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Hymns, Hip-Hop, and Harmony

Be alive and resist, MLK panelists urge at Gotlieb commemoration


On Friday, April 4, a panel of multigenerational African American artists discussed the cultural legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59): (from left) Derek Walcott (Hon.'93), Sonia Sanchez, and Talib Kweli), and others performed for a packed house to mark the 1968 assassination of the civil rights leader. Photos by Allan E. Dines

Forty years ago, the voice of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was silenced in Memphis, Tenn. Last Friday, its echo filled the GSU’s Metcalf Ballroom.

It began with internationally renowned bass-baritone Simon Estes, a College of Fine Arts music professor, delivering moving renditions of “Go Down, Moses” and “A City Called Heaven” to open a dynamic evening of discussion and performances commemorating the legacy of King (GRS’55, Hon.’59), assassinated April 4, 1968. The event featured hymns, poems, spoken-word pieces, and hip-hop — staged by music and literary stars and BU students.

Presented by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center and the Poetry Society of America, Forty Years of Inspiration: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., drew hundreds of people, young and old, many spilling into the ballroom’s overflow section. The messages: think for yourself, stand behind your beliefs, be alive, and resist — injustice, ignorance, and mediocrity. The event was cosponsored by the Boston Review and Cave Canem, an African-American poetry group.

In addition to Estes, the multigenerational panel included poets Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Sam Cornish, Boston’s poet laureate, and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott (Hon.’93), a College of Arts and Sciences creative writing professor, as well as hip-hop artists Chuck D and Talib Kweli.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” journalist and panel moderator Callie Crossley began, quoting King. “The people on this panel have worked very hard to make sure they gave voice to the voiceless.”

Estes, the grandson of slaves, who has sung for world leaders, recalled hearing the late civil rights leader speak. “Martin reminded me very much of Moses leading his people out of Egypt,” he said. “Martin was a modern-day Moses, to lead not only people of color, but all of God’s children into a land of peace.”

Estes said he encourages his students, most of whom are not black, to try singing a Negro spiritual, because it’s “a song with a message of hope and sadness, of joy, of courage, of a message — Let my people go. In fact, we can all sing Negro spirituals, because inside all of us is a spirit and that spirit has no color and it knows no color and knows no nationality. It is the presence of God living inside of us, and God has no color.”

Rapper and political activist Chuck D, whose 1960s childhood in Queens, N.Y., unfolded against a backdrop of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and an ever-shifting definition of his race, talked about growing up comforted by voices — Giovanni’s, Sanchez’s, and King’s.

“My parents would be playing the turntable, the voices of the time always seemed like they was up in the crib,” said the frontman for the rap group Public Enemy. “To me, the voices were spewing out love music, and love music was like, I got your back, no matter what.”

He advocated for greater arts education and consumer consciousness, especially when it comes to music, which he believes can teach history. He urged students to be a “nerd about what you’re about, a brainiac about what you love” and warned against allowing others to define the meaning of King’s work.

“What I don’t like is CNN, MSNBC, or any other media outlet telling you what King’s legacy is without you trying to figure it out first, without your community, your neighborhood, your household telling you what it is,” he said. “As far as the legacy of Dr. King, for me it’s avoid being a goddamn robot, avoid someone programming how you should be on the outside without ever knowing your inside.”

In 1964, King donated some 80,000 items to BU, including office files, manuscripts, awards, and extensive correspondence. Several of the panelists also have donated their archives to the Gotlieb Center, including Giovanni. The 63-year-old poet said one of the lessons she draws from King is about the obligations of the living.

“If you’re not dead, you’d better be alive,” she said. “So what the legacy means to me is that every day that I’m here, I’m going to enjoy something, laugh at something, I’m going to try and love somebody, and then I’m going to try and do good work.”

Kweli, a hip-hop star from Brooklyn, N.Y., often described as an Afrocentric rapper, said he has spent time studying King’s stirring oratory style and his ability to capture an audience. The son of college professors, Kweli said King’s images and speeches were found everywhere in his home.

“When I think of Dr. King, I think of family,” he said. “Martin Luther King has become an international symbol of peace, but what he represents to me is power. I think he used peace to achieve power. He realized we didn’t have power.”

The panel discussion also touched upon the responsibilities of African-American art and the connection between artists and social movements. Afterward, Giovanni, an ardent fan of hip-hop, with a “Thug Life” tattoo on her forearm to prove it, performed an “updated” version of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with stage actress Val Grey Ward and poet Oni Lasana.

“It’s not that Martin is out of date,” Giovanni said. “But it is your generation now. Everything that Martin did was in cadence, and it should be able to be rapped.”

Giovanni later read poetry, along with Walcott, Sanchez, and Lasana, while Ward performed an interpretation of Dudley Randall’s poem “The Ballad of Birmingham,” about the four young girls killed in that city’s infamous 1963 church bombing. Chuck D rapped several verses from the 1991 Public Enemy song “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” which attacked the state for refusing to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday. Kweli rounded out the performances with his hit “Hostile Gospel” from the 2007 album Eardrum, which also features the voice of Sanchez, several generations his senior. Three BU students — Andrew Jones (CGS’07, COM’09), Jessica Kontchou (CAS’11), and Francis Pina (MET’09) — performed spoken-word pieces, all to standing ovations.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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