Damien Sneed discusses Cal Performances’ MLK tribute show ‘We Shall Overcome’

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The Cal Performances production of “We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.” was very timely. Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ forced arrival to the United States, Cal Performances presented Damien Sneed’s latest intersectional multimedia production on Thursday. 

Sneed’s long-winded list of titles precedes him, including pianist, vocalist, conductor, composer and arts educator. “We Shall Overcome” pairs together excerpts from King’s beloved speeches with music from the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. With Sneed on the piano and as lead singer, he was joined at Zellerbach Hall by a group of five singers, three musicians and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir in paying homage to the history of Black social strife and sacrifice.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Sneed spoke about his purpose for this specific piece. “My objective was to highlight the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to give people a call to action to effect change,” Sneed said. 

To evoke those emotions, Sneed called upon his own history to forge his ideals for the future. “I’ve been researching all my life growing up in Georgia,” Sneed said. “I used figures whom I’ve known that I looked up to from my life’s work — going to Howard University, dealing with music from the African American tradition — that’s just always been around.” 

And according to Sneed, his mix of sounds includes classical, jazz, soul and gospel, all of which are evenly distributed in “We Shall Overcome.” Sneed hoped to include music that was important to the Black diaspora in his performance, while still being accessible to his ideal audience, sometimes extending beyond that base. 

“(I want to reach) everybody,” Sneed said. “Young, old, millennials, baby boomers, all ages, all races, all cultures, all creeds. That’s why I formulate the performance to have music … that can really touch everybody.”

While Sneed hopes to touch every single audience member in his audiences, he also strives to engage his emotions with his own personal connections, such as with Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir founder Terrance Kelly. “I love the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir,” Sneed said, “so I’m super excited. … It’s going to be a homecoming because I’ve known Terrance since I was a senior in high school, so this is going to be so amazing.” 

In addition to Kelly, Sneed is reminded of artists whom he’s had the privilege of partnering with in the past, such as Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman and Wynton Marsalis. “We Shall Overcome” includes tracks from his previous musical partnerships, which Sneed described as “part of the secret surprises of the performance.”  

Sneed said he would intertwine music from early African immigrants dealing with protests and reconciliation with some of King’s most famous speeches. The list includes tracks such as “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Nina Simone.

Because the music of Civil Rights-era Black artists has incredible depth, Sneed’s task of honoring a complicated and compelling history is daunting, to say the least. His valiant efforts, however, produced a multimedia performance that he hopes will be as intersectional as possible.

I deal with 1619, the 400 years of Africans coming to America as slaves through the middle passage,” Sneed said. “This is 2020, the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, with great writers such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston. I deal with the fact that great musicians such as Duke Ellington, W. C. Handy, Florence Mills were also around in that era. … I incorporate all of that intentionally into the performance.”

Sneed’s timing with “We Shall Overcome” is impeccable — he communicates crucial pieces of American history through a modern performance dedicated to the past. In paying attention to a heavily traumatic history, Sneed said he hopes to reckon with the complicated emotions surrounding the past through his art.

“Artists have to give voice to those who don’t have a voice, and use their platform to do so,” Sneed said. “And that’s why I highlight artists who did that during points in our history, but also I try to do the same thing.”

With points of action in mind and an incredible musical expertise, Sneed delivered a thought-provoking performance filled with passion on Thursday. Facing a complicated history head-on, “We Shall Overcome” worked to understand these events and pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in a way that was nothing short of spectacular.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].