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Songs Bring to Life Fugitives from Enslavement Sought in Slavery-Era 'Runaway' Ads

Gregory Schreck
Composer Shawn Okpebholo

A Tempo this Saturday (1/7 at 7 pm) features a conversation with the composer and lyricist of the new song cycle, Songs in Flight, whose text is inspired by advertisements used by slaveholders seeking the return of fugitives from slavery.

The ads are usually short and direct - perhaps a name, height, appearance, possibly something about personality. And - the reward a slaveholder was willing to pay to whomever could help find one of their enslaved persons who escaped to seek freedom.

Cornell University's Freedom on the Move database contains more than 32,000 of these advertisements, and it was these brief windows into the past that served as the inspiration for a new song cycle that premieres this month.

Composed by Shawn Okpebholo with texts curated by poet and Duke University Associate Professor of English Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Songs in Flight portrays some of these people's stories through music. Host Rachel Katz speaks with Okpebholo and Jaji about the song cycle and the connections they found between these stories and modern day events.

Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji
Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji

The work will be premiered Thursday, Jan. 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presented by Sparks & Wiry Cries, which co-commissioned the work with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, with a Jan. 15 performance at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. A preview will be held Jan. 10 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

Cornell University - Freedom on the the Move database
An image from a runaway ad

Rachel Katz is the host of A Tempo which airs Saturdays at 7 pm.