Marc Bamuthi Joseph Speaks to Branson Students on Race, Freedom, and Love

On Thursday, February 25, special guest Marc Bamuthi Joseph joined the Branson community for a culminating event in celebration of Black History Month. Formerly a Gallard Fellow at Branson where he taught English and dance, Bamuthi is now Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A dancer by training, he is a National Poetry Slam champion and has also created spoken word, dance, theater, hip-hop, opera, and multimedia pieces that have received international critical acclaim. His work often addresses the intersections and interplay between social issues and cultural identity, including race, gender, and class.

In his introduction, Director of Admissions Nathalio Gray added, “in addition to all the accomplishments and titles, I can personally say, as long as I’ve known Bamuthi he’s used his voice to speak truth to power; he’s used his art not only as a career, but as a calling to make an impact and make a difference in the world.”

Bamuthi began his presentation with a poem – one that he wrote while working at Branson – entitled "Self-Portrait." His poem addressed the complexity and origins of race and racism in America, Black history, and his own identity. In it, his artistic talents shined through. His energy and artistry were palpable even through the screen, and he was able to electrify his audience despite the confines of Zoom.

Bamuthi centered much of his talk around the idea of freedom. In one framing, he outlined America’s systems of oppression, like incarceration and deportation. He asked us to dig into the opposite – if we can design these complex systems of oppression, how do we instead design a system of freedom? How do we create structural freedom?

“Freedom isn’t something that can be legislated. Freedom is a phenomenon of the body,” he said.

He also spoke about the intersection of art and freedom, how he feels most free playing soccer and dancing.

Though powerful and hard-hitting, his message was ultimately one of love and of hope. He challenged us all to become allies and to work together to create a future built on the very opposites of hate, greed, and despair: 

“It is all about love; who gives us permission to be our greatest, loving selves? Feel no animosity; feel curiosity for an understanding of how we get better. Honesty, transparency. Be empowered to become systemic allies. Create a space for all voices, even if that means silence. Students – step into your emotions and your inquiry. Be brave.”

At the end, students were given the opportunity to ask Bamuthi questions, which he fielded with warmth and candor. The Q&A session led to a wide-ranging discussion encompassing everything from our education system, to Black womanhood, to being a parent, to the people that have influenced his work. 

After Bamuthi’s presentation, students spent time with their D block teachers and classmates reflecting on and discussing the morning. 

Below, we share some reflections from students on Bamuthi’s talk. 

"He was so innovative in using multiple art forms to share a powerful message and knew how to relate this to students." 

"I appreciated his quote that love is a powerful four letter word.

“Assembly was great. One, if not the best, speaker we’ve had at Branson in my experience. So glad we could be a part of it.”

“Just wanted to say thank you for arranging the talk... it really resonated with me and I appreciate all of the work you put in to make it happen.” 

“My son just came upstairs beaming and letting us know how inspirational and cool Mr. Joseph's talk was. He remarked he had wished it was a full day.” (Mom of a freshman)

“He was truly inspirational and the way he explained everything was absolutely brilliant. I will probably remember that experience for a very long time.

“His eloquence in poetry and mastery of film captured an authentic telling of Black life in American society. Something that I took away was Bamuthi's emphasis on love and family, and that anything is possible, but the most prevalent is the adjacent or rather, what comes next."

Read more about Marc Bamuthi Joseph and check out his TED Talks: "What soccer can teach us about freedom and “You have the rite.”