Global Voices “Roots & Rhymes: A Black Culture Showcase”

By Sara Zhou
Global Voices Metcalf Fellow

In celebration of Black History Month and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First Great Migration, the Global Voices Performing Arts Series at International House will be partnering with Soul Poetry Cafe and local Chicago artists to present “Roots & Rhymes: A Black Culture Showcase.”

The performing arts showcase will feature the works of a variety of performers including musicians, dancers, and poets from the surrounding Chicago arts community. “Roots & Rhymes” will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 20, in I-House,1414 E. 59th St. The event will open with a light reception at 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The night’s live performances include legendary jazz virtuoso Maggie Brown who will perform excerpts from her show, “LEGACY: Our Wealth of Music.” The night will open with Rodney Gibson, a Chicago-based jazz pianist, and various spoken word Sponsored by Soul Poetry Cafe. Apart from established local talent, the showcase will also feature the work of less established performers, including students from Harold Washington College and the University of Chicago. Afterwards, the showcase will focus on the unique expression of black culture through bodily movement. Performances by the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago, Gingarte Capoeira Chicago, and the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. step team will round off the night.

Many of these performers are not new to the I-House venue or the Global Voices performing arts series. Poets from the Soul Poetry Café will share their memories of the annual joint “Soul Poetry Café” events that were hosted in International House in previous years. This series was designed to celebrate socially conscious hip-hop and spoken word, a tradition that will no doubt continue on Feb. 20th.

Three years ago, Maggie Brown also performed at I-House where she celebrated a capstone event during the 20th anniversary of her one-woman show, “LEGACY.” That night, she brought to the stage new insight and meaning to her songwriting. The Chicago Tribune described her performance as “deeply felt, [a] personal statement about cultural values and, in effect, reminding listeners of how long she has been championing her own.”

Indeed, Maggie Brown is no stranger to the concept of communicating her own values and history through music. The daughter of singer-songwriter Oscar Brown, Jr., she cites her father as being a tremendous inspiration on her lyrics and his uncompromised attitude towards his work as an influence on her own work. Oscar Brown was a jazz legend himself, internationally renowned in his own right as an artist and activist during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. His songwriting challenged the traditional forms of jazz up to that point, and his lyrics have been popularized by the likes of performers such as David Johansen and Nina Simone. As a man of ingenious musical vision and artistry, Maggie Brown believes that he deserved far more recognition than he received in his lifetime. It is in memory of men and women like her father that Maggie Brown celebrates the Great Migration.

When asked about her song “What Makes a Great Migration,” Brown’s tone became warmer, infused with a rhythmic sound and weight as she recalled her lyrics. She described the great sacrifice and hope of African Americans traveling to Chicago in the 1910s. Afterwards, she paused. “A big part of my work is educational entertainment,” Brown said.

She said, “It’s important to encourage appreciation of those who came before me…I’m interested in having [younger performers] see what it is I do and where I come from.”

Beyond her life as a performer, Maggie Brown also discussed her active involvement with the Blue Gargoyle, a Hyde Park non-profit organization that provides training and employment assistance to those in need. She is also in the process of establishing a summer program that seeks to empower South Side adolescents through performing arts training.

Among the newer performers are collegiate-level artist who will be bringing fresh perspectives on their respective art forms. The Phi Beta Sigma fraternity will be presenting a step performance. As a fraternity founded by three African-American students in 1914, the form of percussive dance is connected to the organization’s founding, since stepping is often thought to have its origins in traditions of African American fraternities in the 1900s. Students from local campuses, Harold Washington College and U. of C. will also be bringing their own talent through self-written rap and hip-hop music.

The Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago and Gingarte Capoeira, which has long performed on the U. of C. campus, will be rounding off the night with performances of their own. They will be presenting traditional African-Brazilian cultural dances and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that blurs the lines between the forms of fighting and dance, between physical and spiritual. The histories of these dance techniques are passed down from the slave workers of 19th century Brazil.

Together, these performances highlight the roots of African American culture and the need for unique forms of expression among the black community. The personal experiences that all performers will bring to the stage, regardless of age or experience, will reflect the rhyming nature of shared history. The mastery demonstrated by these artists will present a powerful remembrance to those black men and women who travelled to Chicago during the First Great Migration, creating a cultural hub for jazz musicians, soul poets, and paving the way for high-profile artists to share their talents with an international community.

Doors will be opening at 5p.m.; the showcase begins at 5:30 p.m. Free and Open to the Public. Please visit ihouse.uchicago.edu for more information. Persons with disabilities who need assistance should contact the Office of Programs and External Relations in advance at 773 – 753 – 2274 or e-mail mdestefa@uchicago.edu.

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The Global Voices series is a partnership between the International House (I-House) at University of Chicago and the Hyde Park Herald to inform the community about special events hosted by I-House that are open to the public.