The sounds of beating drums, bowing violins and scratching vinyl records are matched with visuals of lynched men, frustrated protesters and Freedom Riders. Unlike other live performances I’ve witnessed, Soundtrack ’63 (@Soundtrack63) was more than just entertainment. It was a chronological journey of the Black Experience in this country, starting in 1963, when the Civil Rights Movement was a machine that couldn’t be stopped and was taking water hoses, dog chases and constant harassment but building by the day and not losing momentum. Conceived by Creative and Musical Director, Chen Lo (@chenlo) and Asante Amin (@asanteamin_), respectively, founders of the Brooklyn-based Soul Science Lab, (@soulsciencelab) the show includes singers, a DJ, drummers, an 18-piece orchestra and a three-channel video installation, showing archival footage and animation of key events in Black history serving as a backdrop for the songs.
The performances were held at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans in the Warehouse District of the city January 16-18. I wanted to go to the Saturday show because there was going to be an after party, but with procrastination, that was sold out days before the show. I had no idea how big of a deal this show would be. So I went straight to the Center’s box office to purchase tickets in person and I was able to get the last two tickets for the Sunday show. I was really excited to see the show now with all the surrounded hype and rave reviews and a great video trailer.
The songs ranged from spiritual hymns to covers of popular songs of past decades including Bob Marley’s “War” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Chen Lo also switched hats from director to artist as he rapped “Emmett (S)till” talking of how the famous murder of the Black teen is being recreated in today’s society as well. One song, “Runnin'” featured renown local poet, Sunni Patterson (@sunnipatterson). I had to give it to her, Sunni had bars! Wouldn’t expect anything less from a Def Poet. Also torace the stage was poet and teacher Abiodun Oyewole, who’s one of the founding members of the spoken-word group The Last Poets, which is considered to be the first hip hop group as they mixed music over poetry. As he walked slowly to the stage people sat up in their chairs and gave him the respect he has earned. “ALABAMAAAA!!!!!” He shouted as he recited a piece over a rendition of John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” while the faces of the four young Black girls who died on September 15th, 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama lingered on the screen. McDonogh 35 Senior High School Gospel Choir performed on stage in the beginning and for the finale which brought a nice local touch to the show.
The vocalists. Whitney Keaton and her husband RAII (@raiiwk), Ayana George (@ayana_is) and Rasul A-Salaam (@singrasul) hit the high notes that tugged at your heart, guts and tear ducts at the same time. They all brought so much energy and passion to the stage that you felt every lyric as it touched your ears while your eyes were still glued to the visuals on the screen. Near the end of the two-hour performance, I was proud I made it through the show without getting emotional. Even after watching footage of Hurricane Katrina, I was good. Then I saw side by side photos from marches in Mississippi in the ’60s next to marches in Ferguson in 2014 and Baltimore less than 12 months ago. Then photos of Emmett Till next to Tamir Rice. Then photos of President Barack Obama. My heart was heavy. We’ve endured so much and have come so far yet there is so much left to be done. I was saddened, yet empowered. We’re not silent. We are making music, we are starting social media movements, peaceful protesting, active in politics to seek change and designing our own fashion lines promoting self-love. Speaking of fashion, the outfits were amazing. Chen Lo had the dopest African print suits I’ve ever seen and I loved the colorful ensembles, down to local artist Troy Sawyer and the rest of the orchestra members in kente cloth bowties. The audience was colorful too, as local residents of all races were in attendance to partake in the experience and the conversations to follow once they’ve left the Center. It was the perfect way to celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and as we all sang along to the beat of Kendrick Lamar’s new era Black anthem “We Gon’ Be Alright,” that’s all I kept thinking to myself, we are going to be alright. We just have to continue supporting these events and artists and companies to put on these type of productions.