Songs in Flight
In 2019, Cornell University started “Freedom on the Move,” a database of “runaway ads” from the United States’ early newspapers—names, dates, descriptions, rewards. The database notes that it compiles “thousands of stories of resistance that have never been accessible in one place. Created to control the movement of enslaved people, the ads ultimately preserved the details of individual lives—their personality, appearance, and life story. Taken collectively, the ads constitute a detailed, concise, and rare source of information about the experiences of enslaved people.” (Cornell Department of History’s Edward Baptist, primary investigator for FOTM) These advertisements also provide a testament to their bravery: each of these people in the over 30,000 entries attempted self-emancipation.
Songs in Flight is a living monument to these people and the history exposed in “Freedom on the Move.” With a song cycle composed by Shawn Okpebholo and texts and poems curated by Duke University professor Tsitsi Ella Jaji, three prominent African American musicians bring these stories to life: soprano Karen Slack (Metropolitan Opera), countertenor Reginald Mobley (NY Philharmonic), and baritone Will Liverman (Metropolitan Opera). Additional material curated by Jaji includes work by poets Crystal Simone Smith (Duke University) and Tyehimba Jess (Pulitzer Prize winner) that contextualizes and responds to selected primary source materials from the FOTM database. Director Kimille Howard (Metropolitan Opera) adds invaluable visual elements in the form of projection and lighting.