The Black Legacy Project is trying to bridge gaps and find common ground through the universal language of music. The project’s co-directors, Todd Mack and Trey Carlisle, talked on Morning Edition about the group’s debut album and their upcoming shows at The Mystic Side Opera Company in Malden. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: Thanks for being here. So first off, tell me, what is the general concept behind this album?
Trey Carlisle: The Black Legacy Project itself is a musical celebration of Black history to advance racial solidarity, equity and belonging. It's a national project that takes place at the local level in communities across the country. And what we have done over the past couple of years is travel to seven communities across the nation to bring together Black and white community members to discuss themes and songs centered around race relations in the U.S. And then from those discussions, we've engaged local Black and white artists from those communities in creating present day interpretations of those songs and co-writing original songs about tangible steps we can take to move forward as a nation. So the album Vol. 1, will be a showcase of 12 songs that have come out of the Black Legacy Project launches in Massachusetts and Colorado, in Arkansas and in Los Angeles, California.
Paris Alston: Oh, that sounds amazing. Just a great big melting pot of music there. So, Todd, what are some of the songs, as Trey mentioned, that you all are studying and through this project?
Todd Mack: In the Berkshires we launched the project in September of 2021 to the theme of “Hope in a Hateful World.” And the songs that we selected were "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the Black National Anthem.
[song plays in background]
Mack: As well as "We Shall Overcome."
Mack: These are songs I think that really speak to solidarity and partnership in Black and white Americans and really Americans of all backgrounds, working together to create a society in which everyone belongs.
Alston: So I'm curious what it was like to bring together Americans of all backgrounds into one space and work with them? Because I imagine, right, as much as we probably all want to imagine that it was a big Kumbaya moment, there may have been some tougher moments even through that work.
Carlisle: It was a really powerful experience being able to — in our roundtable discussions — and then from that in the musical interpretation process, have artists of different racial backgrounds, different generations, different walks of life come together to talk about these really deep topics like lynching, or sundown towns, or how to be able to prevent interracial violence through stepping in the shoes of those different from you.
Carlisle: So to be able to see community members of different ages, different backgrounds, really all having a desire to want to discuss these things and discuss these topics, and practicing empathy and compassion and listening with an open mind when it comes to discussing these themes, but then also when it comes to creating new interpretations of these songs and co-writing an original. It was definitely a creative process. It's a challenge to collaboration, having an open mind, an open heart. But the songs that resulted from it and the meaningful dialogue that resulted from it was so beautiful and moving. And it gives me hope that this type of work can happen all over, because it's needed all over.
Alston: You mentioned that Black LP first launched in September of 2021. Now, obviously that was a little over a year after the police murder of George Floyd and all of our racial recognition nationwide and worldwide that ensued after that. So what has the response been from the participants over these last two years? Do they feel like this has really helped them to engage in those conversations emotionally, intelligently?
Mack: Part of our success has been that we really just see ourselves as facilitators, as creators of space. And so the content that we offer is historical based. It's not opinion based, and we really want our participants to formulate their own opinions, but also to have the experience of interacting with people that they may not interact with on a day-to-day basis so that on their own we're providing an opportunity for them to sort of see their humanity in one another.
And, I think, when you think about the summer of 2020, which is when Trey and I first started brainstorming on this idea, a lot of it was coming from this place of feeling like it's two sides shouting at each other, and that polarization is just getting wider and deeper. And how do you actually have people take a breath and listen for a minute — and doing it in a way that didn't feel force-fed necessarily, but allowed people to come to their own discoveries and their own realizations.
Alston: So lastly here, Trey, where do you hope Black LP goes from here?
Carlisle: Well, our vision is to be able to take these beautiful songs and films highlighting the launches of the seven communities that we've launched the project in literally across the nation with our Black Legacy project touring band. We also envision us being able to engage in future residencies, programs, community conversation, screenings at schools, universities and communities across the nation. We also envision the catalog of songs that we have artists reimagine and write, grow, and just ever-expand. Because, you know, these songs of the past and songs of the present are still so relevant today. So we feel honored to be co-creating spaces where these conversations, these songs and more importantly, the hearts that are changed as a result of them can continue to grow.
Alston: You can check out the debut album, "Black Legacy Project Vol. 1" on your favorite music streaming platform. The group performs at the Mystic Side Opera Company in Malden tonight (September 26th) and Friday (September 29th), both at 7 p.m.