Janelle Monáe, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, performer, producer and actor, and Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, will speak at Vanderbilt University on Jan. 19 as the featured panelists for the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series keynote event in Langford Auditorium.
Monáe and Salaam will sit down for a conversation moderated by the Divinity School Dean Emilie M. Townes, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. The discussion will center on this year’s commemorative series theme, “The Power of Storytelling: Our Stories Connect Us.”
The keynote event, hosted in partnership with the Chancellor’s Lecture Series, begins at 5:30 p.m and doors open at 4:30 p.m. It will include a vigil, a presentation from the winners of the MLK Day Writing Contest with Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the keynote panel with Monáe, Salaam and Townes. The event is free to attend; for event planning purposes, those who would like to attend are asked to confirm their interest. Filling out the interest form does not guarantee admission; all seating at the event, including overflow spaces, is on a first-come basis.
The Jan. 19 event is just one of several programs and events community members can participate in between Jan. 17–20 as part of the university’s annual MLK Commemorative Series, which celebrates and honors King’s life and legacy. The series begins on Friday, Jan. 17 with a kickoff event at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center from noon to 1:30 p.m.
The Vanderbilt community is also invited to register for the MLK Joint Day of Service on Jan. 18, which will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nashville student sit-in movement. MLK Day events will include interactive teach-in sessions focused on inclusion, equity and activism through storytelling, the Nashville MLK Day March and Convocation, the MLK Day Blood Drive at the Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life, and more.
Monáe, known for her unique style and groundbreaking sound, has been immersed in the performing arts since a young age. She founded her own record label, the Wondaland Arts Society, and has released the EP “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase),” and three critically acclaimed solo albums: ArchAndroid, which reached No. 17 on the Billboard Charts and earned her two Grammy nominations, including one for the hit single “Tightrope;” The Electric Lady, an album that reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts, featured Prince and Miguel, and won an MTV Video Music Award for the music video for the album’s first single “Q.U.E.E.N;” and DIRTY COMPUTER, which had an accompanying narrative film titled the Emotion Picture, featured the hit songs “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Monáe also serves as a spokesperson for cosmetics brand CoverGirl.
Additionally, Monáe has starred in several films, including Academy Award-nominated Hidden Figures, the Best Picture winner Moonlight, the live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp, the biographical film Harriet and upcoming film Antebellum.
Salaam of the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, was wrongfully tried and convicted at age 15, along with four other boys of color, for the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after the five men had each spent between 7 and 13 years in prison. The unidentified DNA in the case, unlinked to any of the five, was identified to be that of a convicted murderer and serial rapist who confessed. The convictions were overturned and they were all exonerated, later receiving a multi-million-dollar settlement from the city of New York.
Since his release, Salaam has been an advocate and educator on issues related to the disparities in the American criminal justice system, race, false confessions, and more. Salaam now serves on the board of the Innocence Project. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Anointed by God Ministries Alliance & Seminary in 2014, and he received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award from then-President Barack Obama in 2016. In 2019, he partnered with Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro on a Netflix feature limited series on the story of the Central Park Five, When They See Us.
The university’s MLK Commemorative Series began in 1985 and affirms Vanderbilt’s commitment to the goals of peace and racial justice to which King dedicated his life. Over the years, noted scholars, political leaders, civil rights activists, entertainers and more have been invited to the event to speak about King’s legacy and impact. Past keynote speakers for the MLK Commemorative Series include the Rev. James Lawson, author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, civil rights leader and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, White House correspondent April Ryan and more.
In addition to the Commemorative Series, the university will be home to other events related to MLK Day. The Law School will host its annual MLK Memorial Lecture featuring Jamal Greene, Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held on Friday, Jan. 24 at noon in Flynn Auditorium.
Faculty, staff and student participation is welcomed at all MLK Day events while recognizing the need for operational continuity at the university. If staff wish to participate in commemorative series events during scheduled work hours, participation will be considered work time but must be coordinated in advance with their supervisor.
Visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series website to learn more.