Kristen Engebretsen

“In 1971, Marvin Gaye captured and commented on the spiritual and cultural chaos of the nation with his album, What’s Going On. It’s been 40 years. What’s changed? What’s Going On…Now? You Tell Us.”

That quote is from the homepage of the What’s Going On…Now website, the product of a collaboration between the Kennedy Center, Digital Youth Network, Universal Music Enterprises, and Grammy Award winning musician John Legend.

Together, they hope that Marvin Gaye’s still relevant question will spark youth to use digital media as a lens to understand the world around them and empower those youth to change the world around them.

Here are the details of the initiative:

Through the lens of Marvin Gaye’s landmark album, students are asked to create an original media piece that shares their vision of What’s Going On…Now. They can then upload their piece to either YouTube or Flickr, and are entered into a contest to win a trip for two to attend a tribute concert featuring John Legend, the National Symphony Orchestra, and Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings at the Kennedy Center in May.

To launch this new initiative, the Kennedy Center held a press conference on January 31 that included a live performance by John Legend. Besides the press in attendance, there were also students from Duke Ellington School for the Arts, who were rehearsing for a performance later that night. Legend surprised them by spontaneously inviting them up on stage to perform with him. Here is their incredible and moving performance:


  

Because John Legend is a member of the Americans for the Arts Artists Committee, I know that he is a big supporter of the arts—-he donated proceeds of his album sales to our organization back in 2010 and testified before Congress during National Arts Advocacy Day in 2008. He is also a big supporter of education—-I saw him speak at the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education, and he wrote the opening song for Waiting for Superman.

But I wanted to know what intersection he saw between these two fields. When I got a turn to ask a question, I asked if he sees the arts as part of a solution to the many challenges our educational system faces. He replied:

“I believe the arts are an important component [of education]. I think so many times in this era of education accountability, using data to monitor schools’ performances—and these are all things I advocate—we cannot forget that we still have to educate kids on things that can’t be measured in a standardized test. We still have to make sure our kids are well-rounded. We’ve seen a lot of evidence that there’s a strong correlation between kids who get a good arts education and kids who do well in other aspects of their educational career.

John Legend at the piano.

Particularly for me, as a young person, I saw arts education as so important to me because even though I was a pretty smart kid and I did pretty well, I was very shy. I think when you want to develop into being a leader, a lot of times it takes something to bring you out of your shell, to make you feel empowered, to make you feel like you have a voice, and make you feel like you have a perspective that you can share with your peers. I think the arts provide that channel for so many young people. I’m sure these young people at the Duke Ellington School would agree.

There are so many schools that are reducing these arts programs to next to nothing and they’re being forced to make a choice that they shouldn’t have to make between funding math, science, and English—and all these other important things—and funding the arts. These are all essential. These are things we shouldn’t have to choose between. Hopefully America will realize that even in this time when we’re in a recession, and people are talking about austerity, balancing budgets and things of that nature, that we cannot stop investing in the future. Investing in the future means investing in education. And education is not complete without arts education.”

To that, I say, “Right on!”

I left the Kennedy Center inspired by this new arts education initiative, and I went home to put on my Marvin Gaye album for my daughter. I want her to know that the arts are a powerful way to express ideas and promote change in the world. And that good art endures, no matter what’s going on.

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