The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout (Kennedy Center)


Nicole Kali presents a review on The Gathering, which definitely expanded horizons on many traditions. Ring shouts are a major diasporic callback to circular processions in Africa. These shuffling ceremonies serve as sounds for the soul and living genealogy. Communities such as Sahelian Fula create a precedessor to 360 call-and-response, then forcibly worked the South Carolina Lowcountry to become Gullah Geechee people. Fon villages communally sing in Cameroon.

Now old spirituals tell a different story about us. The National Black Theatre brought a truly unprecedented masterpiece to D.C.'s famous (often all-too-inaccessible) Kennedy Center. You wanna talk about rockin' the diaspora, Executive Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory's cultivated talent amazed EVERYBODY and had listeners on their toes.

The full version is here. Watch an excerpt on TikTok.

@rockthediaspora The Gathering (A Collective Sonic Ring Shout) and National Black Theatre expanded horizons! They brought a truly unprecedented masterpiece to D.C.'s Kennedy Center. “Can it start with us?” - Toshi Reagon @Apollo Theater #RockTheDiaspora #NationalBlackTheatre #TheGathering #Americanmusic #Blackartists #composers #KennedyCenter #DC ♬ original sound - RockTheDiaspora🌍


American Composers Orchestra are a rightfully praised collective since the '70's, from New York City. They were a beautiful accompaniment and centerpiece...all led by legendary conductor Chelsea Tipton II (below).

80 members tuned their craft as audience first sat for The Gathering. Ancient woodwind and plucked string notes filled our ears with a certain djeli-esque mood. NBT curated this to a molecular level. Then NEWorks Productions added their own sonic layer of home.

Nolan Williams Jr. is Artistic Director and iconic in collaborative choral works. Neworks absolutely shone throughout Saturday night! We thank each musician for their contributions here.

Sade Lythcott and Brittany Davis set a reflective, special tone while greeting us in a packed auditorium. This unique gathering immersed us into another plane.

Host-poetess Mahogany L. Browne introduced herself on a stellar Afrofuturist screen. Wise words reverberate to us like timeless proverbs through each verse. And we start. 'Say Her Name' is an effigy, a reminder. Black femmes, girls and women may be magical. But none are invincible. We have to respect their presence or lose one of Earth's greatest gifts.

Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, Mya Hall, Islan Nettles, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Breonna Taylor. Say their names.

Abby Dobson sang and won the crowd every note. Her voice, a catalyst, spread like light until we were surrounded. That envelopment was powerful. She recited fallen community after mournful vocals, louder and louder.

Joel Thompson is a fantastic composer in the Diaspora who combines African and Euro-American pieces. There's an eerie self-awareness and thematic success to his Seven Last Words of the Unharmed. 'You shot me. You shot me." Oscar Grant III died at Fruitvale Station, 2009.

"What are you following me for?" Aspiring aviator Trayvon Martin stood up for himself when under attack. Honoring John Crawford, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant III, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown is the least we can do. Perhaps we'll channel this fine artistic rage into material change today.

Some massive shift is happening, whether for Palestine or Pride or Black lives. Cannot have a ring shout without elements of gospel. The Black spiritual in congregation. Neither can the world forget: our ancestors were mindful, physically conscious people who still speak clearly.

Troy Anthony conjured some mighty metaphysical power in 'Meditations on Breath'. Hundreds of voices amplified his mantra: "I believe in what my breath can do. I'm breathing." Catharsis was a tangible experience in the hall. Some kinfolk held hands and asked others to sing. We witnessed history.


Concerts like these usually feature choral, orchestral composition. It's rare to hear distinctly Diasporic music so boldly. Other attendees bustle in their seats while intermission passes.

Courtney Bryan is another trailblazer who defies expectations through creativity and vision. 'Sanctum for Orchestra and Recorded Sound' had a trance-like effect. Chelsea Tipton II expertly guided American Composers Orchestra in sweeping string suites, quirky interpolations and full-bodied flavor. Conductor and ensemble achieve synchronicity.

Toshi Reagon has no easy definition and prefers it that way. They are an eclectic blend: fighter, lover, funk artist, jazz composer, guitarist and wonderful vocalist. Fire burns in their eyes, their spirit and voice. They posed a challenge after cheering for us to join. We listened.

"YEAH! Can it, can it start with us (twice)? All of this music is raising the vibrations of the ancestors, raising the vibration of the ones that we know are with us, that are on the earth anymore. We have so much to do, and can it start with us?

I would just like to say that voting is not an emotional act (twice). You know what I came here to say with's business for a country that was started on business. Using the currency of our people and the gorgeous planet Earth inside of the entire UNIVERSE." Afrofuturism is elegantly direct.

"And it is us who need to guide it [Earth] in the right direction. And we cannot do it if we think that there is any way the United States of America would ever produce a caring and loving, and generous government...that woud care about you, me. So it is business. I need us to show up.

I need us to not come into holy and spiritual places and call on the ancestors, and not show up. It is us."

'My Name' and 'Reflection of Home' are woven from empowerment and righteous pride, even centering choregraphy (Maleek Washington) around the ring shot format. Both were memorably catchy.


Carlos Simon earns a standing ovation in RTD's opinion. Soaring arrangements lift 'Amen' beautifully to the ceiling. Delicate cello arpeggios lead reed riffs, and soulful violins like angelic conversation. We have no footage ourselves though Kennedy Center captured every moment. Incredible work! Support composers of color.

Last and maybe most anticipated, the rock-her Nona Hendryx appeared ethereally. She smiled with an oracle's confidence. "Good evening!"

The room repeated her. A faith-filled trifecta played after we settled down. 'Heaven ' had such a clear effect on listeners. No matter what your belief, Ms. Hendryx's music healed the ears. If someone said 'Yes' another one said 'Yes, go 'head!'

Synergy was immaculate (no pun intended). 'Grace' followed 'Heaven': a caution to cherish our lives while we're still able. "Grace!" She preached in a jaw-dropping sequin suit. 'May We Rise' is a beacon, a call to collective power and sonic expression. May we rise out of oppression. "We rise!"

What a statement. It encapsulates a growing desire for freedom. Abby Dobson returned to stage and initiated one final stick rhythm. And The Gathering ended while Jonathan McCrory accepted applause. RTD will enjoy this diasporic experience forever. We hope we can too. See you next time.

The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout (YouTube) (The Kennedy Center, 6-1-24)