Lewis Museum Event To Honor 'Rebel Music' In Fight For Racial Justice

December 03, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa , sam.sessa@baltsun.com

In today's culture, rebels often get a bad rap. But not all of them deserve the negative connotations that come with the word.

A number of people who were once labeled rebels are now considered heroes by mainstream America, according to Cherrie Woods, the director of marketing and public relations at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once considered a rebel. So was Rosa Parks, she said.

"In the '50s and '60s, any African-Americans who were not treated as equals and chose to challenge this system were viewed as rebels," Woods said. "We thought, 'That's another definition of rebels that we need to embrace and celebrate - rebels who utilize nonviolent protest to make the change happen."

This realization helped prompt Woods to pull together a celebration of the rebels in African-American history. Called Rebel Music: Celebration For the People, the event, which takes place tomorrow at the museum, features live music and poetry readings by area artists such as Olu Butterfly, JSOUL and Ne'a Posey. It's meant to honor "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story," a traveling exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian.

"We really wanted to address our culture and a lot of the influences that came out of African-American history, largely in music and spoken word," Woods said.

Baltimore-based poet Olu Butterfly will read works by two prominent African-American writers at the event. Olu Butterfly, whose real name is Olu Woods, will read "On Being Brought From Africa to America" by Phillis Wheatley and "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay.

Though Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, was enslaved at a young age, she was educated and became a renowned author in the 1700s. Later, when Wheatley was freed, interest in her works faded, and she died impoverished at the age of 31.

"I love Phillis Wheatley," Olu Butterfly said. "Her story really touches me. ... In her freedom, she tried to revisit some of those places where she had been celebrated and was snubbed. She had been appreciated as 'that cute, smart slave.' "

When Olu Butterfly teaches "If We Must Die" in her poetry class at Baltimore Talent Development High School, she asks her students to update the poem with their own thoughts. McKay was a Jamaican native who moved in the early 1900s to New York City, where he wrote several books. His poetry might be more than 80 years old, but it still resonates today, she said.

"His piece is very revolutionary," she said. "It's a call to act ... to actively defend yourself and fight back."

At the Rebel Music event, Olu Butterfly will be joined by Femi the Dri Fish, who will also read poetry.

"I always like events that are bold and creative," she said. "This is a vision I like to be involved in."

After an hour of singing and poetry reading, DJ Stylus will take over, playing blues, reggae, soul and other music with a rebel theme, Woods said. She hopes the event will be both entertaining and educational.

"Essentially it's going to be a party," Woods said. "We want everyone to come. Though the focus is on African-American history and culture, it's certainly relevant to everyone."

If you go

Rebel Music: Celebration of the People starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission is free for museum members, $15 for non-members and $10 for students with an ID. Advance tickets can be purchased at missiontix.com.

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