Songs of a People's History
On May 17, Voices of a People's History of the United States returns for its third-annual performance at the David Rubenstein Atrium. A collaboration between the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry (HSAII), the project brings together student performers with artists and activists for a special evening of speeches, letters, poems, and songs written by, as project cofounder Howard Zinn wrote, "the people who have been overlooked in the traditional history books." This year's free event will include performances by musicians Falu Shah and Celisse Henderson, who have each selected songs that resonate with the themes of freedom and social justice. Here, Shah and Henderson share what went into their song choices, and their thoughts on the role of artists in social movements.
Eileen Willis: Can you tell us about the songs you'll be performing as part of the Voices event—what they are, why you picked them, and when you first heard them?
Celisse Henderson: I will be doing a song/spoken word mashup of Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Women" and Nina Simone's "4 Women." I am a HUGE fan of both Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. I have always connected to both of their work, especially as a black female artist. The first memory of interacting with Maya Angelou's work was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in middle school. It was a book I checked out from the local library that I DEVOURED. I couldn't believe what a raw, colorful, heartbreaking, heart healing, and inspired story it was! I instantly connected to the warmth in her writing and started devouring as much of her work as I could! Nina Simone was an artist I encountered in my early 20s. I believe the first thing I heard/saw was a live performance of "4 Women" online and was BLOWN AWAY. I was so incredibly inspired by the innate truthfulness is everything she embodies.
Falu Shah: I'll be performing "We shall overcome," in English and Hindi, and "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, with an Indian twist. We used to sing "Hum Honge Kamyaab," the Hindi version of "We Shall Overcome" when we were in school, and it gives me nostalgic memories. My childhood comes back to me when I sing that song and I feel very happy. I first heard it in fourth grade—it was Pete Seeger's live version. I often wondered what it would be like not to have basic freedoms, which is a right of every human being. I remember I used to think of people who were not as fortunate as I was and would ask my mom why we had everything and they had nothing?
"Art has the power to change people's inner thoughts and beliefs."
EW: How are you approaching the songs in terms of creating your own version/interpretation?
FS: I was amazed at how beautifully "We Shall Overcome" was adopted in my Indian culture and as one of India's patriotic songs. It was translated into so many Indian languages that every child at least knew one version of it in our school. I like to add a flavor of Indian classical music to everything I do, so I added lots of classical components into this song and look forward to presenting my version.
CH: I am a spoken word artist and I haven't been able to put together a piece in that vein in some time. So when I was reviewing different options of work in the Voices of a People's History book an idea of combining these two great works, with percussion as accompaniment, seemed like the perfect thing to do!
"We are the voices for the voiceless. It is our job to sound the alarm and to offer solutions."
EW: As artists, how do you see your role in relation to social and political movements? Why is it important for artists to be part of these conversations?
FS: I feel the role of an artist is very important in social and political movements in today's world. We can present ideas to people in a very effective way without being confrontational, as art has the power to change people's inner thoughts and beliefs. I feel, as an artist, we have a responsibility to our society. Kids look up to us and we have to be careful what examples we lay out for them through our art. Art is subtle but powerful in so many ways and can influence generations to come.
CH: I think my unapologetic existence as a black woman in and of itself is social and political. In a day and age like this where everything and everyone seems to be under attack, it is IMPERATIVE that artists continue to speak love, truth, hope, and resistance! We are the voices for the voiceless. It is our job to sound the alarm and to offer solutions, even if all it is is a song or a piece from an artist that truly reflects the human experience in this day and age. I am only interested in creating work that continues to speak to the truth of my life and the lives around me.
EW: What do you hope that the audience and the participants take away from your performance and/or the whole evening?
CH: I hope that people leave feeling a little more alive and connected to themselves and their feelings! It is such an incredible privilege to perform the work of these amazing women. And I hope the joy that their work was created with comes through me!
FS: I hope they share our experience and our emotions when we perform our songs.
About the Artists
Celisse Henderson is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, performer, and spoken word artist. Her deep and varied career has seen her on stage, from the recent revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square Theater and the Broadway national tour of Wicked to Bridget Everett's Rock Bottom at The Public Theater. On television, Celisse has appeared on PBS's The Electric Company, 30 Rock, Rescue Me, The Big C, White Collar, and more. She has also appeared countless times in concert with artists ranging from, most recently, Melissa Etheridge, Joss Stone, PHISH, Macy Gray, and Mariah Carey to Bernstein's MASS at Carnegie Hall and the various concerts of Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens and Bill Finn.
Falu (aka Falguni Shah) is internationally recognized for her rare ability to blend a modern and inventive style with classical Indian vocal tradition. Originally from Bombay, where she trained under the late sarangi/vocal master Ustad Sultan Khan as well as the legendary Smt. Kishori Amonkar, Falu moved to the States in 2000 and was appointed as a visiting lecturer at Tufts University. She has collaborated with a variety of artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass, Ricky Martin, Blues Traveler, and A. R. Rahman, among others. Falu continues to pursue her commitment to introducing children to the wonders of the world through her recently released her debut kids' project, Falu's Bazaar, which takes families on a musical journey through South Asia.
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.