It was a sign! No, literally: it was a sign. Scrolling through my Facebook feed before settling down to write up my interview with American musician Damien Sneed, I saw that a friend had posted an image of a Manhattan billboard, taken sometime during the course of the Vietnam War. And on that billboard was a quote from civil-rights leader and peace activist Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.”
More than 50 years on, those words still ring true—and it doesn’t take much research to find that King was uncommonly prescient when it came to not just the African-American condition, but the human condition. His analysis of race and class relations still holds up—and is even more striking at this time of radically increased economic inequality, jingoism, and racial tension.
Which, as it happens, is the point of We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the musical extravaganza Sneed will bring to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts next weekend. Using a combination of archival film footage, time-tested protest songs, and modern musical expressions of black life, the pianist, singer, and conductor will survey that unique combination of social activism, song, and faith that was the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s—and how its message is needed as much now as then.
King, a Baptist minister who was assassinated in 1968, is the show’s focal point: we’ll hear and see him speak, and learn how his oratory inspired some of the greatest soul and gospel music ever recorded.
“The church was always the centre of community for African Americans, because it wasn’t just a religious institution,” Sneed explains by phone from an East Lansing, Michigan, tour stop. “It also served as a place where they would look to their leaders to get direction as to how to vote. And the idea of Martin Luther King as a prophet came out of the African-American church, because he was a prophet to his demographic, culturally—to the African-American people.”
King and other religious leaders, Sneed continues, gave old church songs—some dating back to before the Civil War and the end of slavery—new relevance, while the passion of their belief soon influenced the chart hits of the era.
“When people sang the songs of the civil-rights era, songs of protest and reconciliation—many of which I include in this tour—they really prayed and believed that God would allow them to be victorious and to get through being hosed down with fire hoses or whatever they were dealing with,” he notes. “Whatever they were dealing with, it was infused with their faith. So therefore the songs of the church, their political activism, their participation in the community as a community… Those were all tied together; that’s why in even the music that was birthed after the civil-rights era by artists like Aretha Franklin, for example, you still hear the sound of church. You hear the patterns, the motifs, and the colours that you’d hear in the church music of that era.”
Sneed doesn’t invoke the Queen lightly. He’s worked with Franklin, among many other soul greats, and was the late opera luminary Jessye Norman’s accompanist prior to her death. Their impact is all over We Shall Overcome, a powerful history lesson that’s also a rollicking good time.
“One of the take-aways that many audiences tell us about afterward, and that people write letters, send emails, and post about on social media, is that they feel such a sincere, palpable love—and such an energy and drive—from me, from the singers, and from the band,” he says. “They get to take that home, or to wherever they’re going. And one thing that makes my show very different is that it is participatory.
“That’s the reason I’m doing this tour: as a call to action, to let people know that they are important and that the music itself is a universal language,” he adds. “So people can feel the… How can I say it? The necessary empowerment and encouragement that is so needed now, I believe. It’s a call to not give up, and to persevere.”
We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on February 29.