Merlene Davis: UK's Black Women's Conference focuses on the power of song

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 20, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: 19th Annual Black Women's Conference, "Voices of Resistance: Black Women and the Power of Song."

    When: Noon-1:30 p.m., Friday: Mary McLeod Bethune luncheon and lecture, featuring Renita Weems. Luncheon, $20, $10 for students; 2-4 p.m. Anna Julia Cooper Address, featuring Angelique Clay. UK Student Center Ballroom.

    3:30- 5 p.m., March 27: Zora Neale Hurston Lecture and Village Experience, featuring Bettina Love. Martin Luther King Cultural Center, UK Student Center. Free.

    5:30-7 p.m., March 28: Doris Wilkinson Distinguished Lecture, featuring Judith Casselberry. Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St. Free.

    For luncheon tickets: Email Neena Khana, nkhan2@uky.edu.

Melynda Price believes in order for change agents to endure, they should have a favorite song or genre of music readily available during the shaky times life brings.

"To be an activist, you need a soundtrack of music that you can go to and get your mind straight," Price said.

In a speech she gave in 2011 on how to live an activist life, she explained her theory eloquently: "You need a song, a chord, a blow over a ceramic jug, a rhythmic scraping of spoons across a wash board, the anguished beauty of an accordion squeeze. You need a sound that you can save on your iPod, iPhone, mp3 player, laptop, compact disc or in your brain that will always remind you of who you are, where you come from and that there is something in the world that is bigger than you."

When her son was born, she said, "The first songs that came to me were hymns."

One of them, Corinthian Song, by Kathy Taylor, is particularly meaningful because the songstress was a girl in Price's neighborhood before becoming famous.

"It was the combination of the song and the knowledge that she had traveled my path from a hood girl to a successful person on her terms that made it right," Price said. "The song changes. It has to be flexible because what you need to do difficult work also changes."

With that premise in mind, Price, the University of Kentucky Robert E. Harding, Jr. Associate Professor of Law, has gathered women speakers to discuss ways in which music and singing has been instrumental in the survival of black women. The women will discuss various genres including hip hop, gospel, folk and classical that have been used to motivate them to continue to their advocacy.

Price is the coordinator of the 19th Annual Black Women's Conference, this year titled "Voices of Resistance: Black Women and the Power of Song." It is sponsored by the African American & Africana Studies at UK, formerly known as the African American Studies Research Program.

The conference begins Friday. Author, biblical scholar and ordained minister, Renita J. Weems will be the keynote speaker. Her topic is "Call for the Weeping Women: Women, Resistance and the Blues," a discussion of black women and spirituality.

At 2 p.m., Angelique Clay, assistant professor of music at UK who has performed operatic roles as well as toured with the American Spiritual Ensemble, will speak about "Songs of Forgotten Voices: African American Women Composers of American Art Songs." Art songs are poetry that is set to music. It is usually song by a trained voice with piano accompaniment.

The next events are on Wednesday and Thursday at the Martin Luther King Cultural Center in the UK Student Center, and at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, respectively.

Wednesday's lecture will feature Bettina Love. It's called "Black Girlhood, Hip Hop & the New South." Love, an assistant professor of Educational Theory & Practice at the University of Georgia, will share some of her research that focuses on how urban youth use the hip hop music culture to form social, cultural, and political identities, which can be good and bad. Her recently published book, Hip Hop's Li'l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Hip Hop Identities and Politics in the New South, touches on the damaging effects that genre has had on some young girls.

Thursday's lecture will feature Judith Casselberry, a research associate at Harvard Divinity School, on leave from an assistant professorship at Bowdoin College.

Casselberry is a vocalist/guitarist and academic who once performed as part of the successful Casselberry-DuPreé duo, which produced songs in the folk, reggae, African, feminist genres. Her topic will be "The Amazon 35 Project: Race, Coalition Politics, and Lesbian Musical Culture." She was the executive producer of the project which produced a CD that benefits the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The conference was founded in 1994 by Doris Wilkinson, UK professor emeritus, after she became the first director of the African-American Studies and Research Program.

I think that as a pioneer, Wilkinson must have had a song, too. That song, Price estimates, is different from an old favorite or one that brings back memories of prom.

"The difference is the song that an activist has may have to save your life by keeping you quiet or bringing you to good mental health," Price said. "It cannot elicit a passing memory of joy or a good thing. It has to be fast, effective and sustaining."

What song do you need today?


IF YOU GO

What: 19th Annual Black Women's Conference, "Voices of Resistance: Black Women and the Power of Song."

When: Noon-1:30 p.m., Friday: Mary McLeod Bethune luncheon and lecture, featuring Renita Weems. Luncheon, $20, $10 for students; 2-4 p.m. Anna Julia Cooper Address, featuring Angelique Clay. UK Student Center Ballroom.

3:30- 5 p.m., March 27: Zora Neale Hurston Lecture and Village Experience, featuring Bettina Love. Martin Luther King Cultural Center, UK Student Center. Free.

5:30-7 p.m., March 28: Doris Wilkinson Distinguished Lecture, featuring Judith Casselberry. Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St. Free.

For luncheon tickets: Email Neena Khana, nkhan2@uky.edu.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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