By Taylor Roberts
At The Lincoln Center, we believe it is vital to recognize the talent, culture and stories of people of color through our programming, and that our venue be a place that welcomes all people of our community.
This Black History Month, we have been celebrating on social media by sharing the influence of Black artists and their art. To continue our recognition of Black performing and visual artists, we asked our staff: Who inspires you?
We hope these people and their stories also fill you with inspiration, this month and all year long.
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André De Shields
“In early 2020, I was able to catch Hadestown on Broadway, a modernized take on the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The show was AMAZING and it impacted me deeply but there was one performance in particular that really stuck with me, that of André De Shields who played the role of Hermes.
In Hadestown, Hermes is the narrator who, in his shiny gray suit and fancy boots, is presented as a slick and stylish hype-man of sorts. With a salesman’s grin from ear to ear, De Shields delivered the jazzy opening number with such flair, confidence and polish that I was instantly ready to buy whatever he was selling. I had no idea how old De Shields was at the time, but there was no doubt he was experienced in bewitching audiences. He had a way about him, a command of the stage, a sassiness in his step, a twinkle in his eye, and the way he sang and danced (more accurately slid and floated) around the stage kept me completely mesmerized throughout the performance. See, at that moment I knew I was witnessing a man totally lost in his flow, doing something he truly loved, doing something he was born to do—and I know what a rare and spectacular gift that is to behold! It was no wonder to me that De Shields had won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for this role.
It was later that I would discover that De Shields was within just a few days of his 74th birthday at the time I saw him on Broadway. That fact to me alone is amazingly inspirational but then upon reading interviews and articles about De Shields, I discovered just how truly inspirational he is. He has experienced great adversity and struggles in his many years, being an openly gay Black man and living with HIV for over 30 years has been a notable challenge, but yet he stays the course with overwhelming positivity and grace. What I find most inspiring is De Shields’ foundation of positivity never seems to waver. Maybe that is because he genuinely knows himself and what he loves, he follows his heart and passions, and he shares his gifts with the world and encourages others to do the same. De Shields once said, ‘There is no one like you. There has never been anyone like you. And there shall never be anyone like you. Therefore, know thyself, be thyself.’” Now what could be more astoundingly inspirational than that?
Although it’s no substitute for seeing the performance live, you can listen to the original cast recording of Hadestown, featuring De Shields and others here. Caution, that final reprise, where De Shields’ literally sermonizes words of hope and possibility just when it seems all is completely lost, gets me every time.” —Victoria
“Star Trek is a name known around the world. It’s known for the U.S.S. Enterprise, the catchphrase, ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ and the ever logical science officer, Mr. Spock’s Vulcan hand greeting; but for me, it is so much more. As a child who grew up often feeling like they didn’t have a place, Star Trek offered the opportunity to connect with something that made me feel special and gave me hope. Star Trek, and its creator, Gene Roddenberry have been known for many firsts on TV, and more importantly for casting traditionally stereotyped actors into prominent and commanding positions on the bridge of the Enterprise.
One of those people who stands out most significantly to me is Nichelle Nichols. Cast in 1966 in the position of communications bridge officer Uhura; her role as an African-American woman has resonated throughout the decades for her lasting impact in the Black community, as well as for women, particularly those interested in the sciences, engineering, and aerospace industries. For the first time African-Americans of all ages and gender, particularly women and young girls, could look at the TV and see themselves reflected, not in the traditional stereotyped role, but as a strong, commanding figure who was respected by her colleagues as an equal.
Known for breaking many barriers, Ms. Nichols, together with her co-star William Shatner had the first interracial kiss on TV, something that up until that point seemed implausible. Often telling the story at science fiction conventions and in interviews, Ms. Nichols almost left Star Trek after the first season, but was deeply impacted and stirred to stay by a chance encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Going on to spend nearly four decades as Uhura in TV and movies, Ms. Nichols became a staunch advocate for African-Americans around the world and was NASA’s official recruiting officer for women and minorities.
A testament to the power of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols embodies the spirit of which its creator Gene Rodenberry hoped to leave a lasting impact on the world and a wish for a better future for all humankind. Ms. Nichols was a visionary to me as a leading African-American woman in Star Trek, but more importantly, she broke the barrier in many regards to the access of Black actors in movies and on TV, epitomizing the phrase, ‘To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before!’” —Eddie
Hear Ms. Nichols speak about her interaction with Dr. King here.
“For me, Alvin Ailey is an inspiration because of how deeply he is connected with himself, his community and his experience. Movement is such a powerful way to tell a story, and I don’t think there are many who can rival Ailey’s ability to translate their thoughts and feelings into a universal language that all can enjoy.” —Alison
“What can’t Billy Porter do? Billy Porter is a Broadway performer, singer, screen actor, fashion icon, and all-around incredible human.
From his star turn as Lola in the smash-hit musical Kinky Boots to his electric portrayal of Pray Tell in the groundbreaking television series Pose, Porter continually breaks boundaries in his field and champions Black LGBT representation in the arts.
Billy Porter’s talent knows no bounds, and his performances are filled with such complexity and nuance that he’ll have you crying one moment and laughing the next. His smooth and soulful music is a breath of fresh air and it always puts me in a good mood to listen to him sing.
When he’s not performing, he uses his platform for activism. Porter works to raise awareness about arts education, mental health stigma, racial justice initiatives, and LGBT services. Porter is also known for his legendary red carpet looks that challenge traditional expectations, which he views as a form of activism. Billy Porter’s unapologetic spirit shines through his fashion in bold and striking looks like the infamous tuxedo dress he debuted at the 2019 Oscars or his shimmery golden 2019 MET Gala outfit with wings.
I am so inspired by Billy Porter’s unending talent as a performer and his commitment to authenticity in every aspect of his work. I highly recommend checking out some of his projects – you will not be disappointed!” —Megan
“They are a South African visual activist who captures extravagant, yet relatable portraits, mainly of LGBTQIA+ people. Their work is prominently about sex and race, and is currently being exhibited at the Center for Visual Art in Denver. The show consists entirely of high-contrast B&W self-portraits. Using unique and purposeful accessories, the portraits lead you to consider multiple perspectives of reality. Muholi is creating a beautiful lens in which to see queer people through.” —Todd
“I became a fan of Alex Newell the moment I saw him perform on The Glee Project in 2011. His voice and presence are unmistakable. It has been a joy to watch him grow from winning The Glee Project to appearing on Glee then off to Broadway and now starring in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist while also releasing music along the way.
I not only see Alex as an amazing performer, but also a style and queer icon. Alex identifies as a gender nonconforming man and often wears traditionally feminine fashions. I love looking for the clothes he wears in his everyday life and as his character Mo on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
The parts he’s played on shows, as well as unapologetically being himself, have given a voice to Black, curvy and queer people. I think he’s a huge inspiration for living his truth and going after his dreams even when coming up against adversity.” —Taylor
Chuck Berry and Miles Davis
“There are two Black musicians who influenced my own musical and cultural development – Chuck Berry and Miles Davis.
In 1970 I was privileged to play guitar for Chuck Berry in a concert in San Jose, California. Of the many experiences I had in music, backing my hero was the zenith. Chuck was the co-inventor of rock and roll, creator of a unique guitar style, echoes of which can be heard in the styles of numerous rock musicians today like Keith Richards, and somehow Chuck, a Black hairdresser from East St. Louis, considerably older than his audience, was able to pen lyrics that spoke to white suburban teenagers like me. ‘School Days,’ ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and others helped me and kids across the U.S. forget about Perry Como and his ilk’s soporific ‘easy listening’ crooning with a blast of rock and roll energy. I eagerly awaited every new single release and wore out the grooves. When he appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Dick’s Saturday night show I was glued to the black and white screen, dazzled by his stage presence as he duck-walked across the floor while playing and singing, dressed to the nines.
How important was Chuck to American culture? His recording of ‘Johnnie Be Goode’ was launched into space with the first Voyager mission as an example of our artistic best. In an early musical statement of Black pride, he called himself the ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man.’ As I strive to write my own words for my songs, I realize how deeply indebted I am to Chuck. Some have called his lyrics American poetry. I wouldn’t argue.
Trumpeter Miles Davis exemplified everything I thought a musician should be. I was 13 years old when I first heard Miles on jazz pianist Billy Taylor’s radio show on WLIB out of Harlem. I heard the sound of human emotion coming through his trumpet and was hooked ever after. Through all of Miles’ different periods, he never stood still. Even when some of his later work was rejected as being too weird, he stuck with his vision. Miles’ playing style never really changed but the context in which he played continually evolved as he hired young players to expand his reach and challenge him. It has been said by some that Miles hated white people and yet some of his finest moments came with his collaborations with white musicians such as orchestrator Gil Evans, pianist Bill Evans, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. I think what Miles wanted was respect and dignity and he did not just ask for it, he demanded it and rightfully so.” —John
“My inspiration is LeVar Burton. My first introduction to LeVar Burton was in Roots, when he played a young enslaved man from Africa, brought to America (yes, I’m that old that I saw it when it was on TV!).
I spent 7 years watching LeVar on Star Trek: Next Generation and loved his character and his obvious growth as an actor.
My respect for him grew as he developed Reading Rainbow both as host and later producer, a program that lasted 23 years.
He is not just a stellar actor but has found unique projects to help young people discover the joys of reading. He’s an inspiration to me, as someone whose career has embodied his passions and his integrity.” —Robin
“There is no question that over the last decade (if not longer) the dominant force in American popular music has been hip-hop. In 2018, 50 of the top 75 streamed songs on Billboard’s chart, including seven of the top ten, were hip-hop and 17 of the top 25 streaming artists, including 8 of the top 10, were rappers. 10 of 11 songs that debuted on the Billboard charts at number one that year were also hip-hop songs. This global dominance belies its hardscrabble roots as an American musical art form, but even in its earliest forms hip-hop revolved around the ability of artists to use whatever form of technology was available to them to create.
Its origins lie in the Bronx in the 1970s where DJs would use turntables and sound systems, the technology that was accessible and affordable to them, to create innovative new soundtracks for block parties by chopping up the most popular sections of popular records to extend the action on the dance floor. This became the bedrock for hip-hop culture, the earliest form of ‘sampling’ a staple of the genre throughout its history.
While DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash were the two DJs who were the most innovative in the creation of hip-hop DJing, it was Afrika Bambaataa who coined the term ‘hip-hop’—proudly proclaiming it a cultural movement and brought the music to the masses, embracing Afrocentric positivity and laying some of the seminal work for the imagery of Afrofuturism in his performances.
Born Lance Taylor to activist and immigrant parents, Bambaataa joined the Black Spades gang as a young man and quickly rose to prominence as a warlord. But Bambaataa was always far more interested in music than he was in turf wars, and started DJing in 1970. During that time, he built an extremely diverse collection of music that would give him one of his many nicknames, the Master of Records. His DJ sets would incorporate the hits of the day but also Latin, Calypso, and Classical music.
He was inspired by the 1964 film Zulu, depicting the battle between British colonial troops and the Zulu tribe in 1879, to take the name Afrika Bambaataa meaning ‘affectionate leader.’ In the late 1970s, he took like-minded members of the Black Spades with him to break off and form what became known as the Universal Zulu Nation as a way to transition youth culture from violence to music and art. He organized block parties and break dancing competitions with the Universal Zulu Nation which soon grew to include the earliest rappers, DJs, and graffiti artists. His live shows embraced sci-fi imagery like George Clinton and Sun Ra, creating a buzz for this new style.
Reforming the group in 1977 as the Zulu Nation, as the organization grew, so did the power of hip-hop, and soon he was playing not just Bronx block parties, but Manhattan hot spots like The Mudd Club, The Ritz and Danceteria. With his group Soul Sonic Force, a collective of musicians from Zulu Nation, he released ‘Planet Rock’ in 1982. It led to the first tour of hip-hop artists outside of the country, as Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew dancers, and the Double Dutch Girls were all invited to tour Europe. This is perhaps the first export of hip-hop culture to the world at large. It is cited as one of the most influential records of all-time, launching the genre of Electro-Funk which would eventually birth the predominant dance music of the 80s and 90s, Detroit Techno, Miami Bass, and Chicago House music which taken collectively can be cited as integral to the creation of EDM.
His message and style rose again in the late ’80s with the Zulu Nation Collective, a loosely affiliated aggregate of hip-hop artists who put out some of the greatest records of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age including Queen Latifah, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. This iconoclast connected burgeoning youth culture, electronic music, and the wry commentary of the New Wave scene into something new and exciting while being a trailblazer for what would become the dominant art form in popular music in the 21st Century.” —Jack
“She had an amazing voice but also won numerous awards including the National Medal of Arts and Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was one of the greatest singers of all time. She made an indelible contribution to American Music.” —Liz