“Well, good evening,” began Stephen Colbert, a presenter at Tuesday night’s Gordon Parks Foundation Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street. “I’m so happy to be here tonight to be talking about a man who makes my show special every night… and for once, I am not talking about Donald Trump!”
The 45th president may not have been in the room — where political and musical figures including congressmen John Lewis and Keith Ellison; former Senior Adviser to Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett; New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman; Harry Belafonte; Swizz Beatz; and Chelsea Clinton had gathered to honor the late photojournalist, civil rights activist, and pioneer African-American filmmaker Gordon Parks. But the feelings of protest – and camaraderie – summoned seemed to harken back to the time period Parks once famously documented.
“Here I find myself on this stage, at this event, in this world, with the responsibility to inspire action,” said Usher, in a poetic and rousing address. “Not being silent. Not taking for granted this opportunity that I have to lift my voice and inspire someone else, as well as lead.”
The singer, in a munificent gesture with fellow event co-chair Swizz Beatz last year, more than doubled the number of annual Gordon Parks Foundation arts scholarships.
In honoring singer and activist Mavis Staples, whose family performed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Last Waltz,” the director recalled the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Will we march only to the music of our time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul-saving music of eternity?”
“Music has many purposes, and Mavis has that rare ability to make music that seems to serve all these purposes,” Scorsese said. “Joyful songs in times of sorrow, and uplifting songs when there doesn’t seem to be any hope, and political songs when freedom for so many is just a dream. So it’s really fitting that Mavis receive this award for her remarkable contributions to the world of music, and for the strength and power and emotion that her voice has given to the cause of civil rights.”
Common – who performed a set including Oscar-winning song “Glory” (from 2014’s civil rights film “Selma”) also spoke to the political power of song. “I realized that I could make changes in the world with my music,” noted the rapper, who used a Parks photo depicting segregated drinking fountains in his album “Like Water for Chocolate.”
Honoree and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste – who believes we can definitely use the arts in this “very tumultuous time” – similarly uses music to lead. Said Colbert, “He led my entire audience onto 53rd Street for a New Orleans-style musical parade that he calls a ‘love riot’ and police call a ‘funky gridlock.'”
But the most heated crowd reaction came in response to Congressman Lewis. “Growing up in a little town of Troy, outside Montgomery, I saw those signs that said ‘white men,’ ‘colored men,’ ‘white women,’ ‘colored women,’ ‘white waiting,’ ‘colored waiting’; I didn’t like that,” Lewis said. “I asked my mother and my father, ‘why?’ ‘Well, that’s the way it is, boy. Don’t get in the way.'”
“Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, and I got in the way,” he relayed, before delivering a promise. “There are forces in America that are trying to take us back. We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress, and we’re not going back.”