Derrick Stevens lends his talents to coaching kids at FAIR School

Derrick Stevens with the choir students at FAIR School in Minneapolis.
Derrick Stevens with the choir students at FAIR School in Minneapolis. (MPR photo/Tesfa Wondemagegnehu)

The Current's production manager Derrick Stevens visited downtown Minneapolis' FAIR School on Wednesday, Dec. 16, where Classical MPR's Tesfa Wondemagegnehu is co-teaching, with J.D. Steele, three periods of vocal music. Three choirs will perform an arrangement of "Glory," the Oscar-winning song from Selma, the 2014 film that chronicles the Civil Rights struggles and triumphs in and around Selma, Ala., in the mid-1960s.

"Glory" is a collaboration between John Legend and Common (see video below); as such, the arrangement includes sung and rapped sections. "One of the reasons I brought Derrick in," Tesfa says, "is because of his expertise being an MC for so many years and for his work as MC Skat Kat on the Paula Abdul hit, 'Opposites Attract'."

Because Derrick spent long periods of time as a teenager in Selma, his parents' hometown, Tesfa also saw an opportunity to give the young singers some eyewitness insight into the city that had then been engulfed in racial turmoil. "That kind of direct historic experience is pretty rare," Tesfa says. "I knew Derrick would help bring Selma and what Selma means to the civil rights movement and to the country alive. He did that for the kids."

A New York City native and longtime Minnesota resident, Stevens spoke to the students about what it was like visiting his family in Selma during those years. One of his grandmothers expressed strong concern that he would bring his "New York attitude" with him and run into trouble. "Even as a kid I was like, 'Really?' I could not understand how in interactions with young white men who happened to be 20 years my grandmother's junior, she could show them such respect — 'Yes sir, no sir' — when it was never a two-way street. They called her by her first name, never 'ma'am,' " Derrick says. "Even as a kid, I knew that wasn't right."

Derrick could see his stories made a difference.

"My favorite part of the day — once I told the kids I'd actually spent time in Selma — I could kind of tell, if they'd seen the movie or watched the video and saw the footage of the bridge in Selma, it came together for them," he says. "Some said they didn't really know what the song was about, which kind of shocked me."

To help them understand "Glory" on a deeper level, Derrick told the students to study the words of the song. "I could see them squinting their eyes and looking really deep at the lyrics, like maybe they hadn't looked at them in that way before," he says. "It was just a song to them, and then they were like, 'Oh, wow, this is more than just a song.' Seeing that in their eyes was probably what touched me most."

The FAIR School Choir will perform "Glory" in concert on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m, at First Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis. The teaching positions of Tesfa Wondemagegnehu and J.D. Steele, as well as others at the FAIR School, are provided by MacPhail Center for Music.

Related Stories

  • Selma: The Roots Run Deep The Current's Production Manager, Derrick Stevens, is in Alabama to take part in the re-enactment of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march on Sunday, March 8. Listen to Derrick's civil-rights playlist and read about his personal connections to Selma. "Selma is in my blood, and my blood is in Selma," Derrick writes.
  • Selma: The Roots Run Deep, part 2 Derrick Stevens reflects on his recent visit to Selma, Alabama, where he took part in the 50th-anniversary march to Montgomery. "Let us strive to make America a just society for all," he writes. "We can play a major role in what will happen 50 years from now with the choices and decisions we all make today." Read Derrick's post and see his photos.

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