Musicians Serenade The Motor City For Esquire’s “Last Night in Detroit”

Brendan Benson, Raphael Saadiq & more lend their talents to an American cornerstone in need of revival.   

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud


I'm a Detroit boy. Born and (mostly) raised in the suburbs of the once-great Motor City, it's hard to read up on my old hometown, with its gutted homes, plummeting populations and decimated auto industry. Sure, things are bad, but pride in the "D" still remains; I can cop to getting chills hearing Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and, even now, missing the days of Faygo Redpop – far before the humiliating clowns called ICP co-opted the soda brand as its signature crowd-spray resource.


Hometown love is what led me to Esquire's "Last Night in Detroit" songwriting challenge, but the caliber of artists and quality of music caused me to stay and dig deeper. The beleaguered former metropolis' story is well-known by now, having been reduced to an economic husk of its former auto-capital self, the jobs evaporating with outsourced labor and widespread financial crisis, resulting in its citizens fleeing en masse.


But tiny sprouts are beginning to appear through the broken concrete strewn in the ashen soil where boarded-up homes stood just months ago. As rock bottom gives way to a new ferocity of determination to renew and rebuild, artists are beginning to find a resource of inspiration and a motivation to draw attention to reviving what was once a true beacon of the American Dream. Artists like Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, Raphael Saadiq, Dhani Harrison and more. 


Esquire's second annual Songwriting Challenge focused on the midwestern city fighting for its life, with writer Andy Langer stating, "We came to Detroit to witness this fight and to honor it, and to announce that — by selling these five original songs and donating the proceeds to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Detroit — we intend to join it. You can help, too, and you can listen to some damn good music while you're at it. Click on the artist pages below to download the songs on iTunes and learn more about the talent behind them — and those cool clothes they're wearing in the photos."


As Langer explains, there's more to the story of Detroit than broken lives and shuttered windows. "There's another side to this story," he says, "Of carmakers once again posting profits and creating jobs. Of Mayor Dave Bing, a good man who rules City Hall with bold ideas and backbone. Of artists and entrepreneurs arriving en masse, lured by cheap rents, tax breaks, and wide-open spaces. Of the three quarters of a million or so residents who still eat and sleep and believe in Detroit."


"And of music. In shitty dive bars and majestic concert halls, the music of Detroit pulses with the sound and fury of a city in the fight for its life."

Raphael Saadiq shared a few thoughts on the city's impact and the song he wrote for the challenge:

His favorite Motown song: "When I hear the Four Tops' 'Bernadette,' it puts me in a dream. I think I'm there in Detroit. I see the Cadillacs. I see how Detroit might have been at that point — the clubs, the nightlife. It paints that picture. They were living the dream I didn't get to see."

About the song he wrote for Esquire: "It's about having too much whiskey and wandering around Detroit. I get so drunk, I don't notice I broke into Motown. From there an angel kisses me and it feels like it's a Supreme. And then I'm having a smoke with James Jamerson, a Motown legend and my favorite bass player. It's a freaky fantasy kind of deal."


Read more about the Songwriting Challenge and listen to clips from each artist's contribution at Esquire.