Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is paramount among my heroes and sheroes. There’s particular resonance when I bring in the musical components for BAM's annual tribute, because, in addition to winning the audience, there are several threads that must tie together seamlessly:
One being the man himself and what he stood for. Two is BAM’s role as a global benchmark of culture. And, three, Brooklyn’s distinction as the most populous and diverse citizenry on the planet. I’d never presume to know Dr. King’s “mountaintop” vision of humanity, but I’d guess Brooklyn would be a fairly accurate snapshot.
Dr. King had many connections to the music community. His wife, Coretta, was an accomplished classical singer. His chief cultural liaison was Harry Belafonte. Notables like Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, The Staples Singers, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Paul and Mary, and The Blind Boys of Alabama performed at his political events.
Dr. King recorded some thoughts and speeches for the Black Forum division of Motown. And musicians, specifically Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron, did much of the private sector legwork to get the MLK holiday passed. Until his passing last year, Gil hosted an annual New York City residence commemorating Dr. King.
In the 25 years BAM has presented the MLK tribute, many high-profile musical luminaries have participated, including Mr. Belafonte, Ms. Johnson Reagon, Angélique Kidjo, Dr. John, Mavis Staples, Donnie McClurkin, Hezekiah Walker, Lizz Wright, Boys Choir of Harlem, Melba Moore, The Persuasions, Kenny Muhammad, and others.
Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely will perform at this year's MLK Tribute on Jan 16
With BAMcafé Live, the music programming has expanded. We presented a salute to the Civil Rights music of Curtis Mayfield by the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra. We hosted the first-ever tribute to the four women of civil rights song: Nina Simone, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and Abbey Lincoln. Politically-conscious hip-hop crews like Blitz the Ambassador, the Earthman Experience and PS 24 have performed here. This year's BAMcafé Live lineup includes new-jazz vocalist Chanda Rule (Jan 13) and avant-rock group MuthaWit (Jan 14):
My responsibility is to reflect the living legacy of Dr. King as close to the context as possible—to have music programming that captures the human rights struggle in the here-and-now.
I don’t want Dr. King’s legacy to be viewed as a static museum piece to be dismissed as past tense. Nor am I interested in “if Martin Luther King were alive today…” speculation, which often feeds into a self-serving agenda.
I try to think along the lines of a continuum—identifying the connectivity in the message of Dr. King’s time, and tracing the thread to the present day.
—Darrell McNeill, Associate Producer, Music Programming