Mustapha Khan's American Anthem

A couple of years ago, the filmmaker and songwriter Mustapha Khan played me an early demo of his galvanizing “Song for Our People.” Not long after that, his wife, Allyson Smith, told me that Mus had booked a Brooklyn recording studio for a day to not only record the song but to film the entire process for a documentary, and that this would involve many singers and musicians—and a tap dancer! 

How amazing to see the result last Thursday night, in a film of the same title as the song, at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea (not to mention spotting Mus’s name up on the marquee from half a block away). Presented by the Freshfields law firm, the event included a live performance of the song with some of the original participants, including singers Kenny Vaughan and Jessie Wagner and the charismatic tap dancer Omar Edwards, who gets the last word in the film (if you see it, and I hope you do, listen for that; it’s something that probably applies to all of us). Edwards also has the first word, in a manner of speaking, when we hear his percussive dancing and see, coordinated with it, a black-and-white photo montage that moves through the course of American black history in an astonishing and often horrifying way.


 

The doc, which has already won awards in several film festivals, includes interviews with the participants. Fittingly, since the song was inspired by a preacher’s sermon about ancestors (see the lyrics, at the end, from my program), several of the artists speak of the parents, grandparents, and community members who have profoundly helped them. Despite those people’s often difficult lives, they enabled these performers to pursue their creative dreams. Mus himself states that the initial idea came to him after his father died; he wanted to do something in his honor. (During the Q&A after the film, Mus pointed out that he belongs to the first post–Jim Crow generation.)

 

Mustapha Khan at the NYC premiere of Song for Our People. Photo by Susan Rasco.


Aside from the potent social and political aspects of the film, the process of making a complex recording comes alive in both an entertaining and educational way. I can’t remember ever seeing a film that showed that undertaking from the point of view of virtually all the musicians, minus (for the most part) what they’re listening to in their headphones. So we hear unadorned the intense vocals of Tashan, invoking “freedom” again and again; as well as those of Vaughan and the three background singers—Wagner, Karen Lloyd, and Elsa Cornish—whose naked musical filigrees are revealed in all their luster; the rap of Norman Burns; and so on (sorry, I’m partial to singers!). They all culminate in the final track: a powerful anthem, as the event program correctly calls it, “to energize the ongoing fight for a more just American society.” Do we ever need that.

 

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