Following a flowing orchestration of rappers, dancers, DJs, and poets, J.PERIOD shifted from leading “The Live Mixtape” on the Gil Scott-Heron Stage to a discussion panel on the Fannie Lou Hamer Stage during the final hour of Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration. The afternoon’s topic was the social power of music, the ability to incite activism and engagement through art.
In this audio feature excerpted from the discussion, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a GRAMMY and Oscar Award-winning hip-hop artist and activist from Chicago, gave powerful examples of a song’s ability to change history. Recounting the experience of writing “Glory,” the theme song of the film Selma, with rapper Common, Smith emphasized not only the ability but the responsibility of musicians to strengthen their communities.
Throughout the session, Smith shared stories about his efforts to change his own surroundings. He ran for city council. He met with the mayor to propose a “citywide trauma therapy” and is now gathering sponsors and resources. He stayed in the South Side of Chicago, even after writing hit songs with Kanye West and R. Kelly, to show young kids in the community that they can succeed. He told us that if we can be leaders and organize, we can make change too.
- “What’s Going On” (instrumental) – Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Tamla, 1971)
- “Happy Birthday” – Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July (Tamla, 1980)
- “I’m Gonna Let It Shine” – Paul Robeson – On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings (Smithsonian Folkways, 2007)
- “Walk with Me” – Fannie Lou Hamer – Songs My Mother Taught Me
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2015)
- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movements through Its Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, 1990)
- Medgar Evers – same album as above
- “Glory” – Common and John Legend – Selma: Music from the Motion Picture (Paramount, 2015)
Elisa Hough is the editor for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a former community radio DJ. Freedom Sounds recording by Dave Walker and Ben McManus, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.