] just rejecting those values. So that’s where that key phrase from the chorus came from, and it built on that. Obviously the “kids in cages” was just a really stark example of, surely, no one can defend this behavior, [but] sure enough people were defending him. So it was just that. It was heavy on my heart to start writing that. And then, just the structure of the song—I wanted it to be kind of a throwback. The chord structure is really simple, the melody is simple, very hymn-like in that. At the time, I was calling it “Song for the 81%”, and I sent an early draft, just like an iPhone recording, to my friend Ben Grace (He’s a singer-songwriter from Australia who now lives in San Diego.) And he was like, “oh, dude, you need to call this ‘Hymn for the 81%’, it sounds like a hymn.” And so that’s where the title came from, and then I just embraced that hymn vibe as far as structure goes.

GM: I think it works in function as well. I mean, hymns often have some sort of moral message. They speak to the believer in a meaningful way, and have didactic purpose, if you will.. Plus, [the song] is about restoring the idea of sacredness, right. “Song” could certainly be a religious song, but when I think “song” in the context of campaigning, I think of like a pop song. Where obviously your song has a very different tone, [and] a very different purpose to it. So I think “hymn” actually works really well on a lot of different levels for really conveying or encapsulating the song’s message in the title, maybe more than “song” would. 

DD: Yeah.

GM: It’s interesting that someone made that suggestion.

HS: So, in researching more about your background, I learned that you’re one of the founders of the South Bend City Church in Indiana, which has been described as a very open and welcoming environment for devout believers and doubters in the community. How have your experiences working at that church, and working with those communities, influenced your composition of this song?

DD: Yeah, I think, um, again, going back to trying to find songs that we could sing as a community; there’s just not a ton out there. There is, but it’s just a lot of small, independent churches and worship leaders putting it out. It’s just hard to find, unfortunately. So I’d be looking for songs that we could sing together, but I couldn’t find stuff that wasn’t about an angry God that needed blood to be satisfied. [laughs] And so I started writing for that community specifically. A big part of what we did as a community was, uh, we tried to be a home for people who had felt left out by the church at large. Either they had been effectively excommunicated because they came out as LGBTQ, or they just, for any number of reasons, didn’t feel safe or welcome in the church. And so, those friends—those friendships that I developed at South Bend City Church—those folks were definitely on my mind as I was writing “Hymn for the 81%,” as well as other songs that I wrote for that community. 

GM: So, sort of a follow-up on that. In reading these articles in the popular press, you’d think that, in a lot of ways, in this day and age, well at least now, because of COVID, people aren’t attending church in person. But even before then, there certainly was this trend of people not being as active in faith communities as they were a generation ago, or two generations ago. Do you see music as a way of bringing people back into the fold in some kind of way? 

DD: Hmm, I like to think that music and art are important in that. I’d hate to view them as tools to reel people in, but definitely there are people who have left the church that are still very faithful to Jesus and would like to be able to express that. So, I think music and art are really integral in that. So, giving people language that they can sing with their whole selves and not feel like they have to, you know, give up part of their brain or part of themselves to sing these words, I think that’s really important. 

GM: So, when we last checked on the 15th of this month [July 2020], your song was at over 664,000 hits. Obviously this song has been heard by a lot of people, and there’s certainly been conversations about it that we read from publications with religious leanings [and] mainstream media as well. [See these articles in Religious News ServiceHuff Post, and Fox News.] What role do you think musicians could play in political campaigns? I mean, do you see yourself as an activist in some way? 

DD: Well, I think that throughout American history, music has [had] a huge role in every sort of “push forward”—from Civil Rights to Vietnam protest songs and any number of things. There’s always been a soundtrack to those movements. And so, I think the role of the artist to speak truth to the moment and speak truth to power is really important. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, but I felt compelled as an artist to use what little voice I have to say something. It was pretty wild to see it connect like it did, and take off like it did, which I’m very grateful for. I guess I am an activist. [laughs] I hesitate to use that, just because I don’t feel qualified—a little bit of imposter syndrome, when you think about it, but I’m passionate about justice and using any little platform or energy I have to work towards that. Actually, I’m part of a group now called Vote Common Good. It’s a faith-based organization, and before COVID shut everything down, we were doing these sort of rallies—part rally, part worship service. Just a really inspiring group of people, trying to get people of faith and good conscience to vote for the common good. In this case, that means not voting for Donald Trump. We say, “we don’t need you to become Democrats, but we need you to not vote for this Republican this one time.” 

HS: I think what you’re saying—about this idea of imposter syndrome and not knowing if you should self-identify as an activist—that really speaks to the fact that the role of activism has really changed a lot. What an activist looks like has really changed, especially with everything that’s been going on publicly and socially in the past few months. We’re seeing that activism is a lot more digital, a lot more social, and a lot more ingrained in communities than we’ve seen in the past. So I think that speaks to what you’re saying; we never really, or at least commonly, described musicians as activists, unless they’re doing large groups or events. But I think what you’re saying really does speak to the fact that being an activist isn’t always just those large events or gestures. It’s really just the little things, the small steps that build up, that kind of thing.

DD: Yeah, I think that’s really true.

GM: I think that’s a really good point, Haley. If you think about it, we run a website. We’re not, quote-unquote, a “political website,” although we certainly study intersections between music and politics. We don’t get behind candidates or endorse candidates, but in a sense, we are activists, because our mission is to encourage people to listen more critically. I think if we talk about ideal citizenship—the ideal citizen is someone who, in a democracy, is going to be critical and “speak truth to power” whatever form it may take. As I see it, our website is providing the set of tools that allows people to develop that kind of critical ear towards sound. Haley, we’re kind of activists too!

HS: So, sort of jumping off the mindset of looking at music with a more critical eye, reading some of the blurbs or articles written about you and your music, some critics have described your song and its lyrics as “divisive.” How do you feel about that descriptor, especially since your song really focuses on unity and community?

DD: I think that the prophets were divisive, and Jesus was divisive—not because they wanted to start a fight or make people mad, but because when you call out something that’s wrong, people are going to get mad. And so, I wasn’t terribly concerned in writing [the song], or how people would react. Read the words of the prophets, and read the words of Jesus. They never shied away from those harsh truths. So this song is largely in the vein of that tradition, of speaking truth to power. Ultimately, though, it’s a call to come back to something, a call to come back to the way of Jesus, for those of us that call ourselves Christians. I think it can be uncomfortable to have those conversations. I know when I’m called out for whatever, the instinct is to put up defensive walls and bristle at any sort of attacks, but I hope that people can examine those feelings as well. Like, “why does this make me so angry or uncomfortable?” And maybe push past that and find some truth in it as well.

GM: So, what have been the most rewarding effects? I would think that all the attention your song is getting must be pretty exciting. What have the rewards been of this experience?

DD: I think one of the most rewarding things has just been the messages and comments from people, like “I left the church 20 years ago and never thought I’d come back, but this song gives me hope for Christianity.” Or messages saying, “I thought I was the only one who thought this.” “I thought I was crazy because I looked at all the Christians and couldn’t believe that they were voting for this person, and saying these things.” So, I think the most gratifying, was hearing people say “thank you for putting words to what I was feeling.” As a songwriter, that’s definitely a high compliment, to hear “you said something I was feeling but couldn’t put into words myself.” 

GM: Definitely, it must be rewarding.

HS: And I think that speaks to the idea that your song focuses of this idea of the community of the “81%,” and through your song you’re sort of able to establish this new community of those who thought that, by not being in that 81%, they were somehow isolated from their faith.

DD: Yeah, it also really speaks to the 19%. [laughs] It was pretty crazy. At first, it was a lot of really positive feedback, and you probably saw that Shane Claiborne did an interview with me, and that took off. And it hit Huffington Post, and Yahoo, and different places. It was overwhelmingly positive feedback, and then it hit Fox News one day. All of a sudden, it turned really negative, and that’s when death threats started, and threats against the church—we had arson threats. All the real crazy stuff. It was a really interesting experience, just from that perspective too. 

GM: How has your church community responded to the attention? Obviously, arson threats—that’s a whole other thing. But in terms of the success of the song, the visibility that it’s given you and your work. 

DD: Yeah, overwhelmingly positive, but it definitely ruffled some feathers as well. 

GM: We really appreciate you taking the opportunity to talk to us, and we obviously are very moved by your work, and we see the ripple effect of your work, and we think it’s pretty incredible.

HS: So, I think the last thing is—looking forward to the 2020 election. The 81% that you’ve sung about, where do you think they’re standing right now? What do you think their mindset is? 

DD: I’m cautiously optimistic. [laughs] Just anecdotally, it seems like the friends and folks I knew that voted for Trump in 2016 are less vocal now in support of his actions and policies. I think that after four years of this, no one’s real thrilled that he’s the president. I think even Republicans are like “man, can we get anybody else?”

GM: Well, there’s Kanye. (laughs)

DD: [laughs] We’ve got options, right? But I think, even if Trump is voted out, there’s still just a deep sickness within evangelicalism that let this happen in the first place, and so I think that that is something that will require some deep soul-searching by white evangelicals across the board. Like, “how did we get here, that these are the things we’ll tolerate in order to, quote-unquote, ‘have religious freedom.’” Even if the 81% shrinks to 60% like we see in some polls, I think there’s still some hard conversations to be had around what is “white evangelicalism.”

GM: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything else you’d like to tell us, that you’d want to include? Or anything that we didn’t ask you that you think we really should’ve asked you? 

DD: [laughs] Um, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I do have a new song coming out. It’s already available right now on our BandCamp. It’s kind of a pre-release. It’s like a loud lament for the state we’re in currently. It’s sort of a call-back to the psalmists that would cry out “where are you God.” It’s a loud blues rock song. [You can hear Daniel’s new song here.]

GM: We’ll be keeping an eye out for it—what’s it called?

DD: “Where Are You.” And I can send you a link to that as well.

GM: We’re happy to bring some more visibility to your work; I mean, obviously it’s already there, but anything we can do to put forward the really great work you’re doing, we would love to do that. 

DD: I really appreciate that. Thanks so much.

HS: Yes, we’ve appreciated getting to talk to you. It’s been great.

DD: Thanks for reaching out!

Daniel Deitrich, Haley Strassburger, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak

Musicians like Daniel Deitrich and others who rely on the gig economy have been hit hard by COVID. Please consider lending Daniel your support.

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