NEW YORK – Vy Higginsen, a noted author, playwright, and radio and TV personality, has made it her mission to honour the music she grew up hearing – a goal she has pursued passionately at her Emmy Award-winning Mama Foundation for the Arts, where gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues music is presented and preserved for all generations. On Tuesday night, in celebration of our upcoming auction Two Centuries of American History featuring the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, Higginsen's Gospel Choir of Harlem will give a concert inspired by the legacy of these important documents: History Through Song. Ahead of their performance, we spoke with Higginsen about the value of music, how gospel speaks to the African American experience and what the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment mean today.
VY HIGGINSEN. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE MAMA FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS.
You’ve worked in the performing arts for much of your life – what led you to create the Mama Foundation for the Arts?
We created the Mama Foundation for the Arts because we felt that gospel, jazz and R&B music was in danger of being lost, and that it needed to be recognized, appreciated and celebrated for the contribution it has made to American music. So many of our young people are not in touch with their history and what came before contemporary music. Using them as the ambassadors to pass that music on from generation to generation ensures that it stays in our consciousness.
How did you become personally invested in the historical importance of music?
My personal interest in music stems from family – it was always an integral part of our lives. My mother sang in the choir, my grandmother sang, my father was a minister and he sang. Later on my older sister Doris Troy ended up winning the Apollo Amateur Night and going on tour with James Brown and other stars. When I got old enough she took me with her. Later, as a disc jockey, I was surrounded by the total black experience and sound. But I saw that young people were no longer interested or singing the music that I heard when I was young. So I needed to make sure that we preserved that. We like all kinds of music – but the bottom line is don’t forget who you are and where you come from musically.
How do musical genres like gospel speak to the African American experience?
If you look back, slaves were not allowed to read and write – but they were allowed to sing. They were able to communicate with each other and free themselves with music. I personally believe that music has the power to transform your mind and your brain. So some of the gospel sounds really brought about a lot of hope and possibility. Surviving slavery and its aftermath is intimately linked to music.
What do the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment, which together helped end slavery in the United States, mean today?
Slavery was one of the darkest parts of our history. How other people behaved towards other people based on skin colour is painful to think about – and a lot of times we don’t want to think about it. And yet there’s a resilience that allowed us to come through those darkest hours that should be celebrated and championed. Today, I think there’s still more work to be done to get a better understanding of human beings – absent of colour, but more importantly, as Martin Luther King said, based on character.
How did these documents inspire your gospel choir performance for Tuesday evening?
We’re going to sing some of the traditional songs from that time period that we want these young people to always remember, like "Down by the Riverside" or "Go Down Moses." I think you will feel the passion, joy and hope in these songs, exactly how I imagine some people felt back then when the documents were signed and they had an opportunity for a new, different life.