by Sabrina Khan
Memphis, a new musical that soulfully narrates the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is Broadway’s live history book of a time when music engaged the nation to acknowledge and take action
against racial discrimination.
In the show, young Huey Calhoun has a passion for rhythm and blues, and he visits an underground black club to listen to music. There he meets Felicia Farrell, a young black singer, who becomes Huey’s inspiration to bring “race music” to mainstream culture. Although the genre gains instant popularity among American youth, Huey is constantly met with hostility from conservative (often older) white people who want to censor it from the media.
Based on actual accounts, Memphis is set in a period of American history spanning The Great Migration, leading into the Civil Rights Movement, all amidst the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
During the years of 1910-1970, over six and a half million black migrants moved from the South to the North in the hopes of escaping segregation and gaining greater standards of living. In 1910, 80% of the black population lived in the South, and because of The Great Migration, by 1970, only 25% remained. Unfortunately, the North didn’t offer the haven the migrants had hoped for and racism was rampant.
Facing discrimination in all walks of life, harsh treatment from employers, violence from the Ku Klux Klan, and segregation in the South, African Americans began to fight for equal opportunities and rights. Major strides were made in this fight: the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional, Rosa Parks’ protest and successful Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Kansas, to name a few. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s paved the way for greater change in the next decade.
Finally, Rock ‘n’ Roll emerged as a youthful and rebellious call for change that defied the structure and rules of the past generation. The music enveloped all that conservative America tried to suppress - a sense of freedom and raw energy that was heavily influenced by black musical roots. A fusion of rhythm and blues, soul and gospel, Rock ‘n’ Roll, was much too political and risqué, but radio stations, a platform for divide, were willing to take a chance on it and made legends of artists like Elvis Presley. With a voice criticized for sounding “too black”, Elvis sang and danced controversy in his tunes and demonstrated the feel of the time. And when disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term Rock ‘n’ Roll in the early 1950s, he made an amazing addition to the recording industry and mainstream media.