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Arts Desk

WRTI and Temple University Work Together To Broaden Intellectual Heritage Curriculum

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Courtesy of the artist
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Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius' 'Live from the Prison Nation' brims with urgent and timely social commentary. He's part of a new focus on inclusivity in Temple's Intellectual Heritage program.

The bond between Temple University and WRTI has always been strong, but a growing partnership between Temple’s Intellectual Heritage program and WRTI, just a block off the university's main campus, has helped to infuse new energy and fresh perspectives into a longstanding prerequisite of Temple's liberal arts curriculum.

Two courses of Intellectual Heritage (IH) have long been a rite of passage for Temple undergrads. Depending on the alums you talk to, the program—traditionally consisting of classics of the Western canon, the so-called “Great Books”—is recalled either nostalgically as an academic horizon broadening or as an obligation to be endured.

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Credit Courtesy of Douglas Greenfield
Douglas Greenfield is senior associate director of Temple's Intellectual Heritage program.

But today’s iteration is not your father’s or even older sister’s IH, and under the direction of Professor Douglas Greenfield, senior associate director of the program, the goal is manifold: to bring life and context to the words on the page and to think intentionally and inclusively about whose stories get to be told, whose intellectual heritage gets to be studied.
 
From the hymns of Homer to the barbaric and rhythmic yawps of Walt Whitman, the jazz sensibility of the Beat poets, and Gil Scott-Heron’s fusion of poetry and proto-hip-hop, writers throughout history have used music to amplify and add dimensionality to their words. Greenfield realized that music was a way in, a means to make IH texts more engaging, more accessible, and less homogenous.
 
“We’d been thinking about ways to incorporate musicality into the curriculum and to create musical contexts for the texts,” Greenfield said. “And then I learned about what J. Michael Harrison [host of WRTI’s The Bridge] was doing with the Rainey family and John Olshefski and Quest.”

Path to Study New Narratives Begins with Locally Filmed Documentary
 
Quest is filmmaker John Olshefski's documentary that follows 10 years in the life of rapper, musician, husband, father, and mentor Christoper “Quest” Rainey and his family—from the highs of cultivating community in the basement recording studio of their North Philadelphia rowhome, to the lows of youngest daughter (and show-stealer) P.J. losing an eye after being struck by a stray bullet. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, the film aired on PBS’ POV series, and has been widely acclaimed, with nominations for several awards including an Independent Spirit Award and an Emmy.

 

One of the things Quest Rainey always wanted—and it wasn’t awards—was to take Freestyle Fridays, the weekly jam-session style open mic, “outta the basement.” That’s where WRTI’s Harrison and General Manager Bill Johnson were able to step in, inviting Rainey and co.—with the help of a grant to cover production and recording costs—to hold Freestyle Fridays in the more spacious environs of WRTI’s performance studio.
 

"WRTI has been been a catalyst and a role model." -Temple Professor Douglas Greenfield

Greenfield, for his part, saw in Freestyle Fridays a perfect opportunity for his program and its students to involve themselves directly in the kind of expansive, inclusive version of intellectual heritage he’d been talking about. So when the initial grant for producing Freestyle Fridays at WRTI expired, Greenfield and Temple stepped up.
 
“IH proposed that they’d continue to fund Freestyle Fridays,” said Greenfield. “Because we believe in the power of experiences outside of the classroom.”
 
That led to a series of regular field trips across North Broad to WRTI’s studios, where many students not only found themselves inside a working radio station for the first time, but also got to interact with primary sources—Quest Rainey and his neighborhood potluck of aspiring emcees—that were living, breathing, and rhyming.
 
While COVID has put Freestyle Fridays and WRTI’s role as classroom annex on temporary hold, both Greenfield and WRTI’s Harrison are invested in growing the relationship.
 
“The relationship with WRTI has inspired us to do more with community engagement,” said Greenfield. “In many ways, WRTI’s been a catalyst and a role model.”
 
WRTI Personality Out in the Community

This week, WRTI—or at least one very versatile WRTI jazz host—gets to repay the compliment. The Bridge’s J. Michael Harrison moderates two events as part of Core Futures 2021, a weeklong series of performances, conversations, and community round tables hosted by the IH program, devoted to issues of race and diversity in general education that runs through March 26th. All events are free, open to the public, and conducted via Zoom. To view the schedule of events and register, click here. Missed a live event? Click here for a recording.
 

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WRTI Jazz Host J. Michael Harrison

First, Harrison hosts Sounding the Call for Justice on Zoom joined by saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius, two young musicians who came up through the Clef Club and, within weeks of each other in late 2020, released explosive debut recordings.
 
Both Wilkins’ Omega and Demetrius’ Live from the Prison Nation brim with urgent and timely social commentary, something that aligns perfectly with the stated goal of this week’s programming, which is to “amplify muted voices.”
 
The stated goals of the musicians are even more proactive than that.
 
“The biggest thing that I want people to take away from [Live from the Prison Nation] is the idea of community and movements as a whole being the focal point of how to create lasting change,” said Demetrius, a Berklee College of Music grad twice over—Bachelor’s (2018) and Master’s (2019)—who said he composed much of the album’s music when emotionally worked-up over the prison industrial complex against which his album so vociferously protests.
 
“Immanuel [Wilkins] and I had these talks a lot growing up. We used to stay on the phone for hours talking about different political and social issues. So I already know [Tuesday night’s event] is going to be a very deep conversation.”
 
Then, on Thursday evening, March 25th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, Harrison will move the conversation forward by stepping back 50 years, to 1971. It was in that year that Gil Scott-Heron released Pieces of a Man and the world heard “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” accompanied by an ensemble of instrumentalists for the first time. Joining Harrison will be the man who played piano on Pieces of a Man, Brian Jackson.
 

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Credit Gary Price
Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron in 1971.

Jackson and Scott-Heron met as college students at Lincoln University, the school Scott-Heron was drawn to because it was Langston Hughes’ alma mater. Thursday evening is sure to bring some reminiscing on that front. And Jackson, no ordinary sideman, will no doubt touch on his own career, which included not just Pieces but at least 10 additional recordings with Scott-Heron, many of which credited Jackson as a co-leader. But the focus of this “Golden Reflection” will be the lasting legacy of Scott-Heron’s “Revolution” and just how relevant it remains today.
 
“I have to say that it feels as relevant [today], and perhaps more urgent, simply because 50 years have passed and it doesn’t seem like that much has actually changed,” said Jackson in a recent phone conversation, providing a sneak preview of Thursday night’s discussion. “From a human perspective, it’s kind of frustrating and infuriating; from an artistic perspective I’m very pleased that our work is still looked at as important.”
 
Professor Greenfield, for one, thinks that works like “Revolution” continue to be as important as ever. That’s why he’s made it assigned reading for all of his IH classes.
 
That may be the one societal development Jackson and Scott-Heron were not able to foresee in 1971: that 50 years hence, their work would become…homework.  
 
“It’s humbling and it’s mind blowing,” Jackson said. “I’m so pleased to know that things like this are going on in Philly. Because we went to school close by at Lincoln University, we spent so much time in and around Philly. So it’s kind of a homecoming to celebrate 50 years of music that began just 50 miles away.”

Temple University’s Core Futures 2021, hosted by the Intellectual Heritage Program, runs through Mar. 26. All events are free, open to the public, and conducted via Zoom. To view the schedule of events and register, click here. Missed a live event? Click here for a recording.