The 18th Annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration was held on, Jan. 20 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, drawing a capacity crowd that came to honor the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.
Sponsored by the Kennedy Center and Georgetown University, the event featured 10-time Grammy Award winner Chaka Khan, The Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir and the Georgetown Jazz Ensemble. The evening also included performances by cast members of the new musical, “Stirring the Waters Across America,” written by composer Nolan Williams Jr. that examines the critical moments of the civil rights era from 1954 to 1968.
The free concert, live-streamed on the center’s website, has over the years become a holiday staple for many who choose the annual event to celebrate King’s message of peace and non-violence. It also celebrated his idea of people breaking social and economic barriers to come together for a common message.
Produced for 17 years by Williams, a Kennedy Center Social Impact Arts Resident, the event each year also honors a recipient with the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, named for the legendary former Georgetown head men’s basketball coach. This year’s 2020 Award was presented to Sandra Jackson, executive director of the House of Ruth, which serves women and children healing and recovering from trauma and abuse. The organization works to create an atmosphere of hope and support by addressing issues related to employment, health, housing, self-esteem and trauma.
The concert kicked off with Williams leading the New Works Band, the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir, the Georgetown University Jazz Ensemble and cast members of the new musical in the jazz-infused title tune, “Stirring the Waters,” (an adaptation of the Negro Spiritual, “Wade in the Water”) that combined elements of pop, gospel and infectious theatrics.
From there, the joy in the hall increasingly rose as the evening progressed. A welcome by the Kennedy Center’s Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph grew thunderous applause as Joseph delivered a soulful and electrifying treatise on the need for cultural equity, racial healing and transformation. When the musical’s cast members retook the stage to perform “Walking on Montgomery Like Jericho,” that featured a soulful march and amazing step dancing, the audience seemed to come together in a collective “Amen!”
The appearance of singer, songwriter and activist Chaka Khan took the intensity in the hall even higher, as Khan, dressed in a sparkling black jumpsuit, kicked off her set with “This Is My Night,” her auburn mane swaying from the breeze of an onstage fan. Her megahit, “Tell Me Something Good,” had people pulling out their phone and videotaping as they bobbed their heads and sang along with the music. Backed by three female singers, a drummer, two guitar players and a bassist, the singer worked the stage from one end to another, as she pointed her mike to the crowd who joyously sang the lyrics.
On “I Believe,” a song that the singer wrote herself, the Let Freedom Ring Choir joined in as a conga player thumped out a soulful beat. “Sweet Thing” brought the audience to its feet again, and Khan’s signature song, “I’m Every Woman,” had both women and men standing and singing.
Khan ended her set with “Ain’t Nobody,” and the choir and cast members all came out to join in the upbeat tune. Leaving the hall, one could hear many commenting positively on the evening and taking take pics with new found friends they had met in line while waiting for the free tickets to be distributed.
It was a coming together of people from different ethnic grounds and backgrounds that, for one evening, embodied what the late Dr. King preached.