Songs And Music That Is Giving Us Life During The Coronavirus Pandemic : Code Switch Talking about race can get real heavy, real fast. Listening to music is one way people have been lightening the mood and sorting through their feelings. So this week, we're sharing some of the songs that are giving all of us life during this especially taxing moment.
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Songs Giving Us (Much Needed) Life

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Songs Giving Us (Much Needed) Life

Songs Giving Us (Much Needed) Life

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

(Singing) La, la, la, la, la - mi, mi, mi, mi, mi (ph).

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

(Singing) La, la, la, la, la.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH

MERAJI: From NPR.

DEMBY: Shereen, four score and seven podcasts ago - I can't do math, but...

MERAJI: More like 317 podcasts.

DEMBY: Three-hundred-seventeen podcasts - oh, my God.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Or more.

DEMBY: We started a little segment called Songs Giving Us Life. The idea - for those of y'all who weren't rocking with us back then - was that when things get a little heavy...

MERAJI: Which you know, is, like, all the time because we're talking about race. But we try to keep it not too heavy because we know that we are living this, too, so we don't always want to be depressed. And one of the ways that we try to do that is, you know, with music.

DEMBY: With some music because music makes the people come together. Music makes the bourgeoisie (laughter). Anyway, music can help us...

MERAJI: (Singing) And the rebel...

DEMBY: (Singing) Yeah.

Music can help us sort through our feelings. It can help lighten our moods.

MERAJI: It connects us to other people. There's nothing I've ever felt that hasn't been expressed by Sade.

DEMBY: By the way, quick CODE SWITCH history trivia. Shereen, do you remember the first ever, ever, ever song we ever did on Songs Giving Us Life?

MERAJI: Yes because I chose it. I started this whole revolution, the Songs Giving Us Life revolution.

DEMBY: Yes, you're like the Little Richard of Songs Giving Us Life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm [expletive] up. Homie, you've [expletive] up. But if God got us, then we gon' be alright. Alright, alright - we gon' be alright.

MERAJI: Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" - if those of you who don't know that song, please educate yourself.

DEMBY: If you don't know that song, please get your life. We chose that song because it speaks to the experience and the hope that so many people of color feel in a white supremacist society. And not coincidentally, after Ferguson, a lot of people were using that song when they protested and when they organized around police brutality and racial injustice.

MERAJI: Yep. And Ferguson was actually one of the first things that we covered together.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.

MERAJI: But if you're paying any attention to the news, you know that things have not changed all that much since Ferguson. And now we're living through a pandemic which is disproportionately affecting black and Latinx and Native communities. And what we need right now is music. We need life. We need the life that music can give us - the Songs That Give Us Life.

DEMBY: Yes. This week, we are all about lifting those self-isolation spirits with some quaran-tunes (ph). Get it? Quaran-tunes 'cause of the....

MERAJI: Oh, look at you - punny.

DEMBY: Some of these are songs that you, our audience - the CODE SWITCH listeners - told us were giving you life.

MERAJI: And some of the recommendations come from guests who've been on the show in the past.

DEMBY: So enjoy. And we hope y'all are singing along with us.

MERAJI: We're actually not going to sing this time. We're going to spare our listeners our singing because we do this way too much. Remember that time I tried to sing along to Whitney Houston?

DEMBY: Do I?

MERAJI: It was bad. People didn't like it.

DEMBY: Do I?

MERAJI: We got tweets. We got emails. Our audience has heard enough.

DEMBY: First of all, your first mistake was trying to sing Whitney Houston. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: Well, I did it. I put myself out there. I made myself vulnerable, and I'm not going to do it again. And that's fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Gene, you're up first. Tag - you're it. What song is giving you life?

DEMBY: The reason you're not going to sing - do it anymore is because the haters - the haters are out there telling you all this negative stuff. But you need - the song that's giving me life is about brushing off the haters. This is actually the song that I listen to at the very beginning of my workouts, when I'm stretching. It's a song by a woman named Maxine Ashley, who is from New York City. I think it's called "Lobster."

And it's a good - it's like a mid-tempo song 'cause when you're stretching, you don't need - like, you need to be all amped. So it's like a good little on-ramp. It's a song about dusting off - you know what I mean? - people looking at you, talking trash. You know I mean? I was going to say another word.

MERAJI: Talking ish (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOBSTER")

MAXINE ASHLEY: (Singing) Why they hating for? Why they hating for? Why they hating on? Why they hating on me for - on me for?

DEMBY: Actually, I don't have any haters right now because there's nobody around. I actually don't have haters even in the outside times, to be honest. But like, there's nobody around to be in contact with. So even if there are haters, they not Zoom calling me, so I wouldn't even know.

MERAJI: The next song giving us life comes from a listener in Germantown, Md. Her name is Zina Renicke (ph). It's called "You're Not The Only One" by Third World, featuring Damian Marley.

ZINA RENICKE: We've been in stay-at-home orders here in Maryland since the middle of March. And I've had highs and lows depending on the hour sometimes. And sometimes I'll just have to put this song on...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY ONE FT. DAMIAN MARLEY")

THIRD WORLD: Yeah, now welcome to Third World.

RENICKE: ...And listen to the refrain - if you're out there somewhere feeling lonely, you're not the only one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY ONE FT. DAMIAN MARLEY")

THIRD WORLD: (Singing) Feeling lonely, you're not the only one.

RENICKE: And it somehow seems to lift my spirits and make me feel connected to the people who are outside of my house who I can't really see these days.

DEMBY: Yes. I think a lot of us can empathize with what Zina's going through 'cause we're all quarantining. We're not seeing anybody. So if you feel like you're alone, you're not the only one. Even though we can't go through it in the same room, I'll bet a lot of us are feeling that very same thing.

MERAJI: Speaking of which, Gene, you know I miss being with - being together with in an office with besides Kumari, Karen and Dianne because I love them and I miss them very much? But my friend and office mate Sam Sanders, I miss him. I miss the fact that he doesn't wear shoes around the office, which used to be something that offended me and I did not like it. But he does have an extensive cute sock collection (laughter)...

DEMBY: Yes, he does have extensive...

MERAJI: ...That he walks around the office in.

DEMBY: He walks around the office just no shoes on, which is funny 'cause for somewhat obvious reasons - although we don't look alike - a lot of people used to get me and Sam Sanders confused. And I was always like, first of all, he's taller than me, he's lighter than me, he's thinner than me. And second of all, look at - he got no shoes on. That's the big one. Just look at his feet.

Anyway, Sam is our play cousin at CODE SWITCH. He's also the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute podcast. And so Sam shared a song with us.

MERAJI: And the song is "Zombie" by Nigerian Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti. It was released in 1976, and it is referencing a struggle - a very different struggle than the one we're going through right now with this pandemic - but a struggle nonetheless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

FELA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie o...

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: First of all, there's a backstory with this thing. The song "Zombie," the entire album is a scathing critique of the Nigerian military during that period. But besides that, I love this song because it is like three songs in one. This song, it is 12 minutes long. It's just these horns and the band just jamming out for like five minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

KUTI: (Singing) Zombie o, zombie...

SANDERS: Then come the vocals...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

KUTI: (Singing) Zombie...

SANDERS: Around seven minutes - around 7:09 or so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

KUTI: (Singing) Order.

SANDERS: Fela does this, like, sung yell that just brings them all back in. And they hit this crescendo again, then they jam out for, like, five more minutes.

DEMBY: See, this song...

MERAJI: I want to hear that right now...

DEMBY: This song goes...

MERAJI: ...The whole thing.

DEMBY: ...So hard. I love it so much. It's - a 12-minute song, it's like - oh, that's a lot - but then you realize that that's actually like a snippet for Fela Kuti.

MERAJI: People had more patience in the '70s, too. You know? There wasn't the Internet messing with their minds.

DEMBY: Yeah, they had eight-tracks, too, so they couldn't even, like, rewind. You know what I mean? They just had to, like, play through the song.

MERAJI: They just had to listen to the whole thing.

DEMBY: Yeah. They had to sit in it - luxuriate and languish.

MERAJI: Which - you know what? - people should be doing right now because we have a lot more time on our hands...

DEMBY: Yeah, you can play, like...

MERAJI: ...All by ourselves

DEMBY: ...Four Fela Kuti songs in the day (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE LO DIJE")

FLOR DE TOLOACHE: (Singing in Spanish).

DEMBY: Yes. What is this song, Shereen? What is this?

MERAJI: This is "Te Lo Dije" by Flor de Toloache. You remember Flor de Toloache - right, Gene?

DEMBY: Yes, I do. They were very dope. They were very dope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE LO DIJE")

FLOR DE TOLOACHE: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: They're an all-women mariachi group. They're based out of New York. They were featured on our podcast a couple of months ago now in this special episode from Latino USA, which is awesome. And if you haven't heard it, go back and listen.

DEMBY: Please listen.

MERAJI: But when the shutdowns and quarantines started happening, they were just finishing up their tour in New Zealand. Here's singer and violin player Mireya Ramos.

MIREYA RAMOS: Just a few hours before our flights back to the States, my fiance and I decided to remain here due to the pandemic. We've been following all the guidelines - staying inside, social distancing - trying to be as healthy, safe and positive as possible.

MERAJI: Which is too bad because the best thing about New Zealand is the natural beauty outside.

DEMBY: It looks so pretty.

MERAJI: So if they're staying inside, that's kind of a bummer.

DEMBY: That's where you went on your honeymoon.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. It is. It's where I went on my honeymoon, and it was amazingly gorgeous. Two other members of the group, Julie Acosta and Shae Fiol, were also in New Zealand when the chaos ensued. But they did something different.

JULIE ACOSTA: I'm Julie. I play trumpet and sing in Flor de Toloache. After our long tour, my 15-month-old and I made it back to our new home in Connecticut, and we reunited with my husband. Thankfully, all in good health and really enjoying each other's company.

SHAE FIOL: Hey, everyone. This is Shae. I play vihuela, and I sing. So after our last date in New Zealand, I made it back home to New Jersey to my partner and my 22-month-old daughter and decided to self-isolate at home for two weeks because of the extensive travel. But since then, we've been reunited, and we're just really enjoying our time together as a family.

DEMBY: OK. So they're talking to us from three different places and two wildly different timezones - like, on different sides of the planet.

MERAJI: Yes. But they're still finding a way to enjoy music together. And the song giving them life is "Blue Skies" by the legend Ella Fitzgerald. OK. And since, you know, they're actual musicians, they are going to sing it.

FLOR DE TOLOACHE: (Singing) Bluebirds singing a song - nothing but bluebirds all day long.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Singing it in harmony with each other over the distance is really healing for us as a band.

FLOR DE TOLOACHE: (Singing) Nothing but blue skies...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thanks so much for listening, and we hope this little bit of music brings you much, much joy.

MERAJI: They did a really nice job. I was a little concerned when I heard they were going to do Ella Fitzgerald. But they definitely pulled it off.

DEMBY: Why were you worried?

MERAJI: I don't know. I mean, you've got to have a lot of confidence to do Ella.

DEMBY: Right. Like you with Whitney Houston doing karaoke. But I mean, if you just hear their speaking voice...

MERAJI: (Laughter) That is so messed up.

DEMBY: (Laughter) I'm sorry. That wasn't shade.

MERAJI: Anyway.

DEMBY: I was just - that was a compliment to your confidence. That's what that was. That's what that was.

MERAJI: Oh, well, thank you. Thank you.

DEMBY: Coming up after the break, we have more songs giving you life from people who also give you life.

YARA SHAHIDI: As a family, we have all been going head-to-head, bar-for-bar pretty much every night to see who knows more rap verses from songs from the '80s to the early 2000s.

MERAJI: My favorite family, the Shahidis.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: That was Yara Shahidi, if you don't recognize her voice. I follow her mom on the IG. More on that after the break. Stay with us.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And we are back with all the songs here to give you life. Up next, we've got a bop or a jam or a bop that slaps. I'm so happy somebody recommended this song, by the way.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yes. Thank you to Jennifer Esperanza (ph) from Beloit, Wis., who is reminding us you don't need to be at the club to rock out to Missy Elliott. Her pick is "Cool Off."

JENNIFER ESPERANZA: I play this song in my kitchen while I'm cleaning, while I'm folding laundry, or I play it when I go out for a run. I need a song with a good party vibe. This is a song that hits hard from the very first second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL OFF")

MISSY ELLIOT: (Singing) Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it...

ESPERANZA: No buildup needed, the beat is steady. It hits hard. Also, I love an air horn, and "Cool Off" does not disappoint with the air horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL OFF")

MISSY ELLIOT: (Singing) Missy in this, in this, doing...

ESPERANZA: I can imagine hearing this at a gathering and hearing everyone collectively going, ey (ph), which is what we all want to hear again, right?

DEMBY: So true.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: So true.

MERAJI: So true. Although I cannot wait to be back at the club, dancing to some Missy Elliott.

DEMBY: Shereen, what's your favorite Missy track if you were just dancing at your crib or just at the club?

MERAJI: (Singing) Is it worth it, let me work it. I put my thing down flip it and reverse it.

DEMBY: (Singing) ...Reverse it (vocalizing).

MERAJI: (Vocalizing) Yeah.

DEMBY: Is that her most famous song? That's probably her most famous song, right?

MERAJI: (Singing) I like the way you work that (vocalizing).

DEMBY: My favorite Missy Elliott song is not a Missy Elliott song, formally. It's "Make It Hot" by Nicole Wray, which is one of those songs that Missy has the feature on but is basically, like - and obviously produced. It sounds very Missy-ish. It's so dope. Anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: You all might have heard of this next listener. She was on the podcast a while ago. She stars in shows like "Black-ish." She has her own show called "Grown-ish." She's in the movies. She's in Drake videos. We both have Iranian dads. Her mom's black, like Gene's mom.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: What a strange thing to say, though, Shereen. But that's true. My mom is black.

SHAHIDI: Hey, CODE SWITCH. It's Yara Shahidi. I'm currently on the sunny West Coast, grateful to be with my family right now. And if you know me, you already know that I listen to music 24/7. Nothing's changed, except I listened to it 25/7 now, if that's even possible.

But the musicians and songs that have been getting me through it range from James Blake and his entire discography, his IG Live concerts that he's been doing; my girls Chloe x Halle, who have a fantastic album on the way and just dropped the song "Catch Up"; Juto - J-U-T-O - his EP "Wool" is phenomenal, and the song "Night Text" reminds me of being on the beach for some reason, but either way, that's the energy that we need in the world right now. And as a family, we have all been going head to head, bar for bar, pretty much every night, to see who knows more rap verses from songs from the '80s to the early 2000s.

MERAJI: I want some photo evidence or some video evidence on IG of this because I've been following her mom, which is @chocolatemommyluv - that's her handle - Keri Shahidi. And she has a lot of photos of the family, lots of fruit platters. They've been working out a lot and eating a lot of fruit, but I have not seen these epic rap battles yet.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Epic rap battle.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Anyway, hip-hop, '90s hip-hop. It is a wonderful, wonderful time in music, and I am going to pick one song from that era for the song giving me life. It is from one of my favorite groups, The Coup from Oakland, Calif.

DEMBY: Always The Coup.

MERAJI: The song is "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish." And it's giving me life because it is a stinging critique of capitalism. It is a hustler who realizes he cannot out-hustle the system, the capitalist system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAT CATS, BIGGA FISH")

THE COUP: Well, what have we here?

MERAJI: This is a whole story, by the way. This isn't just, like, a couple stanzas and then you repeat the chorus over and over again, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAT CATS, BIGGA FISH")

THE COUP: (Singing) I got a ball of lint for property, so I slip my beanie on sloppily and promenade out to take up a collection.

MERAJI: It has an arc. You feel things. You're going on a journey. So if you all are not familiar with this song, you should check it out because it's - we're not going to be able to do it justice here. That is "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish" by The Coup, Boots Riley and The Coup.

DEMBY: All these years later, though, Boots Riley is still doing stinging critiques of capitalism and white supremacy.

MERAJI: Yes. That man has been on a mission, and he has not wavered. Plus, I love the beat.

DEMBY: Anyway, thank you, Yara, for giving us an excuse to go down memory lane.

MERAJI: Yes, and to talk about Boots Riley.

SHAHIDI: Manifesting much abundance and global health. Peace - Yara.

MERAJI: Ah, I love her.

DEMBY: Manifesting much abundance and global health. That's how I imagine that all Californians greet each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Next up, we're going to hear from Sonia Satee (ph) from Long Island. The song that's giving her life is called "Coconut Water." Coconut water is also a good natural alternative to Gatorade, y'all. So if you're out running or whatever...

MERAJI: And it's delicious.

DEMBY: It's "Coconut Water" by Nia Sultana.

It is delicious. Moss (ph) doesn't like it but, you know, whatever.

Sonia has very special reason for choosing the song "Coconut Water."

SONIA SATEE: I'm about to graduate medical school and enter the health care workforce amid COVID, so hope is something I'm looking for right now. I'm sure many others are feeling the same, and I hope this song helps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCONUT WATER")

NIA SULTANA: (Singing) Bet the palm trees speak if...

SATEE: The artist's voice sounds kind of ethereal, and the lyrics are like a comforting mantra - better days are on the way, got to just keep living life while we wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCONUT WATER")

SULTANA: (Singing) Better just keep living life while we wait.

MERAJI: Sonia wrote to us with that pick a few weeks ago, and then last week, she did it - she graduated.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: Now she's headed to Chicago to start her residency.

DEMBY: Wow. Congratulations. And good luck to you, Sonia. We appreciate you offering this song up for us and everything you're about to do.

MERAJI: All right, Gene, our last guest has also been on the podcast before. I'm a fan. I listened to her music in Zumba class.

DEMBY: Zumba because Zoom - Zumba? 'Cause it's on Zoom?

MERAJI: Yes, it is on Zoom now - Zumba.

DEMBY: Kick game.

MERAJI: And it's not the same.

DEMBY: Kick game.

MERAJI: It is not the same. Yeah, you're hilarious.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: She's Afro Latina. She's an artist whose tracks are always, always giving me life, no matter what mood I'm in. Plus, she's been traveling to black and Latinx neighborhoods to make sure people are getting the very best information about coronavirus to keep them safe. Today, though, she's going to tell us about a song that's giving her life.

AMARA LA NEGRA: Hey, guys. What's up? What's going on? It's your girl Amara La Negra, and I am here in Miami, Fla., enjoying at least the palm trees. And to be honest, I'm going to tell you that during this time, a song that has really kept me motivated and an artist that always makes me feel good is Donna Summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONNA SUMMER SONG, "SHE WORKS HARD FOR HER MONEY")

LA NEGRA: "She Works Hard For The Money" definitely has to be one of those songs that I just feel like - you know what? - no matter how bad things are right now, I'm going to get my butt up, I'm going to go work, and I'm going to figure this out.

(Singing) She works hard for the money.

So you already know it's your girl Amara La Negra, and this is how I'm surviving and living my quarantine (laughter).

DEMBY: (Singing) She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Gene. Gene.

DEMBY: What? What's up?

MERAJI: Hey. Didn't we say we weren't going to sing?

DEMBY: Um.

MERAJI: We said that that was the thing that we were not going to do.

DEMBY: I got carried away. Interesting juxtaposition between a critique of capitalism and working hard for the money. Or maybe...

MERAJI: Oh.

DEMBY: ...Working hard for the money is a critique of capitalism...

MERAJI: Good point.

DEMBY: ...That Donna Summer was doing, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: And that is an '80s song, and '80s felt like that's when everybody was doing the hardcore capitalism thing, you know.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: We were all wearing - well, I - yeah.

DEMBY: I wasn't. You were (laughter).

MERAJI: It was all about power suits and...

DEMBY: Shoulder pads.

MERAJI: ...Walking really fast...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ....In New York City in your sneakers.

DEMBY: Yeah (laughter).

MERAJI: Like, that was a thing.

DEMBY: Yeah, exactly.

MERAJI: And then the '90s (laughter) was all about, like, F this.

DEMBY: Yeah, they trying to extract...

MERAJI: So yeah.

DEMBY: ...Extract the value of our labor from us.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I don't know how to pivot out of that. I'm sorry (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I think that's just our show. Are we done?

DEMBY: It is (laughter).

MERAJI: I think - yeah, I think that's a good place to end (laughter).

DEMBY: We are going loopy because we've been in our respective homes for weeks on end. But these songs are giving us life, obviously, as you can tell. You should go follow our Songs Giving Us Life Spotify playlist. You can just search for Songs Giving Us Life.

MERAJI: And you can also follow us on Twitter at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Yara Shahidi's mom on Instagram, @chocolatemommyluv, if you're into that.

DEMBY: (Laughter) @chocolatemommyluv.

MERAJI: Lots of fruit plates. There is going to be an epic rap battle at some point.

DEMBY: Hopefully, yes.

MERAJI: Oh, and sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletters.

DEMBY: This episode you're listening to was produced by Kumari Devarajan, who made it sound good. It was edited by Leah Donnella, who made it make sense - or tried to.

MERAJI: Shoutout to - did it make sense?

DEMBY: I don't know. I don't know.

MERAJI: I don't know if Leah did her job.

DEMBY: It's kind of up in the air.

MERAJI: We'll let you decide, listeners.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Steve Drummond, Jess Kung, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson. Our interns are Isabella Rosario and Dianne Lugo.

DEMBY: And a special, special welcome to our newest CODE SWITCH family member - her name is Alyssa Jeong Perry. Alyssa is going to be producing stories for CODE SWITCH. And the song giving Alyssa life is...

ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: "Savage (Remix)" by Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce.

MERAJI: Stay inside, everybody. And listen to music.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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