Honoring Black History Month with music

  • ​Kimaya Diggs, a singer-songwriter and educator from Northampton, has developed the four-part series on Black musicians for Black History Month. Hannah Rose Photography LLC

  • Kalpana Devi and Manou Dalomba of roots-reggae group ReBelle, who will perform live at Hawks & Reed in a livestreamed show Friday, Feb. 19. Their latest recording, “One Music,” was released in December. Contributed photo

For the Gazette
Published: 2/12/2021 4:44:20 PM

February is Black History Month, and staying true to its commitment to great virtual live music, CouchMusic.Live is presenting two series throughout the month to honor the occasion.

For the first of these, the organization has teamed with Kimaya Diggs, a singer-songwriter, artist and educator from Northampton to present a four-piece video series called “Celebrating Black History Month with Kimaya Diggs.”

This series centers on the innovative ways that Black artists have used arts activism to respond to racism in the music industry and American society at large. It will air every Sunday at 5 p.m. during February and can be viewed at CouchMusic.Live and also on YouTube and Facebook. The series is sponsored by Valley Free Radio, which is based in Florence.

“The series will focus on the ways that Black musicians engaged with racial injustice. There will definitely be some general history, but we’ll always come back to what exactly their legacy means for racial justice and anti-racism,” Diggs wrote in a recent email exchange.

If you follow local music, there is a good chance you’ve seen Diggs perform, as she’s appeared on stages throughout the Valley including venues such as the Shea Theater in Turners Falls and Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. The honey-voiced singer released her well-received debut, “Breastfed,” in 2018.

One of the singles from the album, “How Am I Sposta Know,” made the top 10 in radio station 93.9 the River’s Best New Songs of 2018. She described the album, which includes jazz, soul and folk influences as a work about “growth toward the light.” Diggs is working on a follow-up that she hopes to release this summer.

Diggs is also committed to her work as an anti-racism educator and has facilitated trainings and workshops on the subject. She runs in-depth monthly workshops that are available by subscribing to her newly launched Patreon page at patreon.com/kimayadiggs.

She developed this video series on Black musicians specifically for Black History Month, feeling that it was a great opportunity to combine her anti-racism work with her music.

And knowing that we are fast becoming a culture that is suffering from screen time overload, each episode in the series is limited to 15 minutes. “I wanted to provide a quick, concise entree into Black music history,” she said.

“Many people have only recently awakened to the reality of racial injustice in this country, and I think it is essential to support their continued learning,” Diggs said. “Anti-racism isn’t a moment in time — it’s ongoing, daily action and part of that is continuing to learn about Black history. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we came from.”

She added that working on this project has helped her reconcile the tensions she holds within herself.

“As an individual of desi [of the Indian subcontinent] and Black experience, I find myself frustrated and disappointed with the current state of things. As a teacher, I know that it’s never too late to learn. And as a musician, I know that the arts are often the perfect gateway into deeper understanding and empathy.”

The first episode aired last Sunday with a focus on protest music that stressed that music can do something that speech cannot. Through discussion and singing, Diggs covered the connection between gospel music and protest music, the role of protest music in the civil rights movement, and the story behind Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” a song about racism that was inspired by lynching.

Future episodes will also have a theme that has yet to be determined, but some subjects Diggs is considering are the Black foremothers of rock and roll, and Motown’s contribution to the civil rights movement.

When it comes to racism, Diggs says there is a lot of work to do and that this series is just a small part of that work. She hopes that by watching these brief videos, viewers will gain a deeper understanding of the courage and fortitude the Black musicians of history needed to survive, and that they gain an understanding that the personal is political.

“Often, the experiences of people of color are derided as ‘identity politics,’ but it is essential to understand that if your appearance marks you as being outside of the dominant culture, your very existence is politicized, your presence in certain spaces is politicized, and the words you speak and the art you create is politicized,” she said. “I hope that viewers begin to see that fact.”

For information and to learn more about her monthly Patreon workshops, visit kimayadiggs.com.

In addition to presenting Digg’s series, CouchMusic.live has partnered with Hawks & Reed to present “Music Speaks: Amplifying Black Music Voices.” This series, which will celebrate how Black music enriches the collective culture and community, will feature four musical performances that will stream live from the Greenfield venue.

River Valley Co-op in Northampton, Atkins Farm in Amherst, MASS MoCA in North Adams, Greenfield Savings Bank and Belly of the Beast in Northampton are sponsoring the shows.

The first of these shows will air on Friday, Feb. 19, and will feature the roots-reggae-soul group ReBelle. Founded by Kalpana Devi and Manou Dalomba, with roots in America and Africa, the band’s pulsating rhythms combined with their lyrics of compassion and liberation make a ReBelle show an uplifting experience. Longtime favorites at events such as the Charlemont Reggae Festival, the band’s latest recording, “One Music,” was released in December. This show will also feature Naia Kete and Imani Elijah of SayReal.

The second show of the series will air on On Saturday, Feb. 20, and will feature Blest Energy, a socially conscious hip hop band led by the emcee duo Tem Blessed and Cita-Light. High-energy music combined with powerful message make Blest Energy a powerful young force on the music scene.

And on Friday, Feb. 26, check out jazz singer Samirah Evans, a former New Orleans resident who now lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Evans is a dynamic expressive voice that was a force on the New Orleans music scene since making her debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1990. Since moving to New England post Hurricane Katrina, she has won an equally devoted following in our area. For this show, she will be joined by jazz pianist Franz Robert. There will be another show in the series on Saturday, Feb. 27, but that act has yet to be determined. All shows begin at 7 p.m. and are pay what you want to view. For more information visit CouchMusic.Live.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. Contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com. 




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