When Nina Simone penned and performed "Mississippi Goddam" following the June 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, and the September murders of four black, school-aged children that same year, the intent was to put to music the horrific events that came to shape one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history.
At Princeton University's Richardson Auditorium Monday, the sounds that accompanied the Civil Rights movement were on full display as part of an annual program honoring the birthday and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who succumbed to an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968 in Memphis.
The music accompanying Ms. Simone's frightening narrative is perversely toe-tapping, but the intended purpose is to draw in the listener as she underscores what was, for many, a turning point of the Civil Rights era.
Even music struggled to transcend the mood of the nation, of the movement, and of Ms. Simone: "Dr. King's murder has left me so numb, I don't know where I'm at, really," she said four days after Dr. King was shot, before telling a mourning audience why "everybody knows about 'Mississippi Goddam.'"
The music of the Civil Rights movement, brought forth to a new generation through the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, and Kanye West, was integral to furthering the ideals put forth in the 1960s and provided a "political self-reckoning [that] shaped political conviction," said keynote speaker, Princeton University English Prof. Daphne A. Brooks, who called out for a "new generation of musical pioneers to rock out to King's message in stereo.
"Music is the fulcrum of community organizing and development."
Prof. Brooks, who specializes in African American literature and culture, performance studies, and popular music studies, said the power of music, particularly during the Civil Rights era, provided a soundtrack to the times, something listeners could identify with, even through showtune-sounding works like Ms. Simone's.
Prof. Brooks spoke before yielding the stage to jazz impresario Stanley Jordan, a Princeton graduate, whose playing (which included a piano-guitar duet with himself) caused a standing ovation following his second performance. In between sets, Mr. Jordan offered an idealistic but honest assessment of his playing: "I want to make this a better world through my playing and to be part of the solution and not the problem."
Both Mr. Jordan and Prof. Brooks expressed disappointment that modern music artists were not taking as much of a stand as artists of the past, though there are still moments. Prof. Brooks identified Mary J. Blige's post-Katrina performance of U2's "One" as "powerful as Simone's performances," illustrating the black struggle.
The University event also unveiled the winners of the annual essay, poster, and video contest commemorating Dr. King's legacy, featuring the music theme that shaped Monday's program.
Return to Top | Go to Next Story