Chuck D and Panel Discuss MLK and Intersectionality

The Berklee Performance Center hosted a Martin Luther King keynote presentation, featuring Chuck D of Public Enemy.


March 6, 2015

The night began with student Nedelka Prescod singing the spiritual "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "We Will Know," accompanied by student Isaac Wilson on piano. The moving performance was followed by a slideshow presentation dedicated to the late DJ Henry (a Pace University student killed by a police officer in 2010), as well as other African-American victims of recent hate crimes in places such as New York and Ferguson, Missouri.

The performance and slideshow at the Berklee Performance Center on January 23—featuring Chuck D, cofounder of the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy; faculty and staff members; and DJ Henry's mother and founder of the DJ Dream FundAngella Dozier Henryset the tone for a wide-ranging discussion on the justice system, nonviolence, and intersectionality, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage."

To illustrate the idea of intersectionality, Chuck D talked about his experience with contemporary hip-hop and rap music. In his opinion, money heavily influences the music industy, race issues, technology, and mainstream media, which all, in turn, influence the way people live and perceive world events. But the influence should flow in the other direction, he said. "The artists should dictate the arts, not accountants, lawyers, or people who don’t give a damn about people."

He also referred to the damage a corporate mentality can have on an artistic community, and related it to the way the government and capitalistic influence has plagued America. "Ain't nobody gonna out-thug the U.S. government," he said. 

The event was one in a series Berklee held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Along with Chuck D, panelists included Henry and Berklee faculty members Matt Jenson, Carolyn Wilkins, and Omar Thomas. Among topics of discussion were: recent events like the shooting in Ferguson; the morals of Martin Luther King Jr.; and practicing love and nonviolence. Each panelist spoke from his or her own perspective and experience, including as as a policewoman, activist, artist, or Berklee faculty member, and always in reference to the theme of "no single-issue living/struggling."

The following are excerpts from the panelists' conversation:

Omar Thomas on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) intersectionality and Martin Luther King's legacy

"There are so many issues in the LGBT community that are being pushed aside or being underrepresented, dealing with ageism, sexism, dealing with lack of voice of the trans community, dealing with the complete lack of voice for LGBT youth, especially [for those of] color, who have to deal with so many intersecting issues. There was a frightening murder rate for trans people of color this summer, and it went unspoken about. Yet there was a very unfortunate suicide, a young white trans girl, and then all of a sudden people wanted to push forward in legislation, as if the 20 lives of people of color who died before meant nothing. It took the loss of one white life for people to all of a sudden get up in arms ... As much as we can say 'black lives matter,' I know that LGBT people of color are trying to find their footing in that movement because historically the relationship between the LGBT and the African-American community has been tumultuous at best."

DJ Henry's Aunt Telani DeMarcy on searching for truth and understanding 

"Before I was 14 years old, I witnessed four murders in Dorchester and Roxbury (sections of Boston). It was during that period in my life that I began to question violence, and at the age of 15, I became one of the youngest cochairs in the Dorchester Youth Council. One of the things we would do when young people were murdered in our community is go to funerals and talk to kids about nonviolence and conflict resolution. I'm 45 now and my life has been devoted to the practice of peace and nonviolence, so when my nephew DJ was shot and killed close to five years ago, a lot of people asked me: 'How do you translate your practice into what has happened in your life?' One of the principles of nonviolence is to seek understanding; it is to question behavior, it is to look deeper, it is to understand the cause-and-effect phenomenon of human experience. So in the midst of my pain and my family's pain, one of the things that we did was seek understanding. So when you listen to my family talk about this case, never do you hear this anti-police thing, all you ever hear is the search for truth."

Matt Jenson on economic injustice and climate change

"After all that MLK endured and achieved, with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, he realized even these laws, as monumental as they were, were not enough to bring truth and lasting equality to all people of this country. He saw, as many of us see today, that incredibly unfair economic underpinnings lie at the heart of what it is wrong and destructive on so many levels to humanity ... We must now add to this list the threat of climate change. I'm telling you tonight, in this looming crisis where Mother Earth is literally is screaming at us to change and evolve, lies the most incredible opportunity for the transformation of humankind that we have ever witnessed. The formula is simple: we cannot pursue a course of endless expansion on a finite planet. It's impossible."