Spoken word and music celebrate life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bring the Sing Collegeville 2017
G. Phillip Shoultz III, associate conductor and education program director at VocalEssence, leads Bring the Sing in Collegeville, Minn., on April 26.
Bill Hickey for MPR | 2017

A number of events are scheduled across the state to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since 1982, the University of Minnesota has hosted a concert to mark the occasion.

MPR News host Tim Nelson talks with Vocal Essence Associate Artistic Director G. Phillip Shoultz about this year’s tribute.

Shoultz is Associate Artistic Director for Minneapolis-based VocalEssence, cantor at Westwood Lutheran Church and a music faculty member at the University of St. Thomas.

The concert is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 15th at 3 p.m in the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: This weekend, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are a number of events around the state. And since 1982, the University of Minnesota has hosted a concert to mark the occasion. This year's concert is back in-person and is being organized by G. Phillip Shoultz. He's an associate artistic director for the amazing VocalEssence.

He's also a Cantor at Westwood Lutheran Church and he's part of the music faculty at the University of Saint Thomas. He's here with me today. Welcome to Minnesota Now, Phillip.

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: Thank you, Tim. It's great to be with you this afternoon.

INTERVIEWER: So I want to talk about the lineup at the concert first. I understand you have kind of a personal connection to the work of Dr. King and the places where he preached and organized. Tell me a little bit about that.

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: Yeah, I'm a Georgia boy. Go Bulldogs. I went to the University of Georgia, so I'm celebrating that win. But grew up in Georgia following Dr. King's legacy, grew up in a missionary baptist church, the same association that he preached in.

And in my adult life, I lived and worked in Atlanta before moving here, just a few blocks down the street from the King Center and from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. So I have been following him, and his preachings, and the legacies left behind for most of my life.

INTERVIEWER: And how has that experience shaped the way you work with musicians?

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: It's shaped the way that I work with musicians and everybody in the fact that I do believe in this concept of the beloved community. I believe that we all have love and light to share and put into the world. And so my musical rehearsals, performances are all about creating connections, fostering opportunities for conversations so that the music that we perform can really be deeply embedded in our individual souls and voices, but also collectively that we can have a cohesive understanding of the purpose for each piece, for each performance. And that's directly attributed to the work that Dr. King did, and others of the Civil Rights movement did.

INTERVIEWER: You talked about that beloved community-- that's not just a phrase, that's part of the core of his philosophy there. He talked about that a lot.

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: He did. And he was not alone in that. It comes or originates in this expression of Ubuntu in the African world there-- South African language of I am because we are. This sense that I cannot exist without you, that my success, everything in my life is bound up in yours.

Desmond Tutu talked about that quite a bit as well. And it's kind of countercultural to our way of life here when you think about it-- the rugged individualism that has permeated our culture that I'm a part of as well. So I love having opportunities to be re-immersed in Dr. King's teachings, his preaching, and the music of that period a few times each year as I prepare to curate this program. It kind of grounds me and centers me.

INTERVIEWER: So this weekend's program has a concert on Sunday, features a lineup of musicians and speakers. I understand the hip-hop artist Niles is there. Let's hear a little of his track The Time is Now.



NILES: Reflecting on my misery, I'm not the person that I used to be. I'm still connected to the kid in me, Sega Genesis and powerful images in my memory. So Bone Thugz middle school, I see life move faster and faster. Some sped fast and they clash with disaster. Some lived the street life, saw death, and was spared by the God, now they can pastor.

I passed up the fast lane. Could they have made things in the black frames with the cash rain, because I'm trapped in the rap game. But I would've lived a lie. I want to be known for the better things in life. If I have fame, I'm on the quest to fulfill the best of my will, making checks that's nothing less than a mil.

INTERVIEWER: So what brought his music to this concert this weekend?

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: Niles has been a friend and collaborator for about five years since the founding of the Vocalessence singers of this age. He was one of the original teaching artists. He's passionate about teaching young people about finding their voice through spoken word.

And so I wanted to have him partner with us this year to share a new track of encouragement called, I Know I, just encouraging people to know themselves to be true to themselves, and then to bring an original spoken word piece without music, just a spoken tribute of how Dr. King's legacy shaped him as well-- and to partner with the Singers of this Age again. It's been a few years since we've collaborated with Niles.

INTERVIEWER: So part of that long history of collaboration with Vocalessence, but I understand there's a performer at the concert who actually comes to you from the U's vet clinic. How did that happen?

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: Yes, I love it. So I've been the artistic director of this program for five years now-- two in-person, two with online, COVID-based productions, and now back in-person this year. I wanted to connect it to the university community and have university performers.

So we put out a call, and this person, Rosemary, reached out and said, I want to sing His Eye is on the Sparrow, which is a great gospel song of uplift and a part of the tradition. And so we had a lovely chat getting to know her. And the fact that she works in the ICU and the vet clinic is just the funniest thing to me. But my hope long-term is that the entire university community-- students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community-- can all find this program speaks to them and is for them.

INTERVIEWER: And that's not the only connection to the U. I understand in addition to remembering Dr. King, there's an initiative at the U to do acts in his honor all year. It's called the Dream Initiative. Tell me about that.

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: I'm really excited about the Dream Initiative. Dr. Amelious Whyte, who is one of the deans for the Office of Equity and Diversity there at the U, and Diane Lev, is a part of creating this initiative that has four visionary components around the arts and culture, around community activism, and engagement, and fundraising to find ways to help us more fully live out Dr. King's dream.

And as you know, John, we're coming up on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and that I Have a Dream speech. And so it really made perfect sense to highlight the beginning of our relationship this year at the tribute concert. We're doing work together towards big, commemorative concert, hopefully on August 28, the day of the anniversary. And everyone will hear about that.

And then, next year's MLK program on January 2024 will kind be launching us into the future. We still have a dream. And here are the things that we're doing to bring those dreams into reality.

INTERVIEWER: And any last reflection on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before we go?

G. PHILLIP SHOULTZ: I think the one thing that people forget about Dr. King is that he was tenacious in fighting for what he believed in. And we often just see the softer side of Dr. King. Everything was about love, but sometimes love is tough. And sometimes we have to do some truth telling with love.

And so I just want to encourage everyone as we think about this weekend, doing acts of kindness for each other, and really focusing on this idea of love, that we are encouraged to tell the truth in love, that we know we can disagree with each other and not let that pull us apart, that we can be honest with each other and still stay connected across the things that divide us so that we can work together to not only make Minnesota a wonderful place to live in, but the entire country.

INTERVIEWER: That's a great way to remember him this weekend. Thank you so much, Phillip, for being with us today. So let's go out with a little song from Vocalessence. This is the classic song Lean On Me by Bill Withers with an arrangement by our esteemed guest, Phillip Schultz.



- Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. But, if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow.

Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on. For it won't be long--

INTERVIEWER: That's G. Phillip Shoultz. He's an associate director of the amazing Vocalessence and a Cantor at Westwood Lutheran Church, part of the music faculty at the University of Saint Thomas as well. He's curating the 42nd annual Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concert at the University of Minnesota. That's happening this Sunday, January 15 at 3 PM at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the U of M campus.

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