The American Dream Reconsidered Conference

‘Civil Rights and Music’ Panel

American Dream Reconsidered 2018

by Julian Zeng


During times of great discord, and in particular the Civil Rights Movement, few things can galvanize a people quite as effectively as music.

This was the thesis of the Civil Rights & Music discussion held on Sept. 11 in Ganz Hall as part of the American Dream Conference. From artists such as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, to Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron, music builds community and a sense of purpose. It inspires millions to fight for their rights and stay the course in a battle that is far from over.

Maggie Brown
Singer, producer and performer

The panel discussion was composed of artists well-versed in the language of music: renowned pianist Ramsey Lewis, singer and producer Maggie Brown, and associate professor of jazz studies at Roosevelt, Paul Wertico. Longtime Chicago radio broadcaster Richard Steele moderated the talk.

“We Shall Overcome,” a song which became a key anthem for the Civil Rights Movement after singers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez helped popularize it, was the starting point for the discussion. Lewis cited its lyrics, melody, religious themes and overall hymnal power as reasons for its resonance, and was “indicative of the times we lived in.”

“It was a song that, whether you’re black or white … you could identify with it and it expressed your feelings about that movement,” Lewis said. “‘We shall overcome,’ we knew that there would be a brighter day.”

Music encouraging political activism, optimism and maintaining strength through adversity became more commercially viable in the 1960s, immediately leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. People connected not only with the music itself, but with the pervasive messages that existed within each song, which carried across racial lines.

“That’s deep, for one person who’s maybe never had exposure to someone of another race, they can vibe with their music,” Brown said, inspired by Wertico describing his childhood growing up in Chicago’s heavily segregated Marquette Park, then later in mostly white Cary, Illinois. Wertico described having no black friends once he moved to the distant Chicago suburb, but maintained a love for the music he was surrounded by in the more racially diverse inner city.

The discussion transitioned from music during the Civil Rights Movement to its current-day impact on social issues.

“I don’t know if music today is reaching out and pointing out social issues like it has in the past. I think the record companies have won out,” Lewis said, referencing music publishers’ propensity for a bottom-line profit, which is often hampered by controversial arguments in music. “Most of the records coming out today are about making love, ‘she left me,’ ‘I need her and miss her’ and all that kind of stuff.”

“Music is such a connecting force that thankfully doesn’t see color,”

-Maggie Brown
Singer and producer Maggie Brown

CCPA Chamber Orchestra led by Andrew Grams

Richard Steele, Maggie Brown, Ramsey Lewis and Paul Wertico.

Steele cited hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Beyoncé and Jay-Z for essentially carrying the torch for social change into the current day, but each panelist lamented the fact that substantive reflection on social issues is generally lacking in modern music. Wertico noted that there used to be more of a connection to the church in older folk music and said today’s gospel-influenced music is “mechanical, more machine-like.” In music’s reflection of the society in which it finds itself, Wertico found the characterization fitting for the computer age.

Yet the church used to be “city hall for black people,” Lewis said. Important issues were addressed during these congregations, a dynamic that has since been lost in our “blasé” attitude toward the church. Wertico added that this disconnect has extended to all manners of everyday life, including everyone listening to music or podcasts separately on their phones.

“I think we just have to get back to the point where we just talk and communicate — we have to understand that being different is OK,” Wertico said. “You can expand yourself by learning about something that’s different, as opposed to staying stuck in your own little world.”

Music has always been a powerful means of expression across all cultures, made even more powerful by humans’ inherent drive for community. In performance, these elements converge into a potent force. In the ongoing struggle for civil rights, the panelists argued, this dynamic must live on should society hope to survive.

Click here to watch the full ‘Civil Rights and Music’ panel.

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American Dream Reconsidered Conference 2018

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