Interviews that brought us joy in 2021
ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:
This week, as we prepared to say goodbye to another pandemic year, we thought back to some of the interviews we've done these past few months that brought us joy and comfort. So we thought we'd share some of them with you today, hoping they can bring you some joy and comfort too on this first day of 2022. First up, "Sesame Street"
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
KATHLEEN KIM: (As Ji-Young) Hi, Mr. Alan. Hi, Elmo. Are we ready to rock?
RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Hi.
ALAN MUROAKA: (As Alan) It sounds like you are.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) I can't hear you.
MUROAKA: (As Alan) I said, it sounds like you are.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, yeah. Yes, I am.
FLORIDO: This year, the show welcomed a new character, electric guitar-playing Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet in its history.
KIM: We've had so many different types of reactions to Ji-Young, and I will say that they all sort of validate the need for her to be at "Sesame Street" and bring that representation that hasn't always been there for the Asian American community.
FLORIDO: That's Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer behind Ji-Young. She spoke to my colleague Michel Martin.
KIM: I myself choose to focus on the overwhelming positive response that we've had from everybody, especially the Asian American community, who feel suddenly seen by this brand that they have loved and looked up to for generations. And it's - what's really amazing is that while this might be newsworthy to us and our generation, the hope is that - you know, like, I have a 6-year-old daughter myself. And the hope is that for our kids, it's not extraordinary at all that we'll be able to see, you know, more representation in the media that they take in.
MICHEL MARTIN: You know, everybody wants to know. Like, how do you become a puppeteer? Did you grow up watching the show? Is this something that was kind of always in your mind?
KIM: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I - you know, I'm the firstborn to Korean immigrants. And so "Sesame Street" is how I learned English, I feel like, - you know, I feel like it's a common story of kids of immigrants. And The dream was always to be a Muppeteer, My husband and I - we took, like, a puppetry for comedy improv class for fun. But it wasn't until 2014 that I was accepted into this puppetry workshop at "Sesame Street." And then Ji-Young just happened this year. It's part of the initiative to teach racial literacy at "Sesame Street." But I think, you know, the sort of genesis of Ji-Young was accelerated with the rise in hate crimes against Asians this year, and "Sesame" knew that they want to do a special sort of celebrating the AAPI community, and it sort of came out of that.
MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young for a second?
MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young? Ji-Young.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Hi.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Is it - so what's NPR stand for?
MARTIN: Well, Ji-Young, it stands for National Public Radio. But right now, we just say NPR.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) What's a radio?
MARTIN: Wow (laughter). Radio is how a lot of people listen to interesting music and interesting news.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, OK. That - I get that. That's cool. My parents listen to news. I like rock 'n' roll music, though. That's my favorite. And you know what?
KIM: (As Ji-Young) I'm really good at the electric guitar.
MARTIN: Wow, I heard that you are. How did you learn to play the electric guitar?
KIM: (As Ji-Young) I learned from videos. I took lessons. I practice a lot 'cause I want to be really good.
MARTIN: Well, I look forward to seeing you on "Sesame Street." Thank you for visiting with us today.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Aw, thank you. It's a really nice place. You should come and visit.
MARTIN: I sure will. I sure will. OK. Let me say goodbye to Ms. Kathleen.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) OK. Goodbye, Michel. It's nice talking...
MARTIN: Nice talking to you.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you, Kathleen Kim. I really look forward to hearing more from you and from Ji-Young. That is Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer behind Ji-Young, the first-ever Asian American Muppet on "Sesame Street." Kathleen Kim, thank you so much for being with us and for bringing Ji-Young.
KIM: Oh, thank you. Thank you guys so much.
FLORIDO: Next, let's talk about the power of music to help us heal and process some of the traumas we've gone through as a country these past few years. And for that, we turn to multi-platinum singer-songwriter Anthony Hamilton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T CRY")
ANTHONY HAMILTON: (Singing) Mama, don't cry. I made it this time. No more tears, no more sorrow. I'm doing just fine. I had to beg, steal and borrow. Bills can wait till tomorrow. We pulled through some hard times.
FLORIDO: That's "Mama Don't Cry" from "Love Is The New Black," Hamilton's first album in five years. Michel Martin asked him why he wrote that particular track.
HAMILTON: You're seeing what's unfolding in the news and around you and your city, with the racial divide and all the stuff happening. And you're stuck in the house with the pandemic, and you become real sensitive. And just being a Black man, it made me think of George Floyd. And at first, I was going to name the song "George Floyd." It was that place that made me want to write this particular song. We wanted to touch the heart strings of people, man, and just let them know, like, hey, we're losing a lot of people. But, mama, don't cry. Papa, don't cry. Be proud of me. I made it. I'm on the other side now. And, you know, I want my folks to ride for me. If something was to ever happen for me, don't cry for me. Just ride for me. Go out and do something. Celebrate and make something happen in my memory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T CRY")
HAMILTON: (Singing) Don't cry for me. Don't cry for me, mama. Just ride for me. Ride for me, papa, till I see you again - till I see you again.
MARTIN: One of the things that people value about you is that they think that you will allow yourself to express vulnerability in ways that other artists do not. A lot of their songs are about sex, and a lot of your songs are about love and relationships. And I wonder, do you feel like these last months intensified that for you or - your willingness to be vulnerable?
HAMILTON: Yeah. Yeah, it has, you know, because we've all been made to feel sensitive and powerless in these last two years. Even the richest person had to be humbled down. So we were all vulnerable. And I know a lot of people were losing relationships, and marriages were busting up. And I wanted to help people to focus on some other stuff that could really help you get back to your healthier self and find love. That makes me feel like I have a job that, you know, I could have for a long time because I don't mind saying it. I don't mind exposing what I've been through. I don't mind allowing myself to be the blueprint for a man who needs work.
MARTIN: I wonder if that comes from - I mean, you had a long road to getting where you are. And, you know, you were - not that there's any shame in that because we all love our barbers, but you know, you were cutting hair in a barber shop...
HAMILTON: Oh, still cut hair.
MARTIN: Do you really?
MARTIN: Do you really still...
HAMILTON: I have six sons. Oh, yeah. I have six sons, so...
MARTIN: Oh, OK. See, you're not trying to go broke. You remember the before times, though, before the 10 albums? And do you...
HAMILTON: Oh, absolutely. Those are some of the best times of my life, before the music came out. You know, I've had some great times since I've been, you know, successful or so-called made it. But before that, oh, man. Like, who's getting the last bag of Oodles Of Noodles? Who got that last piece of chicken and that last piece of white bread? Oh, my God. You talking about a trophy? Look. Look. Those are some of the best times - and not knowing how you were going to get that pair of shoes or how you were going to meet this young lady when you didn't have nothing real fly to wear or nothing real fly to say. In the beginning, like, you know, you had to make it work.
MARTIN: And now, you know, you've got some sexy collaborations on this new album, if I may say.
HAMILTON: Yeah, that's sexy. (Singing) A little sexy on the album. Sexy it is.
MARTIN: (Laughter) You got Rick Ross on "Real Love." You got Lil Jon on "I'm Ready."
MARTIN: There's your duet with Jennifer Hudson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTAR")
JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) What to say, what to say to make you come again. Come back to me. Come back to me, babe. I want to be - I want to be anywhere you are.
HAMILTON: (Singing) Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby. You said you'd be coming back this way again, baby.
MARTIN: OK, pressure - this has been a hit for a lot of people, most notably Luther Vandross, 1983. So no pressure at all.
HAMILTON: This is one of my all-time favorite songs. This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Even younger, listening to Luther Vandross - I was a huge fan of Luther Vandross. I just - I didn't understand how he could sing so controlled yet still give you chills and that emotion as if he was wailing off like a gospel singer. It lured me in, and I became such a huge fan of that record. So I've always wanted to redo it. I was like, you know what? It needs to be special. This is Luther Vandross. If I'm going to go down in flames, I ain't going down by myself.
HAMILTON: I'm going to take Jennifer Hudson 'cause I love her so much. Just come and go down in flames with me if we don't make it. And - yeah, and I'm glad we didn't try to outsing each other on it. It wasn't a holler-fest.
HAMILTON: (Singing) I love you. You love me.
So we didn't have to do all that. We just kept it classy and sung the hell out of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTAR")
HAMILTON: (Singing) It's all right. It's all right. Oh, baby, it's all right. When are you going to say...
FLORIDO: Thanks to Anthony Hamilton for that soothing music.
And finally, as we begin 2022 in the midst of yet another pandemic surge, we want to remember all those lost to COVID by revisiting a moving memorial that Michel first took us to in September.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MARTIN: Most of the time when you take a stroll along the National Mall here in Washington, D.C., your eyes are drawn to the Washington Monument, standing tall in the middle of wide-open space. But this week, it's the space around it that demands your attention. From a few blocks away, it looks almost like water. Come closer, and you see row after row of white flags, thousands of them. And when the wind picks up...
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)
ELAINE WANG: It almost sparkles in a way, kind of like sequins.
MARTIN: Elaine Wang (ph) is a medical student in Washington, D.C. For her, the beauty of the sea of flags is a stark contrast to what it represents, the more than 680,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19.
WANG: It feels almost wrong in some way, given that, you know, with so many lost, you want to be mourning and frustrated and angry that the pandemic has taken a hold of our nation in such dramatic ways. But it is really beautiful.
MARTIN: It is beautiful and strangely familiar, reminiscent of another place that commemorates grief and loss buried nearby, Arlington Cemetery, with its row upon row of white gravestones. Here, each flag is inscribed by hand with the name of someone who died from COVID and sometimes their stories. We bumped into another visitor, Audie Santoyo (ph), just as she was trying to reach her mother Claudia (ph) on the phone.
AUDIE SANTOYO: (Laughter) Mom's letting me down today.
MARTIN: She wanted to walk virtually through the memorial with her mom, an ER nurse in Chicago. Santoyo has been worried about her all throughout the pandemic.
SANTOYO: It's just so scary to think about what could happen and knowing - like, my aunt, she's a nurse in Mexico as well. And she got it. And sadly, it didn't go the way we wanted to. It's really hard to accept death overall in life. So, I mean, I have gone through it. But it hasn't been so, like, everyone in my life, whereas with my mom, a lot of her friends did unfortunately pass away.
MARTIN: Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg created this project, which is called In America: Remember. She's been hearing similar stories from visitors. When we meet up with her, she's talking with and comforting a woman whose father's name is inscribed on one of the flags.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you...
SUZANNE BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: You take good care...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Very much again.
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: ...Of yourself. And...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I will. And my mom really appreciates this.
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: And take good care of your mom.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I will. Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Brennan Firstenberg told us she's able to hold space for people's grief, in part because of her 25 years as a hospice volunteer.
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: But I break down. I'll tell you, every single day, I'm walking amongst these flags. I'm writing flags for people. And it just brings me to tears, like this one that I'm about to plant. It's Dr. Peter L. Yu, the first doctor who passed away from COVID-19 in South Bend, Ind. He went to work one day and never left. I just couldn't let people's deaths become simply a number. And the white flag is perfect. People can write on it to personalize it in honor of a loved one whom they've lost. And white, of course, is the color of innocence and purity. None of these people wanted to die from this.
MARTIN: How have you seen people responding to the work?
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: You know, I knew that they would bring their grief. But I got to tell you, this installation has taught me that America is hurting. We are hurting.
MARTIN: How so?
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: The grief is overwhelming. And so many people have said to me, Suzanne, this is the first time I've been able to cry. It's a safe space for grief. But what that also says is we in America need to figure out our relationship with grief.
MARTIN: So you did this once before, when there were under 300,000 deaths due to COVID. That was last year. Did you imagine that it would get to this point?
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: I had no idea it would get this bad. I ordered these flags, specially made for this installation, in June. And I ordered 630,000 thinking we would never reach that number. I've had to reorder twice.
MARTIN: Brennan Firstenberg asks that visitors look at one flag and then imagine the concentric circles of grief around that flag - the family, the neighbors, the friends, the coworkers, the people in their faith community and the medical professionals who treated them.
BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: It's the physical manifestation of empathy. And when people see the names on flags, it really does spur empathy.
FLORIDO: Empathy that is still very much needed in 2022. That was artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg speaking to my colleague Michel Martin in Washington, D.C., last fall about her exhibit, In America: Remember. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.