As millions of black Americans fled the South of the 20th century, they were feeling millions of emotions. “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,” a concert at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, aims to capture the range of feelings — the excitement over new opportunities, the fear of racial hatred, the panic of leaving old lives behind.
The concert, produced and presented by Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, tells the story of the historic Great Migration through music and the spoken word.
“I think of ourselves as artists, using our craft to examine the Great Migration, its meaning for us as individuals, and then basking in the compound energy of all of the trips these individuals took and our gratitude,” Hall Moran says, noting that she long wanted to understand her own family’s migration patterns.
Between the 1910s and 1970, the Great Migration saw 6 million black Americans flee segregation and racial terrorism in the rural South for better lives in the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. The concert will weave in gospel, classical, work songs, R&B and rock ’n’ roll produced during or inspired by the migration.
Hall Moran will perform several pieces with her husband, and get personal with her ballad, “Believe Me.” The song, inspired by her family’s California roots, talks about how “life could be sweet” and how “you can be made new.”
Hall Moran’s father, Ira D. Hall Jr., found refuge in California in the 1960s after he escaped racism in Oklahoma City. He studied electrical engineering at Stanford University, where he became president of his class and met his future wife, Carole. After marrying, the couple had their daughter in Palo Alto, Calif.
The Halls eventually moved to New York City and Connecticut to pursue their careers. Hall Moran’s father would go on to work as an IBM executive while her mother worked in publishing, spending most of her career at John Wiley & Sons as associate publisher and editor-in-chief of general interest books.
“That’s what change looks like,” Hall Moran says, adding that the paths her family took have allowed her to live the life she enjoys.
Among the other performers taking the stage for Sunday’s concert are Grammy-winning gospel singer Smokie Norful, Grammy-nominated woodwind quintet Imani Winds and D.C.-based brass band Sweet Heaven Kings.
“We have found a singular group of great storytellers in their own mediums who each have stories to tell,” Hall Moran says.
Operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee will join Moran, an accomplished pianist, for a duet of the spiritual “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names,” which was also featured in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.”
The night will strike a scholarly note when Farah Jasmine Griffin, chairwoman of Columbia University’s new African American and African Diaspora Studies department, reads a selection from her book “Who Set You Flowin’?”
“Some people literally were here today and gone tomorrow,” Hall Moran says of the black Americans who left the South. “No notice to their boss, no notice to the preacher, no notice to the teacher — no notice is no danger.”
They took their culture and music with them, developing, for example, the blues in Chicago and the Motown sound in Detroit.
Carnegie Hall commissioned the Morans to produce the concert for “Migrations: The Making of America,” its New York City-based festival exploring people’s movements across America. After the Kennedy Center performance, the show heads to Chicago and Hamburg, Germany.
The couple hope “Two Wings” sparks curiosity in people to examine their personal migration stories.
“I want them to have a new curiosity about their own families,” Hall Moran says. “I want them to ask themselves, how did they get to where they are and where did they come from?”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Sun., 8 p.m., $29-$69.