Strong voices for peace left last year, people who used their art for social change, often at a high personal price.
Odetta was a legendary folk singer of the civil-rights movement. Considered the “Queen of American Folk Music,” she introduced audiences worldwide to African-American folk, blues and gospel music.
New Year’s Eve was her birthday. She would have been 78. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”
Odetta sang “Oh, Freedom,” an African-American slave spiritual, at the 1963 March on Washington. Early on, she attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Her voice, her talent with the guitar and the natural style in which she maintained her hair – later to be dubbed “afro” – set her as an icon of the civil-rights movement. She told an interviewer in 2003:
“When I first started, I would sing these prison songs … it got to a point where doing the music actually healed me … it was music from those who went before. The music gave them strength, and the music gave us strength to carry it on.”
She inspired Bernice Johnson Reagon, an early member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers. She had been suspended from college in Albany, Ga., for civil-rights protests, then went on to Spelman College, where historian Howard Zinn and his wife, Roz, brought her to folk-music concerts by Joan Baez and Odetta.
Reagon recalls the first time she heard Odetta: “In Georgia, where I grew up in the country, the roads were built by chain-gang labor. I knew the sound, because as the men worked, they sang. But I never thought I’d hear it coming from a concert stage. … She was just what I needed to begin my life as a freedom fighter and as a Freedom Singer.”
Another great liberation singer we lost last year was Miriam Makeba, of South Africa, known as “Mama Afrika.” She sang against apartheid, then went into exile for decades. Belafonte also helped her gain recognition.
In 1968, she married SNCC-leader-turned-Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, for which she was blacklisted in the U.S. until the 1980s.
Soon after her death, I asked the Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu about Makeba. The South African archbishop smiled: “Her singing, her voice, helped many people to know a little bit more about the vicious apartheid system. She was just a tremendous human being, a great loss to us and to Africa.”
Also blacklisted in 1968 was singer and actress Eartha Kitt, who died at age 81 on Christmas Day. In 1968, she was invited to a celebrity luncheon at the White House by Lady Bird Johnson, who asked Kitt about urban poverty. Kitt replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” For years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas and was investigated by the FBI and CIA.
Born out of the Deep South and South Africa, these women’s voices sang out, from concert halls to protest rallies. Another voice we just lost sang out from the written page. Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve in London. Though too sick to travel to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he sent a video address: “The majority of politicians … are interested not in truth but in power. … To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance. … What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies.” Pinter was referring to U.S. policy from Guantanamo to Iraq.
As these icons are laid to rest, their voices continue to inspire millions. Barack Obama will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation on Earth, promising change. But it will now take the actions of those millions, heeding these echoes of the past and transforming them into their own voices, to effect real change.
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