MARYSVILLE – A Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly at Marysville Getchell High School Friday celebrated the life of the civil rights leader through the music that is integral to the African-American experience.
“In Martin Luther King’s world, music was very important to him, and gospel music is about the narrative of a people,” said guest speaker Stephen Newby, a music professor at Seattle Pacific University and the Seattle Sounders’ primary national anthem singer for a decade.
Newby sang and talked about King, the history of American gospel, its influence on the orator’s life and how the music told a story of enslavement and oppression deeply rooted in black society.
“He knew that if he could live a life that would proclaim something, that would be good news for people, because people are oppressed,” Newby said to a packed gym of students, faculty and staff. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to this idea of giving freedom to the oppressed.”
But gospel music also brought people together, to sing together, and work together toward unity and peace, Newby said.
The Baptist minister became one of the most-visible leaders of the civil rights movement. King advanced using nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight racial inequality until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
King’s early beliefs and practices grew out of reading sacred texts such as the Jewish Tanakh and Christian holy scripture. The texts told of preaching the gospel to the poor and healing the broken-hearted to set at liberty those who are oppressed, Newby said.
Newby was joined by Seattle gospel singer Joy Jones, who delivered a soulful, spellbinding rendition of “Deep River,” with lyrics that point back to biblical times when oppressed Israelites crossed the River Jordan to reach The Promised Land. But it also represents a “plantation” song that tells the struggles of blacks migrating north to flee enslavement.
Newby said the question when listening for clues in the lyrics is to ask: “What are we learning from this? What are you enslaved to? What is oppressing you? Pay attention to that clue, that cue and that code. When you are dealing with depression, oppression and dysfunction, it’s a deep river.”
He added that in African-Americans’ understanding of art and music, body movement is integral to their humanity.
“You can’t sing black music without movement,” he said. “When you think about hip hop and rap, they’re connected not only to community but movement. It’s about dance. It’s about people coming together.”
Newby told the crowd that while looking at the world today: “Think about what’s going on in social media. Think about the movements today that are going on. People want to be free.”
The cues and clues of the African-American movement are ever-present in music today as they were at the origins of gospel, he said.
To make the point, he played Chance the Rapper’s 2017 hit, “First World Problems,” a song that speaks to the rapper’s life, full or empty at times, both suffering and affluent. The lyrics reference Martin Luther King’s dream speech, with other lines like, “Have a dream and then never wake up.”
Paraphrasing the song, Newby added, “The day is on its way. It’s not gonna wait for you. It’s not gonna wait for me. Wake up. We are people of the liberation. We are people of freedom; this is what Martin Luther King’s life was about, and this is the reason why gospel music sings.”
The assembly closed with Newby conducting the MG choir singing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American national anthem (video).
The assembly was organized by the MG Black Student Union and the Multicultural Club.
Trevaun Reeves, president of the Black Student Union, said the event was beautiful and moving.
“Honestly, I think this was one of the most memorable assemblies that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Reeves, a senior.
She said she believed the music and words shared by Newby and Jones struck a chord with students.