Winning Essay by Kathleen Criner, University of Louisville
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What do Herbie Hancock, Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra all have in common? Across different sounds, fan bases, instrumentations, and cultures, each of these creators have collaborated with the American jazz saxophonist, composer, and producer, Kamasi Washington. The way in which Washington works to inspire the world is through this power of connection. Music exists without the borders of linguistics. For generations, it has told the stories of humanity, bridging the gap between people who may not share a single common word. Kamasi Washington recognized early on that the way to unite artists and listeners across a broad range of cultures, identities, and backgrounds was through jazz.

Born to a family of musicians in 1981, Kamasi spent his childhood surrounded by the sounds of jazz. A walk through his neighborhood featured the syncopated sounds of street drummers. His father played records from every genre imaginable. Kamasi never felt held back in the world of music; his parents taught him that there were no limits to his musical abilities. However, as he examined the world around him, Kamasi saw the racial tensions arising in the music world. White artists were receiving praise for the same musical ideas African Americans had been creating for decades. Determined to tell the stories of his culture, Washington majored in Ethnomusicology at UCLA. He released his first EP, Young Jazz Giants, while he was still in school, and from there went on to collaborate with artists from all over the world.

Regarding his music inspiring others, Washington believes that he is simply “a messenger,” sharing the voices of centuries of culture. His debut album, The Epic, was released in 2015, a time of great racial tensions with the Black Lives Matter movement steadily gaining media attention in the wake of police brutality. Unarmed black men and women were dying, and Kamasi was there to tell their story. He never used lyrics to directly address the movement, instead choosing to tell the story through an explosive three-hour album teeming with decades of struggles and identity. It’s underlying messages, demanding peace from a nation of turmoil, created a piece of art rich with emotional intensity.

I have always been a writer. From the time I could hold a pencil, all I wanted to do was share my ideas with the world. Lately, I have found myself writing less and less for leisure. I have become drained and depersonalized from the emotions and rigors of the college application process. A couple of nights ago I listened to a Kamasi Washington cover of Clare de Lune. The way he took this notable melody and placed so much intensity and passion into each line sparked something in me. That night I wrote, not for any college or scholarship, but for me. It’s artists like Kamasi that inspire their listeners to be something greater. Overcoming police brutality and inspiring a nation is what makes Kamasi Washington a piece in the puzzle of the growing movement of societal change.

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