Earlier today, I spoke at morning prayers — a wonderful Harvard tradition since 1636. What follows is the text of my address reflecting on the power of song. If you are interested, you can also access an archive of Morning Prayers at this link.
Morning Prayers – Thursday, October 30, 2014
Good morning. I’d like to start where we’re going to end today and that’s in song. No, I’m not going to sing for you. I was scared to sing in front of my 7th-grade music class and 35 years of infrequent, but frequently bad, car karaoke haven’t cured me of that fear.
No, what I want to do is talk about the power of song.
I was told that I should begin with “a short reading of [my] choosing.” Well, my short reading on the power of song comes from an unlikely source. I want to read from an Amazon review … and we will see if Minister Walton ever invites me back after this.
As context for the reading, you should know that my favorite songwriter is Bruce Springsteen, who drew great inspiration from Pete Seeger. In 2007, Toshi Seeger – Pete’s wife – produced a documentary film about the life and music of her folk singer husband.
And now for the reading from an Amazon review of this documentary, I quote tjcrewsbooks:
“Watching Pete Seeger/The Power of Song, I learned what a difference we can make when we band together, walk together, and sing together.”
This line grabbed me. All of a sudden I was replaying in my mind three events from earlier this fall. Three individuals in two short months had taught me what a difference a song, and the people behind them, can make in this nation and the world.
Event #1. Late last month, Harvard presented the Du Bois Medal to eight amazing individuals, and I had the great honor to meet and publicly recount the accomplishments of one of my childhood idols: Harry Belafonte.
Anyone who has followed any part of Belafonte’s career for the past five decades knows that the sunniness of the songs for which he is so rightfully famous belies a serious spirit, one driven to call injustice out by name and to work, bit by bit, toward eradicating it.
Belafonte was a superstar — the King of Calypso. But Belafonte didn’t use his star power for personal gain. He didn’t view his success in song as an end unto itself. He used it to fuel a life of activism. He used it to shed light on the plight of the poor, the underserved, and the underrepresented.
Event #2. A week before the Du Bois Medal ceremony, I attended a New Faculty Lunch where Vijay Iyer, the Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts, was the featured speaker. Iyer was introduced as a pioneering composer, pianist, and creator of solo and ensemble jazz music. Iyer also has a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from Berkeley. He has won numerous industry awards including ‘Album of the Year,’ ‘Jazz Artist of the Year,’ ‘Musician of the Year,’ and a Grammy nomination.
But Iyer wasn’t there to talk to us about life as a superstar performer; instead he shared stories from his musical collaboration with poet Mike Ladd. The two of them had recently released Holding it Down: the Veterans’ Dreams Project, which shined a light on the dreams of veterans of color from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When they were working on this project last year, the U.S. war on terror had entered its 12th year and had produced more than 2 million veterans, many of whom were struggling to deal with what they had seen or done. Iyer and Ladd helped veterans to put their stories into song.
In an interview with NPR, Iyer said, “This project is, first and foremost, for the veterans – it was created with and by veterans…. [O]ne of the best responses we got was from Lynn Hill…. She said that after being involved in this project, she was able to leave therapy and she stopped having nightmares, and now she’s married and has a baby. So she underwent a certain healing process through the telling and through being heard.”
My last story is about a scientist who is also a musician. Harvard Associate Professor Pardis Sabeti is an award-winning geneticist, physician, and computational biologist. She has won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Natural Sciences. And she is the lead singer and bass player in her alternative rock band Thousand Days, which has released four CDs.
She has the logical thinking necessary to map the mutations of the Ebola virus, but admits that her melodies “go all over the place” with “no innate sense of flux or flow or spatial cadence.”
Sabeti has successfully combined her passions. In September, her band released a song and music video involving six Nigerian and Senegalese women scientists who are working tirelessly to cure Ebola. Andrea Shea at NPR says, “It’s a life-affirming song that aims to honor those on the Ebola front lines and is also the theme song for a public education campaign in Nigeria.”
These individuals and their stories lifted my heart. I hope they have touched yours and inspire you to sing your own song as loudly as Belafonte, Iyer, and Sabeti have sung theirs.