Why the words of Douglass sing out loud in Cork

The legacy of Frederick Douglass from a musical perspective is being explored in Cork, says Stevie G in his Downtown column
Why the words of Douglass sing out loud in Cork

Charmaine Ngwenya recording music at the Kabin studio in Cork City.

THE legacy of Frederick Douglass, the 19th century US social reformer and civil rights activist, is being explored from a musical perspective in Cork this week. The former slave, turned abolitionist, once journeyed through Cork and Ireland, at the time of the Great Famine, and it left a mark on his life and future teachings.

Most Cork and Irish people knew little of Douglass until recently, but this impressive celebration of his impact brings his ethos into the 21st century. The challenges Douglass faced are mirrored today, a couple of centuries on, so his teachings are still relevant.

Slavery still exists, in many forms, and the descendants of Douglass, such as Kenneth B Morris Jr, are raising awareness about the horrors of modern-day human trafficking. Morris, who is also a descendent of Booker T Washington, is the co-founder and president of the non-profit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) in Atlanta.

FDFI is part of the abolitionist movement and teaches young people about modern-day forced servitude.

Morris is one of the many important figures involved in the Douglass week, which continues online with a series of events.

So where does the music connection come in? An array of musical events is celebrating Douglass’s legacy, and this will involve reinterpreting his writings and teachings, too. Participants include the Irish Institute of Music and Song (Donal Kearney and Sarah McCreedy), Barretstown, Cork Migrant Centre, Nano Nagle Place, Brendan Breslin, of The Royal Academy of Music, Eimear Noone (the first female conductor of the Academy Awards), Hamilton stars Paul Oakley Stovall and Nikhil Saboo, Grammy award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, Lesley Roy, Griff Rollefson, of University College Cork, and many more.

Many young, Cork spoken-word artists, poets, rappers, and singers have been working on various projects with the guidance of the Cork Migrant Centre, and impressive work has been produced by Raphael Olympio, Junior, Cliff Masheti, Outside YP, Athobe, Charmaine, Mirabel, Light, Shelton, Ugonna, Elton Sibanda, Noreen, Joe Steezy, and many more.

The recurring theme is that Douglass’s words and actions are more relevant than ever.

Racial discrimination, in Ireland and elsewhere, is often institutionalised, and there have been big efforts to instil some of Douglass’s story into the curricula of Irish schools and colleges.

As we become more multi-cultural and racially aware, it’s imperative that we learn more about such history. The Cork and Irish angle is more relevant because Douglass’ travels here made a big impact on him; he had a “transformative” few months speaking and travelling here.

Again, music is a powerful tool for learning, and it’s great to see the new generation so engaged with Douglass’ story. I was part of a group over the last six months that taught teenagers about his impact, and the young people were deeply moved by his teachings and used them to create fresh, new, original work.

Douglass was a physically impressive man, and he was the most photographed person in the 19th century. He was acutely aware of the power of his image, and we discussed this with our own youngsters at length; in some ways, Frederick Douglass was using his own type of social media, hundreds of years before the internet was invented.

Douglass was not allowed to read or write, but he learned anyway, and he was aware that knowledge provided the “pathway from slavery to freedom”.

It’s hard to fathom now, but many people at the time felt that slaves didn’t have the intellectual capacity to be treated equally, and he was a living embodiment of how these racist feelings were untrue.

Escaping slavery, Douglass became a key member of the abolitionist movement, but his outlook differed significantly from some who wanted the slaves to relocate elsewhere.

Douglass wanted freed slaves to remain in their own country, the US, and his oratory and writings became very powerful and influential.

Congratulations to Dr Caroline Schroeter, Tim Groenland, Kristin Leary, and Sarah McCreedy, and all those involved in organising such an illuminating week.

The words and writings of Frederick Douglass will provide inspiration for music for many centuries to come, both in Cork and around the world.

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