Damien Sneed finds new congregation with ‘We Shall Overcome’

Damien Sneed/Courtesy

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Damien Sneed walked onto Zellerbach Hall’s stage on Thursday with tenacity, accentuated by his dark blue sequined suit jacket. His splendor was matched by his fellow artists onstage, as the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, in equally reflective dark green outfits, lined the backdrop with movement and color. The night was set for a grand performance. As Sneed sat down at his piano, he turned to share a sly smile with five accompanying singers and three fellow musicians before letting his fingers grace the keys of his piano.

As Sneed began to play a growing sequence of delicate runs, a voice joined in. That voice came not from the choir, nor the singers, nor Sneed himself, but rather from Martin Luther King Jr. As the recording soared over the hall, Sneed matched the cadence and strength of King’s tone until the two blended together into a seamless harmony. After the partnership between song and speech developed, the rest of Sneed’s company joined in, and a chorus of depth and passion emanated from the stage.

While the performance title, “We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., featuring Damien Sneed,” framed Sneed’s musical exploration as a tribute performance, it was more of a broader homage to the Black diaspora and its associated musical tradition. Sneed entered his 41-city tour with several main objectives, as he told The Daily Californian in an interview. He aims to spread the values of the great Black artists that went before him, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance to today. Sneed paid homage to artists whom he has previously worked with, such as Jessye Norman and Aretha Franklin. He combined these artists’ music with songs by legends that formed the Black musical tradition, such as Duke Ellington, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. These sequences and numbers made for an intersectional celebration of history. 

Sneed made sure to keep the gospel sentiment strong in each song he played by eliciting audience interactions. He called for the audience to stand up onto its feet and join the choir to fill the hall with more voices, more movement, more elated emotions. The audience was incredibly willing to participate, as Sneed conducted his now-expanded congregation through emotive passages of praise and wider celebrations of freedom. 

From the first few musical movements, the incredible raw talent of Sneed was apparent; his vocal range, impressive piano skills and ability to drive the performance all emerged during its nearly two-hour duration. Besides his stamina, Sneed’s abilities were heightened through his impeccable range. Throughout the performance, Sneed married jazz, classical, gospel and soul, each genre building on the multiplicity of the Black musical tradition. As Sneed noted throughout the night, much of the negativity in his life surrounds his refusal to specialize in one specific genre or align with one specific identity. Besides criticism from the different communities in his life, Sneed also discussed being orphaned as a young child, being diagnosed with autism and developing a speech impediment. It was through music and performing that Sneed found strength in these elements of his identity, however, and the artist showed genuine vulnerability as he shared parts from his past. Sneed said he hopes to inspire others through his story, and stressed that artists must use their platform to give a voice to the voiceless.

Sneed remained humble throughout the night, giving space to his fellow artists onstage. His five accompanying singers, though the term accompanying was hardly applicable, took up space with their talent and accolades. The five powerhouses included Chenee Campbell, Matia Washington, Anitra McKinney, Alicia Peters-Jordan and Linny Smith. The power of the group’s voices came to the forefront through various solos and improvisation passages. Highlights included McKinney’s rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” Smith’s version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Peters-Jordan’s performance of Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“We Shall Overcome” spoke to a whole manner of issues and emotions that reverberate throughout history and remain relevant today. As he celebrated a centennial of Black American music, Sneed paid tribute to the past and looked to the future with an optimistic perspective that was nothing short of inspiring.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].