The Black Legacy Project is produced by the non-profit Music in Common, and is a musical celebration of Black history, bringing artists of all backgrounds together to record and compose songs central to the Black American experience.

With the goal of advancing racial solidarity and equity, this initiative will be traveling and collaborating with communities nationwide, bringing artists of all backgrounds together to record and compose songs central to the Black American experience. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with co-directors Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle to hear how they are merging the past with the present to move forward. 

This interview originally aired on March 24, 2022.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Black Legacy Project is produced by the non-profit Music in Common, and is a musical celebration of Black history, bringing artists of all backgrounds together to record and compose songs central to the Black American experience.

I spoke with Co-directors, Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle to hear how they are merging the past with the present in order to move forward. 

Trey Carlisle, The Black Legacy Project: We were inspired to create this in 2020, in the height of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. And we wanted to create spaces where Black and white Americans, really all Americans, can come together and engage in intergenerational conversations, not just about the legacy of racism in the US, but the legacy of Black and white folks working in solidarity to help us move forward. So, that was the inspiration for it.

And as a result, what we do is, we will go to a specific community, facilitate roundtable discussions that bring Black and white community members together, to explore songs centered around the Black American experience and explore how they still relate to the issues today.

And then we have local Black and white artists create present day interpretations of those songs, as well as original songs about how we can move forward.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, you said something that stood out to me: you were talking about Black and white Americans coming together, all Americans, really, you said. And so although the project is called the Black Legacy Project, you really have an emphasis on bringing people from all backgrounds together.

Why is that so crucial?

Todd Mack, The Black Legacy Project: Mainly because we’re a mosaic of a society in the United States. We have people from all sorts of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious backgrounds. And while the conflict — and I’m going to call it a conflict, because I think that’s really the approach that we’re taking to building solidarity and belonging and and equity — is rooted historically in Black and white.

In 2022, it’s really the country as a whole that I think needs to address this.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, this is a musical celebration of Black history, as you were saying.

Why was music the art form chosen for this project?

Trey Carlisle: Music is a powerful tool of connection and empathy and the empathetic and connecting aspects of music we have found over the past 17 years can be a powerful tool to enhance peace building and engage people in the same type of practices that we need to have in building peace, collaboration, listening to one another, recognizing our interdependence, and working together.

But also, we recognize when we conceptualized the project, these songs that were written by Black and white artists alike, whether it’s songs like Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Johnson, or whether songs written by white folks in solidarity like The Hurricane by Bob Dylan, these songs that spoke to the legacy and realities of racial conflict and violence in the past. They still ring true today and they have a special place in folk’s hearts.

So we wanted to create a space for folks to revisit these songs, see how they still relate today, and create new songs for how we can move forward.

Zydalis Bauer: Speaking to those songs that you’re talking about, over three dozen local musicians came together for this project, which is amazing. And so, you recorded six songs that address the theme hope in a hateful world. And four of the songs where, like you were just saying, songs that have been revisited —  past songs — and then two originals.

So tell me about that process of the song selection and just kind of re-imagining and revisiting and examining these songs.

Todd Mack: One of the things that we do is choose songs that have a direct connection to the community that the project is in. And that’s a lot of exhaustive research that Trey primarily takes the lead on — looking at what songs, what artists have a connection or even themes have a connection to the local community.

Zydalis Bauer: I’m glad that you brought up that connection that the songs have to the local history, because that was something that really amazed me when I was reading about the project. All of those selections, the four existing songs have a tie in to Berkshires, specifically with Black history.

So, can you share some of that connection that the songs have to the area?

Trey Carlisle: So, one of the songs we chose was Strange Fruit, which is written by Abel Meeropol and made popular by Billie Holiday. And Billie Holiday performed a couple of times in the Berkshires, especially in the later part of her career when she was performing Strange Fruit.

And then Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, who was friends and associates with W.E.B. Dubois. W.E.B. Dubois is, like, an iconic thought leader an advocate for Black Legacy, and he was born and raised in Great Barrington in the Berkshires. So, that was the tie that Strange Fruit has to the song, to the Black Legacy Project and to the Berkshires.

We also had folks create an artistic interpretation of W.E.B. Dubois poem My Country Tis of Thee. And then we chose Lift Every Voice and Sing for artists to explore, which is written by James Weldon Johnson, who would travel to the Berkshires to do some of his most meaningful writings and poetry.

And then We Shall Overcome we also chose as a song to explore, which was made popular by Pete Seeger, who has close ties with the Guthrie family. Like Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, whose home base is in the Berkshires.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, you mentioned the roundtable discussions that will be taking place in different communities around the country and even in the Berkshires. I know the Berkshires roundtable happened already.

How did that look? I know that there was a lot of difficult discussions that community members tackled. So tell me about those.

Todd Mack: We use a model of affinity groups in these in these roundtable discussions, which allows Black and white participants to sort of speak within their own group in addressing these issues, and that’s followed by a full group conversation.

And then after the affinity groups, we come back together to sort of share. Because really Black and white people, I think, have different lived experiences, particularly related to the the themes that we’re discussing. And I think it’s an important analysis for each group to do sort of on their own and then to be able to sort of share it out with one another.

Zydalis Bauer: Todd, I know that you found that, in response to the murder of your friend and bandmate Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. And so this was in response to that. And you’ve done amazing work in over 300 communities helping repair these fractures.

So how does it feel to be carrying on this type of legacy work? And then, Trey, how does it feel to be part of it as well?

Todd Mack: Wow, that’s a great question! And thank you for for that acknowledgment.

And, you know, I think the work that we’re doing with the Black Legacy Project really, like everything that I think Music in Common has been engaged in, is how do you harness the power of music, this universal language, as a way to sort of open doors that don’t open on their own?

I think there’s such a direct correlation to what we’re doing now, as much as the work that we’ve done in interfaith contacts or in overseas in the Middle East or the Far East, and it’s just amazing to be a part of it, and it’s amazing to see it grow. And it’s amazing to have new young leaders, who start out as participants in our programs, come take the reins and help lead it.

Trey Carlisle: Yeah, yeah. 100%. I participated in my first JAMZ program with Music in Common in 2016, and it was life changing for me to see this combination of things that I value most: my love for music, which I’ve loved ever since growing up in the church and being a part of the church worship team, to also my passion for peace building and social justice and taking action against the act of dehumanizing a group of people as a threat or enemy or less than human based on their skin color, their religion, their gender identity, etc.

So, to see this organization blending these two aspects of my life that I cherish the most in such a profound way, I was like, “This is what I need to do.”

So, full circle, about four or five years later, to be co-creating this project about using music to advance racial equity and solidarity is really full circle. Like, I feel like this 13-year-old boy was doing projects about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Black history to now, five years later, doing this on a wide, mass scale, inspiring others to do the same, it’s humbling and inspiring and empowering all at the same time.

Zydalis Bauer: I love hearing full circle moments, so thank you for sharing that.

And what went into behind choosing the next communities to visit nationwide?

Trey Carlisle: Yeah, so we wanted to select communities that could represent the diverse experiences and demographics in the United States.

So we wanted to go to a mix of places that are predominantly African American and have a strong rich history well known, like Atlanta, and the Mississippi Delta, as well as places that are predominantly white, like, and have a strong history of even racial oppression, like the Ozarks and Arkansas, and then places that are a mix like Los Angeles and Denver, and then places that folks wouldn’t even think Black folks were there, no doubt even have Black history like Boise, Idaho.

So, we want to show that Black history is one American history and it’s present everywhere, in every community across the globe, across the nation and across the globe.

Zydalis Bauer: The past couple of years have been really, really challenging for all of us on so many different levels.

So, given the theme, how does one stay hopeful in a hateful world?

Todd Mack: That’s a great question. And I think one of the simplest ways is human connection. And I think that was our takeaway from from just getting feedback from the 32 or so musicians that participated in the project, the roundtable participants, and especially the audience at the live event.

I think solidarity is another way to build hope that working with other people, trying to see, you know, recognize your shared humanity, see yourself in somebody else, even if your skin tones are very different from one another, that you are still human beings, you still have hearts, you still have minds. And just trying to — sometimes it just needs that being put back into focus.

Trey Carlisle: And then lastly, adding to that, being able to have compassionate human to human interactions with each other, where we can empathize with each other, we can learn about each other’s experiences, we can understand where we’re coming from, and we’re able to, through do doing so, break down the stereotypes and walls that keep us from seeing each other as human beings and recognize that there is no us and them. It’s just us.