ur generation had a moment this MLK Day. On Monday January 18, 2016 some of the greatest artists and activists of our time came together to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Held at Harlem’s Riverside Church, in the same room where Dr. King delivered his infamous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, the sanctuary was filled to capacity with eager spectators. As the audience patiently waited for their favorite celebrities to take the stage, you could feel the historic energy in the air.
Ryan Coogler, Director of Creed, Fruitvale Station, and co-founder of United Blackout, served as the emcee of the evening, introducing Lin Manuel Miranda, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Chris Rock, Anika Noni Rose, Octavia Spencer, and a host of other artists and entertainers. Each performance evoked the spirit of Black radical figures ranging from James Baldwin and Fred Hampton to Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth. In between the powerful exhortations came dynamic performances from India Arie (“I Am Light”), Jussie Smollett (“Strange Fruit”), Saul Williams, Anika Noni Rose (“Be Free”), and Karega Bailey.
As soon as Lin Manuel Miranda graced the mic, we knew we were in for something special. He delivered Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” with the pace and vigor fitting for the moment. As he spoke, the musicians matched his words with jazzy bass lines and sweet piano riffs, providing the perfect soundtrack for the night. In an era where everyone is constantly looking forward, it was beautiful–and surprisingly necessary–to pause and look back. Listening to the carefully curated live readings, it became clear that there’s much to glean from our past as a people.
Sitting in the sanctuary, one couldn’t help but to think about how each speech spoke directly to the time we currently find ourselves in. From Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential Campaign Announcement, in which she discussed her commitment to true democracy, to Ida B. Wells’ chilling exposé on the pervasive lynchings of Black men, both speakers and audience alike felt the weight of each speech and drew parallels to the present.
With a program full of strong performances, there was never a dull moment. From the minute Actor Andre Holland (The Knick, Selma, 42) stepped on stage to deliver Malcolm X’s “Police Brutality and the Mainstream Media,” the tone shifted and many felt that they were on the corner of 125th & Seventh Ave., watching Malcolm deliver an impromptu diatribe. From his tonal inflections to his mannerisms, Andre embodied the full essence of Malcolm X and successfully honored a legacy that has been largely misconstrued and misrepresented by mainstream media.
One of the most dynamic performances of the night came from none other than poet and performer, Saul Williams. Saul’s didactic and punk-infused poem espoused a message that was central to King’s message: love. Williams, chanting the names of significant figures within history, belted the cosmological connections we all share with one another. Towards the end, he chanted “I Love You” to different sections of the sanctuary until the audience began to shout it back. His emphasis on love was simple, yet revolutionary, as the entire room broke out of their comfort zone and affirmed each other with those three powerful words.
Another thought-provoking moment of the evening was the intimate artist conversation held between Ryan Coogler and platinum rapper, J. Cole. In what felt like a phone conversation between brothers, they candidly discussed the significance of King’s legacy and its relevance to youth today. Both gentlemen praised the others’ work and shared how their work had influenced one another, even to the point of tears.They discussed how the Movement for Black Lives had left an indelible mark on them as artists, and bonded over the responsibility that they feel to depict the struggle within their mediums. It was incredibly powerful to see two Black men engage in open and vulnerable dialogue, as opposed to the heavily guarded and censored interviews they’re often confined to. Both left the audiences full with understanding that this generation might, in fact, be left in the hands of those who deserve to steer it.
Just when we thought the event couldn’t get any better, Ryan Coogler introduced civil rights icon, Harry Belafonte. After his brilliant recitation of Patrice Lumumba’s “Proclamation of Independence,” he tenderly passed the torch to the new generation of freedom fighters. Sharing several memories from his time with Dr King, Belafonte commissioned young people to continue mobilizing and to do what they see fit to advance the struggle for Black liberation. Reminding the audience that many civil rights leaders were teenagers when they joined the movement, he stated, “I was 26 and Martin was 24, and we were the elders. Jesse was 17.”
Simply put, #MLKNOW was the event of year. It set the right tone for what’s to come and completely affirmed that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. To see contemporary artists proclaim the words of those who paved the way was awe-inspiring to say the least. Over the past few years, there has been a call for artists and influencers to take a stand and rise to the occasion. This MLK Day, our generation came together to do just that. #MLKNOW proved that it’s time to stop looking for another Martin or Malcolm. Instead, we must look amongst ourselves, drawing upon our history, talents, and creativity to finish the work that our ancestors started.