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Words and Music - Slavery and Freedom (BBC Radio 3)

Selected by: Jackie Kay
Producer: Pam Fraser Solomon
Date: Sunday 25 March 2007
Time: 7.30-8.30pm

Words and Music is a selection of music and readings both poetry and prose chosen by the poet Jackie Kay. The selections mediate on the themes of slavery, abolition and freedom. Using the works of Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes and the music of Ali Farka Toure and June Tabor amongst others, Words and Music presents a means of conveying the history of enslavement in an alternative format to the present day.

The presence of the eighteenth century slave trade today in British towns and cities, indeed throughout the country, is something which Jackie Kay draws the listeners' attention to immediately. We are reminded that the period of history where enslavement was endemic is not that far away in our past. It is only two hundred years since the abolition act Kay states, and she uses the image of 'two old people holding hands aged 85, not too far away.' Music and verse form the means by which the listener is impelled to think about enslavement and the African Diaspora. Kay is concerned that we should think in terms of opposites as, 'only by valuing freedom can we understand slavery.' The selections therefore express a sense of liberation as well as oppression. The painful and difficult history of enslavement is evoked through the programme and this process is deemed essential by Kay, 'we have to imagine it.'

The selection whilst a personal journey of Kay's also represents the tangled nature of history, how histories intertwine and interact, a theme which can be noticed elsewhere in the BBC Abolition Season, and especially in Kay's drama The Lamplighter. Selections from a variety of traditions and backgrounds are used, for instance Beethoven is followed by Robert Burns, Aime Cesaire and Ismael Lo. Kay links these traditions however with the themes of slavery, understanding and the power of art to inspire and alter. These selections also provide fuel for which to think about how our identities are formed. This is especially so in the use of Nina Simone's 'Mississippi Goddam' and in the use of Wole Soyinka's 'Telephone Conversation', which Kay herself reflects upon as a black Scottish woman. Soyinka's need to inform the potential landlady that he is 'an African' plays upon the prejudices we construct from appearance. That Africans can be non-black, and black people have English accents forms for Soyinka a means to mock the small-minded racism of the landlady. The poems and songs chosen by Kay are a means to counter this form of narrating our identity. Based not on notions of black or white identity, the pieces form a means whereby our sense of selfhood is fluid and complex. Kay shows sympathy for this position in her statement, 'the music and poetry we love forms part of our own biographies.'

The poems and songs speak of the strength of survival and the work of individuals and movements who speak out against slavery: who speak out despite of it and speak out because of it. Audrey Lorde's poem 'A Litany for Survival' emphasises these perspectives, as Kay narrates the work and reads the line 'So it is better to speak, remembering we were never meant to survive.' Whilst the heritage of black music, literature and identity is celebrated in the program its inclusion of Handel and Walt Whitman also provides a means of anchoring the program in a reconciliatory guise. The selections are made by Kay for the audience to come together to remember the history of enslavement.

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