In 2019 a team at Cornell University started compiling a database of ads posted by enslavers searching for runaway enslaved people. Freedom on the Move, as it’s called, currently has over 32,000 advertisements in its database. Many of these ads have recently been turned into a concert called “Songs in Flight,” which will premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 12.
The performance was conceived by Martha Guth, a singer and co-director of Sparks & Wiry Cries, an organization that curates opportunities for musical artists to capture the stories and experiences of diverse audiences. Guth recruited Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji, an expert in African American literature, to turn Freedom on the Move into song. They were later joined by Shawn Okpebholo, who would turn the poetry into song.
Okpebholo started his work the way he always does: “As a composer I do not write a single note until I have all the text,” he says. “I have the poet read the texts out loud, I will read commentary about it, in other words I engrossed myself with all the words before I write a single note.” He tries to uncover what meter he is working with, what the music evokes, and what images it paints in his mind. When he writes Okpebholo wants the music to drive the narrative. “I don’t write mere accompaniments,” he says.
Eventually performers were brought into the mix to make the music a reality. “The way that Martha presented it to me,” says Karen Slack, the soprano for “Songs in Flight,” “was how unique the descriptions were of the runaway enslaved people.” She was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the brutality of slavery combined with personalized descriptions of each runaway individual. “It talks a lot about their personalities, what they wore, it went really in to describing them.”
One of the most important aspects of bringing this piece to life was tying together the past with the present. “I feel like every Black person has a shooting of unarmed Black men or women that they just gravitate to,” says Okpebholo. “The one that really, honestly changed my life was Trayvon Martin.” He says Jaji looked up the names “Martin” and “Zimmerman” and wrote a piece on her findings. “She’s able to make these beautiful poetic connections,” between Zimmerman the slave owner and the runaway slaves named Martin with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. “Trayvon was shot over some Skittles,” says Okpebholo, “that was what he’s worth.”
Slack, on the other hand, connects “Songs in Flight” to a broader struggle beyond the African American community. “Everyone is a human being, and we’re constantly fighting for freedom,” she says. “Look at what’s happening in Iran right now, women are fighting just to not wear the hijab. [Everyone fights] to be educated, or to have agency over your own body, to have the rights and to choose, to have the right to live freely, without people coming in and saying ‘No, this is how you should live.’”
“Songs in Flight” strives to be more than a story of the oppression faced by marginalized groups, especially African Americans. “It is difficult as a black artists to continue to constantly be making art around traumatic events,” says Slack. Which is why she’s glad this piece is a “triumph to people who constantly fought against the oppression of slavery.” While Slack will stop performing stories of trauma next season, and will move to more pieces about love, she appreciates that “Songs in Flight” showcases that “we as Black people never gave up on fighting for our freedom, always wanting to be free.”
Okpebholo feels similarly, saying “having just written some pretty tough pieces regarding Black pain, I wasn’t necessarily motivated to jump into another serious project like this.” But he credits Jaji for bringing about this tone of freedom beyond pure trauma.
“The first movement Tsitsi wrote from her perspective sitting down with the computer looking at this database,” he says. “It’s just a beautiful poem about about her approach to starting this project, so I thought that really spoke to me too.”
In embracing a more positive message that connects slavery to today, Songs in Progress tries to capture the concept of freedom. To Slack that means “ to wake up every day as a young Black woman and to feel like I can have the freedom to do what I want, to choose who I want to be. The freedom to be as educated and as bold and as brilliant as I know that I am without offending other people.”
The performance is one night only at the Gracie Rainey Rogers Auditorium inside The Met. Slack and Okpebholo will be joined by Grammy winning artists Rhiannon Giddens as well as other performers. The takeaway for the audience is aimed to be that the past is never truly over. In Slack’s words: “Freedom is not free, it is something that you have to constantly fight for.”
“We as Black people never gave up on fighting for our freedom, always wanting to be free.” Karen Slack, soprano in ‘Songs in Flight’ “