The Black Legacy Project, produced by the non-profit Music in Common, looks to advance social solidarity and equity through music. 

After making its formal debut in the Berkshires last year, the group has traveled the country, collaborating with artists of all backgrounds to record songs central to the Black American experience. Now, with a catalog of 15 songs recorded in communities nationwide, they are set to launch a touring band. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with co-directors Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle to learn more about this latest venture.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Black Legacy Project advances social solidarity and equity through the power of music. After making its formal debut in the Berkshires last year and curating a catalog of 15 songs with artists of different backgrounds across the country, the group is officially launching a touring band.

I spoke with co-directors Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle to learn more about this latest venture.

Trey Carlisle, Black Legacy Project: The Black Legacy Project is a musical celebration of Black history to advance racial solidarity, equity, and belonging. It’s a national project, but it takes place at the local level in communities across the country.

And what we do in a nutshell, is we travel to a community and we select a theme and two songs that are centered around race relations in the U.S. And then we launch this week long experience, starting off where we bring Black and white community members to discuss these songs in a roundtable discussion and explore how these songs and themes are still relevant today.

And then we engage local Black and white musicians to reimagine these songs and create present day interpretations of them, and then co-write an original song together about how we can move forward and advance greater belonging in the community.

Zydalis Bauer: And so since the project started, you have traveled nationwide from everywhere from Los Angeles, to Atlanta, and to places in between.

What has it been like collaborating with these communities? What has come out of it?

Todd Mack, Black Legacy Project: It’s been really sort of affirming, I think, for us to see how the project works from community to community, to see sort of the through lines. The conversations that are needed and wanted to be had. It’s really powerful and it’s just been — the response has been great.

I think at this point we have done four of the seven communities, we have three more between now and June. We’ve worked with close to 100 musicians so far between the first four communities, and that’ll just keep growing.

Zydalis Bauer: And Trey, you were talking about the songs that you all composed together within these communities, and I know that a specific topic is chosen to represent the area that you’re in. I remember in the Berkshires you were composing songs that had local ties in Black history to our area.

So, how are the songs and themes being chosen for different communities around the country? And tell us a little bit about those themes.

Trey Carlisle: I feel The Black Legacy Project is like the most meaningful Black history project I’ve ever done in my life, because it allows us to really revisit these histories of race relations in communities across the nation and see how there is Black history in every community. There’s a history of race relations in every community, and there’s a need to honor that history, and histories of solidarity of Black and white folks working together, which is a history that’s not really talked about.

So, what we will do is when we select the seven communities that we chose to launch the project in to really just represent the diversity of the American experience. Amongst selecting those seven, we would research the history of race relations in each of these communities.

So, when we traveled to Northwest Arkansas and the Ozarks, the theme was “After Sundown.” We had community members discuss the history of Sundown Towns and we facilitated the roundtable discussions in historic, you know, Sundown Towns in the Ozarks.

And then, we’re excited to take the project to the Mississippi Delta next week, where the theme is “I Am the Blues” and we’ll have community members discuss how this musical genre, blues music — which shaped and influenced the American music landscape — is deeply tied to the Black American experience and how to honor the people and communities behind that.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, you mentioned the “sundown towns,” do you mind explaining what that is for those who might not be familiar with that term?

Trey Carlisle: The phrase “sundown town” is a phrase to describe communities that had a history of expelling and excluding Black Americans from living there, through laws and especially through violence.

The phrase “sundown towns” comes from the phrase of “Don’t let the sun set down on you” in this community, or don’t be in this community after sundown.

So, it was really powerful to facilitate a roundtable discussion with Black and white Americans, ranging from young folks in their 20s, recent college graduates, to folks that have lived there for generations and had experiences of not being in communities after dark out of fear for their lives.

Zydalis Bauer: This project, it really feels like you all are collecting these stories across the country, and it’s really interesting to see all of the different ways Black history has created American history, right?

And so, when we last spoke, you had six songs recorded by local artists, but now there’s 15 to date that came out of this. How do you plan on sharing this collection?

Todd Mack: We’ll be releasing two albums, the first of which will come out in April of this year and will include 12 of what ultimately will be 24 songs that are recorded for the project. And then in addition to the album — the second album will come out probably in the first part of 2024.

And then in addition to the two albums, we will be — we’re producing a docu-series of the project. So, each community that the project travels to, to launch in each of those seven communities, is its own episode. So, the pilot episode is already completed and we’re in production on the communities that we’ve been to.

And then, the third way that we’ll get it out there is through a touring band to perform the 24 songs that are recorded in the project, and we hope to have that launched by this summer of 2023.

Zydalis Bauer: And this band, I think it’s really, it’s really neat that you all are focusing on not just people who identify as Black, but non, non-Black people as well — people from all backgrounds.

Why is that really important for you, for the Black Legacy Project? Trey, you touched a little bit on this with the solidarity part. So, can you expand a little bit more on that?

Trey Carlisle: So, we engage Black and white community members when we launched the project in the roundtable discussions, in the song interpretations specifically, because we’re bringing our peacebuilding and conflict transformation methodology to the context of race relations, especially anti-Black race relations in this country.

And allowing it to be a platform for folks to be able to discuss across racial lines this history, these songs, how it relates to their lived experiences, in an integrated setting and in affinity group settings. Black folks discussed how these songs relate to their lived experiences, white folks do the same, and then coming together to share what they learned. That’s a powerful methodology and being able to build bridges, which is essential to being able to help us move forward.

Because again, building this nation where everyone belongs is a collaborative effort, and the legacy of race relations and racism affects all of us, and we all thus can play a role in dismantling it and creating a better culture because, we already kind of play a role in upholding and sustaining the legacy of racism, whether we know it or not.

Zydalis Bauer: And so now that you’ve seen this response nationwide and on the local level, how does it make you feel to see this project have so many different levels coming to fruition?

Todd Mack: Again, I mean, I think it’s really sort of affirming or reaffirming of, of what we felt in our hearts was a project that was very much needed at the time that we were developing it, in the summer of 2020.

And so, on the one hand, it’s fantastic and amazing to see it grow the way that it has. And on the other hand, we’re not really surprised by it. We’re extremely grateful for it.

And really our, our goal and objective here is to just really engage in the conversation. We see this as just a conversation, whether it’s a literal conversation or a musical conversation.

And, and the band, I think, is going to be a really powerful tool in being able to do that on the ground in dozens, and dozens, and dozens of communities around the country.

Trey Carlisle: As well as the Black LP documentary series, which will tell the stories of the communities that we traveled to, the workshops that we do in communities and school events as a result of these follow up events.

And from that, these conversations inspiring folks to reflect on what can they do individually and in their own communities to help advance building a world, and a community, and nation where everybody belongs.