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Social justice issues inspire new WKAR-TV music series

Rodney Whitaker is director of jazz studies in the MSU College of Music. He's executive producer of 'Music for Social Justice,' and performs in several episodes.
Rodney Whitaker is director of jazz studies in the MSU College of Music. He's executive producer of 'Music for Social Justice,' and performs in several episodes.

WKAR-TV debuts a new locally-produced series this weekend exploring current issues facing society through music. Music For Social Justice premieres Sunday.

In 2020, the MSU College of Music produced a series of videos using music as the medium for considering social inequity in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The videos caught the eye of WKAR Television, and the idea of a joint project for a second series was spawned.

Rodney Whitaker is the executive producer of the series. He's the director of jazz studies in the MSU College of Music. Whitaker wants the series to show the diversity of the college, and adds that the performers weren’t told to do anything in particular.

“We met with them and said really, initially, 'Do you want to tell your story, or do you want to tell the story of what is passionate to you when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging?'” He said. “We had initial meetings with everyone, and everyone came up with an idea of what they wanted to talk about.”

One of those artists is bassist and composer Jordyn Davis. Her contribution to the series was inspired by the works of Nina Simone. It’s called Meditations on Four Women. Davis feels it’s important to represent Black women in music.

“I think people often take for granted how important representation is, and how truly impactful it can be to just see another person who looks like you doing what you want to do,” she said.

Violinist Yvonne Lam is the American-born child of immigrants, something she feels needs to be emphasized, even though there have been times when she’s downplayed that status in order to fit in. She thinks classical music is evolving from the reputation of being solely the music of dead white men.

“Classical music and the people who are performing classical music and writing classical music look very different from a century ago,” Lam said. “And I think it’s very important to celebrate that.”

Yvonne Lam chose Memory by composer Chen Yi for this series.

Rodney Whitaker appears in several episodes of Music for Social Justice. In one, he performs his composition The Big Four, which was the street name for the controversial police unit known as STRESS in his native Detroit in the 1970s. He says people in distress during encounters with police often cry out for their mothers, so the piece opens with a lullaby.

Whitaker adds, “If you notice in the piece, there’s always stress on the big four, so every other bar, the band hits an accent on four, which is sort of typical in early jazz. And so, I use that as a metaphor for the police department, The Big Four.”

Rodney Whitaker says it’s part of the job for musicians to be truth tellers. He hopes the truths revealed in Music for Social Justice will appeal to viewers.

“I think there’s something in it for everyone. I think there’s a story to tell, and our job in this was really to articulate the stories and tales that we wanted to share, and if we can touch the hearts and minds of one person, then we’ve done our job.”

Music for Social Justice will air Sundays at 4 p.m. on WKAR-TV, with repeats at 1:30 p.m. on Thursdays through June 23rd. Episodes will also be available at WKAR.org.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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