For centuries, African Americans have channeled their struggles into song and dance. The oral tradition of storytelling through song became an integral part of their struggle and experience.
In light of national headlines relating to race, such as the increasing number of protests, COVID-19’s impact on Black communities, and the resurgence of white supremacist groups and hate crimes, Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts committed itself to providing the community an outlet to air those frustrations.
The result is the “Heritage Project,” the brainchild of an internal Arsht group called the Heritage Committee, connecting with community leaders and experts to advance arts and culture. The project is meant to uplift the contributions of the Black community in the realms of arts, music, literature and dance through lively discussions that echo long-ago Harlem Renaissance salons.
The series consists of a six-part webinar that precedes a Heritage Festival celebration expected to take place in February.
Mariah Forde, special events manager at the Arsht, said the initiative also reflects the staff’s commitment to educate itself on racial matters, be active in community conversations, and provide resources for the community to move forward to a more equal and just society.
“The series is critical considering the times we are in. Miami is one big melting pot and we are all impacted by what’s going on, but in different ways,” said Forde. “[The series] will give us space to deepen understanding of different cultures and how we can work together. This is our way of doing our part to make change through the arts.”
The first installment of the series, “Songs of Freedom,” happened on Sept. 30 and explored the historical use of music as an outlet to share grievances and emotions. Prominent musicians such as Brenda Alford, Valerie Coleman and Kevin Wayne Bumpers served as panelists, while Arsht Center CEO Johann Zietsman played the role of moderator.
Concert pianist and Miami Dade College music professor Kevin Wayne Bumpers has composed music for the Miami Children’s Chorus.
Composer and flutist Valerie Coleman served as panelist on the Arsht’s “Heritage Project” web series “Songs of Freedom” episode.
Jazz vocalist and actress Brenda Alford during a recent performance.
The term “songs of freedom” is a reference to historical African American spirituals that provided slaves the courage to seek and pursue freedom. Not only were slaves empowered by music, they also used songs for strategic communication.
Jazz vocalist Alford reminisced on the influence of music in her childhood and present life.
“I was actually alive and active in the sixties so I hurt and learned from the experience,” she said. “The songs were a part of the movement when I was growing up.”
For concert pianist and music professor Kevin Wayne Bumpers, songs of freedom represent a dichotomy of the secular and sacred.
“The first song that comes to mind is ‘Up Above My Head, I Hear Music In The Air, There Must Be a God Somewhere.’ The songs of the church always speak of freedom in some way. … There is always some liberty there that you are going to acquiesce to,” he said.
Bumpers went on to explain how the Black community was mostly made up of church people who would gather around and sing. Despite recognizing the connection between liberation-themed songs and spirituality, he acknowledged the inspirational songs birthed outside of church communities.
He credits James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” for bringing affirmation to a community that is constantly marginalized and told what to feel about their blackness.
Valerie Coleman, a flutist and composer named Performance Today’s Classical Woman of the Year, vocalized her passion for composing uplifting music and how her upbringing played a role in that.
“When I studied composition I was kicked out of the composition department [at Boston University] and it was because I was in a position where I did not look like the others around me. During that time I was searching out spirituals and composers who were impacted by songs of freedom … tapping back into the roots and heritage,” Coleman expressed.
She reminded people of the nature of songs of freedom as something that provides strength by uniting people during difficult times.
“Anthems of strategic communication are meant to get someone from one place to the next. All we [have is] our voices as we try to give each other strength to hold on. … Better times will come,” she said.
“The roots of composition came from the influence of the neighborhood and from spirituals,” Coleman added. “I love the words of spirituals. I really believe that the melodies are powerful in and of themselves.”
Bumpers agreed, stating that the composition of songs of freedom invoke a feeling of resiliency.
“Most of our music is in the minor triad [yet] we still have joy in the minor key. That confuses people [because they ask] ‘How can you be so happy when you’re singing in the minor?’” he said.
To Bumpers, songs of freedom are often somber melodies paired with an upbeat rhythm. He compared the pairing to the oppression of Black communities and how they remain hopeful despite hardships.
The overall consensus shared by the three panelists is that songs of freedom may be lost to the current generation if they aren’t passed on.
“Many of them have never heard of some of these songs. It’s important to share what I know, to share what has given me strength,” said Alford, whose passions are making music and teaching children.
The Heritage Committee collaborated with the panelists to produce a curated Spotify playlist of songs that fueled Black liberation movements.
“The nature of songs of freedom is such that you cannot be neutral to it, it moves you in many ways,” Zietsman explained.
The playlist made to share with the community includes songs by musical pioneers like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Boukman Eksperyans, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.
To access the music, download the Spotify app on a mobile device and create an account. Once an account is made, type “The Heritage Project” in the search bar and select the icon marked “Songs of Freedom,” then tap “shuffle play” to begin listening.
A similar process is required on the Spotify website.
Afro-Latino musicians like Nestor Torres and Deborah Magdalena will headline the second session of the “Heritage Project series” on Oct. 28.
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