Now, More Than Ever: Issue 16
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Today, those lyrics from Sweet Honey in the Rock’s great “Ella’s Song” ring in my ears. As I write these words, our nation is consumed in protest. Tens of thousands of fellow Americans have risen up and taken to the streets, staging widespread demonstrations. Most have been peaceful, but some have exploded into violence. The country itself is crying out in rage and pain.
On Friday evening (May 29), UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ addressed the campus community:
While we all profoundly feel the suffering and loss related to COVID-19—suffering and loss visited disproportionately on those who are Black, indigenous, people of color, and poor—we are appalled by the racist killings of recent weeks. We write to express our outrage; we stand in steadfast solidarity with our Black community; and we offer heartfelt condolences to the loved ones of the victims of the racially-motivated violence that is taking place in various communities across America. Unchecked violence at the hands of police and civilians requires our—and all of society’s—urgent attention.
As a campus community, we stand with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while jogging in Georgia by two white men. We stand with Christian Cooper, who was the victim of a woman’s attempt to use the police as a weapon against him while he pursued his passion for birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. We stand with the loved ones of Breonna Taylor, an essential worker during this pandemic who was killed in her home by police. We stand against the senseless killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer who knelt on his neck, while three others watched and assisted, as Mr. Floyd choked out the same final words of another slain Black man, Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”
In times of upheaval, we have always found it helpful—indeed, necessary—to come together and raise our voices in song.
Songs that express our anger, sorrow, and pain.
Songs that give voice to our deepest fears and most profound hopes.
Songs with the power to change minds, inspire action, and influence the future.
I’m thinking about…
- Singer Marian Anderson, who in 1939—and because of her race—was barred from performing before an integrated audience in Washington, DC, but found herself on Easter Sunday, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing “America” (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”) before more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. (The event had come about following direct intervention by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, providing a notable example of the importance of having allies in a great struggle.) In the process, Anderson became a beacon of hope and unity and an enduring symbol of the promise of the American Dream.
- Jazz legend Billie Holiday, who—through immense talent and sheer force of will—helped build international awareness of racial violence; her searing recording of “Strange Fruit” captured the public’s attention and shook the nation.
- Gifted performers—like Ray Charles and many others—whose impassioned recordings helped transform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into one of the most cherished freedom songs of all time.
- The brilliant members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who communicate their diverse experiences as Black women through song, dance, and sign language.
- The then-Brooklyn-based Gabriel Kahane, a singer/songwriter whose deeply felt “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)” recounts the story of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl shot dead while buying orange juice in South Central Los Angeles, just 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
I’m thinking about my native South Africa, a country that once seemed destined for a far worse fate than could ever be experienced in the United States, but which—through heroic efforts to bring the reality of its inequality to the world’s attention by freedom fighters like Hugh Masekela—was able to set itself on a new course that, if not yet complete, has sent a message of hope to the world.
And I’m thinking about John Henry Mackay a Scottish-German thinker and writer whose poem “Morgen!” was set to soaring music in one of Richard Strauss’ best-known and most widely recorded works. How much more meaningful it is to learn that this gay man, who died in Germany in the shadow of Hitler’s ascendancy, here gave voice to the joys of passionate love, and a yearning for a world of acceptance and a more hopeful tomorrow. In the hands of Jessye Norman, this vision for unity takes flight.
And tomorrow the sun will shine again
And on the path that I shall take,
It will unite us, happy ones, again,
Amid this same sun-breathing earth …
And to the shore, broad, blue-waved,
We shall quietly and slowly descend,
Speechless we shall gaze into each other’s eyes,
And the speechless silence of bliss shall fall on us
(Translation: Richard Stokes)
I want to share all of these songs and performances with you today in that same spirit—in the hope that they will both encourage reflection and inspire action. And because they reflect my conviction that, especially during troubled times, the performing arts reflect our most fervent aspirations, creating, from the seeds of discord, a challenge to be better human beings.
We need these reminders. Now, more than ever.