Section: Arts

Kenyon hosts Freedom First benefit concert for Keith LaMar

On April 12, several organizations at Kenyon collaborated to host a jazz benefit concert for Keith LaMar. A Black man and Ohio native, LaMar has spent the last 28 years on death row for crimes he he maintains he did not commit. His execution is scheduled for Nov. 16 of this year. In the face of these circumstances, LaMar has turned to writing and spoken word as his escape. His latest project is Freedom First, which is the title of both an album and concert series that combines LaMar’s poetry with jazz music. Freedom First has given concerts around the world, but April 12 was a special milestone for the project: Its concert in Rosse Hall was the first time it had ever performed in LaMar’s home state of Ohio.

The concert combined LaMar’s spoken word poetry with a jazz ensemble performance. While the musicians took to the stage in Rosse, LaMar’s imprisonment prevented him from being physically present; he instead called in live from his cell on death row to read several of his original poems. At first, his only musical accompaniment came from pianist Albert Marquès, a Brooklyn-based composer whose calm melodies served as an ambient backing track. The serene atmosphere was shattered when, in the midst of the performance, the drummer abruptly burst into action. As a viewer, I interpreted this jarring disturbance of the peace as a symbolic reminder of how America’s justice system can so suddenly and irrevocably destroy the lives of marginalized individuals like LaMar.

Following the introduction of the drums, the other instruments joined the chorus as well. The combination of LaMar’s words with the piano, percussion, bass and brass created an emotional soundscape; poetry and jazz came together in powerful harmony. But despite the beauty of the performance, technical difficulties made it impossible to forget LaMar’s circumstances. The poor quality of his prison-phone audio made his words hard to understand, and the call cut out at one point. When he called back, an automated recording reintroduced him: “Hello. This is a prepaid call from Keith at Ohio State Penitentiary.” It was a stark reminder of the constant obstacles LaMar faces — the institutional barriers standing in the way of his freedom and self expression. Nevertheless, LaMar maintained a powerful positivity throughout his performance, laughing and cracking jokes between pieces.

Freedom First’s collaboration with Kenyon has been a long time in the making. Organizing the concert was a communal affair; it was co-sponsored by the Anti-Racism Fund, The Rural Cause and the Departments of Music, English and Modern Languages and Literatures. Additionally, two specific students spent months planning the concert: Talisha Ward ’23, who is president of Kenyon’s Black Student Union, and Katya Naphtali ’23. Both co-organizers emphasized the importance of teamwork in putting together the event. “None of this would have been possible without active collaboration and dedication,” Ward wrote in an email to the Collegian.

LaMar conceived of the Freedom First project with Marquès. I was privileged to be able to interview Marquès after the event, and he explained in more detail how Freedom First came into existence. It all began, he said, with the slogan “Amplify Black Voices” that arose during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement protests. “This is what this project is, literally,” Marquès told me. “Providing a stage, a microphone, a platform for him to defend himself. It’s a collaboration where we amplify his voice.”

But how exactly can we do that? In an email to the Collegian, Naphtali explained what Kenyon students can do to help. “The best thing we can do for him right now is to donate to his legal fund, join his email list to stay up to date on his case and wait for the moment in which they need us to call and write to our governor before November when he is sentenced to death,” they wrote. “This is such an important and powerful project and I hope it can help Keith and all those still on death row in Ohio.”

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