Marcus Miller: singing freedom

When renowned American Jazz musician Marcus Miller visited the island of Gorée, the slave-trading enclave that lies off the cost of Senegal, he decided to give voice to the thousands of shackled souls that had passed through the fortress on this slab of volcanic rock as well pay homage to their descendents.

Standing in the La Maison Des Esclaves" ("The Slave House") a few years ago the two time Grammy Award winning Brooklyn native recalls passing through a door that faced the sea.

“The door was called, “La Porte De Non Retour (“The Door Of No Return”) because, once these Africans went through that door and onto the slave ship, their lives as Africans were over,” says Miller a designated UNESCO Artist for Peace.

“I decided to write a piece about what we were feeling standing there in that slave house. As I was writing, I was struck by the idea that the  “Door Of No Return”, which represented the end of their African experience, was also, in a certain way, the beginning of our African-American experience.  At that point, I decided to not make the piece just about the pain and anger we were feeling, standing there in that slave house. I decided to make it also a celebration of the ability of human beings to transcend horrible beginnings and turn them into something positive.”

Miller, a composer, producer, and radio host who is best known for his mastery of the bass guitar and his musical association with preeminent artists Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, named the musical composition, Gorée.

“For me it is a song of pain and suffering, transcendence and progress which continues as we speak, “ he says.

On 22 March Miller performed Gorée at the United Nations in a concert as part of events leading up to The International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (25 March).  The theme of the 2013 International Day -- "Forever Free: Celebrating Emancipation" -- pays tribute to the struggle for emancipation of enslaved peoples across the world, including in the United States, celebrating this year its 150th anniversary.

The concert took place in the United Nations General Assembly and the musical programme followed the slave trade route, starting with artists from Africa, then the Caribbean and North America.  In addition to Miller there were performances by the National Ballet of Cameroon, Benyoro (a West African band), Somi (an American singer of Rwandan and Ugandan origins) and Steel Pulse (an English reggae band of Afro-Caribbean, Indian and Asian descent).  

The International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade serves as an opportunity to honor and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system, and to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today.

“For UNESCO, remembrance is a key part of the fight against racism, and it is essential for deepening respect for human rights and dignity,” said Irina Bokova UNESCO Director-General.  “Remembering and transmitting the history of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery helps strengthen the foundations for peace within societies and between them.”

“To help disseminate this message, I have designated Marcus Miller as a UNESCO Artist for Peace.  An outstanding ambassador for creativity and freedom, resistance and resilience, Marcus Miller with help promote the UNESCO Slave Route Project and underpin all our efforts to build peace through dialogue, respect and solidarity – drawing on the great, generous spirit of jazz,” Bokova said.

“Music is such a beautiful way to tell stories. And in my mind, the stories we need to tell are the ones  that depict the human struggle for dignity and equality. They inspire our youth and let them know that they are part of a book that has had many chapters. I'm looking forward to working with UNESCO in order to have access to the millions of people who really need to hear these stories,” Miller said

The official ceremony to designate him a UNESCO Artist for Peace will take place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 4 July 2013. In his new capacity, Marcus Miller will support UNESCO’s Slave Route Project and will focus on promoting peace, dialogue, and unity through jazz.

“I've played music for people all over the world and I've been able to communicate things with music that would be very hard to communicate through words. When thousands of people are moving together, grooving together, it becomes so obvious how similar we all are. We have so much more in common than we have differences. I'm sure that, by working with UNESCO, we can open doors to communication with music - and then introduce the words, that will help us promote peace, and unity.”