There may be no better way of documenting a nation’s heritage and progress than the way those things are shared in its music. The archival songs that underscore timeless traditions not only reflect a cultural continuum, but also offer lingering lessons that can be carried forward toward the future.
Eric Dozier knows more about that than most. As a musical educator, archivist, activist and recording artist, he’s spent the past 25 years offering insights and understanding of the African American experience as conveyed by the music that details their struggles and successes. A self-described “itinerant blues preacher,” he succinctly states on his website that he’s made it his mission “to promote healing, justice and racial reconciliation.”
Based in Nashville, Dozier combines songs and storytelling in his popular presentation, “A Change Is Gonna Come: Musical Journeys Through American Race Relations.” It culls its content from a variety of genres popularized over the past 200 years — soul, gospel, R&B, pop, rap and folk — while combining insight and inspiration into a total trajectory. It allows Dozier to trace the journey African Americans have taken, from slavery, emancipation and their crusade for civil rights, to the important issues they face today.
The selection of songs that Dozier performs in the program includes such classics as “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, “a soulful version” of “This Land Is Your Land,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday, as well as various selections by Stevie Wonder and traditional gospel songs. He said he also dabbles in country and folk music, while adding his own original compositions tas well.
The Rev. Willa Estell, president of the Alcoa-Blount County NAACP and chairwoman of Blount County United Alcoa-Blount County NAACP and Blount County United (BCU), said her organizations are bringing Dozier here to inspire people to look at themselves and others in new ways.
“One is through the lens of music,” she said. “It can reflect and illuminate our condition. It can offer hope where hope is needed and can point to a path of unity and reconciliation. This musical journey through American race relations will highlight some new truths and help people understand the power of music to heal and guide. Witnessing the oneness of humanity on this journey, we can be a living antidote to the racism and class discrimination corroding our society.”
Dozier said that indeed is the point.
“I’ve been doing things like this for a long time,” Dozier said. “This particular presentation is the result of years of research, with the aim of sharing the impact of black music on America. I also look it at as social commentary. It’s an archival record of black Americans talking about their situation. It really goes back to my interest in spirituals and early black American music, and seeing how it’s become a thread that runs through soul, blues and even early hip-hop.”
Up until earlier this year, Dozier was the performing arts director and diversity director at the Episcopal School of Nashville. He said that while he wasn’t formerly trained in teaching, he earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in public policy and race relations from Duke University.
“I grew up playing piano in the church and began composing when I was around 17 years old,” Dozier said. “I like performing, but I really feel like music can best be used to resolve some of the real issues we have in this country right now.”
In fact, Dozier’s work has taken him around the world, to Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South America. He’s currently working toward a doctorate from the University of Tazmania. In addition to commuting back and forth to that part of the world for the past 10 years, he spent a year in Japan and continues to perform at various conferences and universities worldwide.
“I travel quite a bit,” he acknowledged. “My summers are spent overseas doing workshops and presentations.” He also tours with a program called “Praise, Protest and Purpose,” which is based around gospel music in particular.
Dozier said he’s not surprised that overseas audiences seem to relate to his efforts regardless of their nationality.
“Music is a primary means of human expression,” he said. “It’s been that way for the past 400 to 500 years. When you see people offering this kind of creative response to their situations, it creates an intriguing story at a human level. From an artistic perspective, if you think about all the artists that emerged from that milieu of history and how they stretched across different genres — from country to classical to soul, blues and hip-hop — you would be hard pressed to find too many countries that haven’t been impacted by their music, whether it was through Motown or Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder.”
He also said that the inspiration that people around the world took from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s is another reason why his overseas audiences seem to appreciate his performances.
“The music is more than just the song,” Dozier said. “It’s the carrier of a value, a social conduit. I think that people connect with that. The energy is so pure and raw, and people love to experience the joy and emotion the music gives them. So it connects on many levels.”
Dozier’s next project will involve his entire family. Titled “The Race Unity Road Trip,” it will take him, his wife and children across the country for what he said will be to bring people together.
Given the current political polarization and divisive climate the country finds itself in, Dozier believes his mission is more urgent than ever before.
“Our country is so divided now,” he said. “One of the big motivations for me and my family to get on the road is because of that. We are motivated by circumstances. We need to find places where we can come together.”
As a result, Dozier said he’s convinced that music is a means of framing the conversation in both a spirited and creative way.
“I’m focused on how can those songs can bring awareness to people about what’s happening in this country right now,” Dozier said. “My message is to call people of courage together, people that really want to build a new configuration of humanity. I’m convinced we can do it.”