On the morning of Jan. 21st, a friend and I embarked on a frigid trek to the Burton Memorial Tower for some of the Martin Luther King Jr. campus events. Both of us being music lovers, we decided that the event, “Centering Black Composers: Music To Unravel The Classical Canon” would be a perfect way to celebrate this historic day. For a girl from a primarily conservative, primarily white suburb of Grand Rapids, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not widely celebrated at my school. I was excited to finally have the opportunity to see a celebration in remembrance of such an important man.
We climbed the steps of the bell tower, searching for the concert room or at least a couple of instruments. When we made it to the top, we saw nothing but the bells and a few people blocking the entrance to a tiny room. We stood outside gazing up at the bells for an entire song before realizing that this was the performance: The music of the bells.
Inside the tiny blocked room sat Professor Tiffany Ng, University carillonist and assistant professor of the carillon. Pounding the wooden batons in the formation of a piano keyboard, she put her entire body into the songs. She has been playing since 2001, mastering the art when she was a freshman at Yale University. Working with Dr. Yvette Janine Jackson, who arranged a carillon version of “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle,” and paying homage to Jessie Montgomery, the first Black woman to publish music for the carillon, Professor Ng’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. rang out over all of the University campus.
The recital was brief but beautiful. It consisted of seven songs, all composed by Black artists. Ng preceded each song with short anecdotes about the composers, the original performers and the significance of the songs, juxtaposing the beautiful melodies to the harsh realities in which they were created. She began the concert with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that is often referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” written by James Weldon Johnson and put to music by John Rosamond Johnson in 1899. She then performed songs written by Black women and composers of Motown and Soul. The penultimate song was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which was written by Sam Cooke in 1964. She told us he never performed his original lyrics because they were too heartbreaking. Her rendition was no less moving, even without the words. She concluded with Aretha Franklin’s famous “Respect” in reverence of the recently deceased legendary soul singer.
All of the events the University hosted for Martin Luther King Jr. Day were incredibly impactful. But combining the arts with such an important message brought an entirely new beautiful meaning to the what the day stands for. The arts are how we express ourselves, all the pain and the hardship, all the joy and triumph of our lives. Highlighting this poignant music born out of the immense struggle of the Black community is essential to giving them the recognition they deserve.
I will never be able to truly understand what Martin Luther King Jr. and his people had to go through in his lifetime or the fights they had to endure. But I do understand music, and through it I can catch a glimpse into the lives of these people that suffered so much to get where they are.
Music has always been an essential part of the civil rights movement. At the heart of every march, there is always a chant, always a song to keep morale up and keep the fight going. From gospel hymns to modern Motown songs, music has made a significant difference in the lives of those fighting. Often times, the arts act as a means of dissent, as much as they are casually enjoyed. So many talented artists channel their feelings about injustice and discrimination into their work, which makes it all the more powerful. That is exactly what all the Black artists who composed the songs performed in the bell tower did. “Don’t let anyone tell you the arts can’t make a difference,” Professor Ng told her audience. “Representation matters.”