Damien Sneed is an award-winning artist that has extensively worked with musical legends like Aretha Franklin, The Clark Sisters, Lawrence Brownlee, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. However, the small city of Burlington, Vermont got to encounter a living lineage of an experience brimming with music and culture that ranged in genres from gospel, jazz, Broadway and classical.
On the night of January twenty-second, an audience of around nine-hundred people filed into the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington to see multi-genre recording artist, Damien Sneed. However, this concert was not like any other; men, women and children of all ages came together to see Sneed’s performance inspired by the words of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior.
The performance, We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, was filled with recordings from Doctor King’s recorded speeches intertwined with music from African- American music traditions that inspired civil rights activists. The music ranged from classical pieces that allowed for jazzy improvisations to songs by well-known artists like Nina Simone.
Damien Sneed was not the only one showing off their musical skills. His vocals were accompanied by Markita Knight, Anitra McKinney, Tekesha Russell and Linny Smith. While other musicians on stage included of Mark Clark, John Matthew Clark and Marquéz Cassidy. By their second song, these powerful musicians had every single audience member on their feet. The song was a soulful rendition of Oh, Freedom, which was sung by Joan Baez on the day Doctor King gave his I Have a Dream speech. Not even halfway through, Sneed introduced himself on beat and in the middle of the song. As the backup vocalists kept the beat by saying buried on every quarter note, he went on to explain why he chose to tour during this month:
“it’s our job to make sure that those who are… buried…not just those who are away from life…buried…but those who are buried from problems like oppression…buried…. social injustices, racial disparities…buried… so that we can bring their cause to light because they’ve been… buried”
After this, he continued improvising on the piano and scat singing. Because of Sneed’s unique history with all of the genres he has studied, his repertoire allowed him to talk cohesively while still covering so much musical ground, fluidly, in a single performance.
Throughout the rest of the night, each vocalist came forward to sing a song from the Civil Rights Movement era. During these songs, there were moments when the recorded speeches of Martin Luther King Junior would play in the background and a woman in the last row would stand in the aisle. After the performance, I came to know this woman by the name of Beverly. In a short interview after the show, she stated that she had been at the Great March on Washington on Wednesday, August twenty-eighth, 1963.
She said she felt “emotional to be here, honoring Doctor King” and parted with “music of this time had a way of changing the way we think.”
After the last song, Sneed and the rest of his ensemble set up a table to meet the members of the audience. After waiting in a long line and reaching out on social media, I asked him a similar question in relation to Beverly’s parting words.
Sneed replied with, “as you know, I have toured and worked with so many powerful musicians who used their voices and art to let the world know that change is on the way. I created this tour because I want the world to know, that one day, we shall truly overcome”.