The Brooklyn-based performance arts organization 651 Arts planned its 2013 season around the 50th anniversary of 1963, a landmark year in the civil rights movement that included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington; the bombing of the 16th Street church in Birmingham, Alabama, resulting the deaths of four girls; and President John F. Kennedy's intervention to help black students enroll at the University of Alabama. The organization asked hip-hop artist and music educator Chen Lo to put together a concert focused on 1963 and protest songs, but he and collaborator Asante Amin wanted a wider canvas.
"The issue we face as educators is that children are not connected to this history," Lo says. "There has been a breakdown, whether it's in the school system or at home, about what their ancestors experienced. On one level, we did that with music. We took classic songs and rearranged them to have a contemporary sound. We throw a rap over a Ray Charles song."
The duo created Soundtrack '63, an evolving multimedia show that runs at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) Friday through Sunday with contributions from local musicians, poet Sunni Patterson and students from McDonogh 35 Senior High School.
The show spans jazz, R&B and hip-hop, incorporates rap and spoken word and uses video projections of archival photos, film clips and graphics as a backdrop. Amin rearranged songs culled from the past six decades.
"John Coltrane did 'Alabama' after the Alabama bombings," Amin says. "It's a powerful song by itself, but we have Abiodun Oyewele from The Last Poets delivering an original piece on top of it."
Other songs addressed comtemporary issues less directly.
"We had to find songs that dealt with political realities even though they were veiled as love songs, such as James Brown's 'Prisoner of Love,'" Amin says.
Amin is a New Orleans native and a graduate of St. Augustine High School, where he was a member of the school's Marching 100 band. He also studied under Edward "Kidd" Jordan at Southern University at New Orleans.
Amin developed the show to appeal to different audiences.
"The songs had to be dressed in a way that youth can listen to it and say, 'OK, this is old but it sounds new,'" Amin says.
The original production featured an 18-piece orchestra and chorus. The New Orleans shows feature a rhythm section and four vocalists from New York and horn and string sections from New Orleans. McDonogh 35's gospel choir also performs.
The show's video projections are updated and reflect New Orleans. There are images of Black Lives Matter protests, Hurricane Katrina and recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments. Content also references voting rights organizations that worked out of New Orleans and Free Southern Theater. Soundtrack '63 was brought to the CAC in conjunction with Junebug Productions, which is a successor to Free Southern Theater.
Amin and Lo say the show is not a history or political lesson as much as a conversation starter. The music is meant to reflect on how far the civil rights movement has come.
"We use music from Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln's (1960) Freedom Now Suite," Lo says. "In 'Freedom Day,' Lincoln sings, '... whispers say we're free/ Rumors flying, must be lying, can it truly be.'"