Edgar Arceneaux Brings MLK Back to Riverside Church


On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. announced his opposition to the Vietnam War with an hour-long address at Harlem’s Riverside Church that he called “A Time to Break Silence.” In the speech, King argued that the fight against racism at home could not be separated from the fight against colonialism abroad. The war, he warned, revealed “a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” a toxic combination of arrogance and hate, and if Americans didn’t address this, there would only be more Vietnams to come.

Forty-five years later, in 2014, L.A.-based artist Edgar Arceneaux began a project to bring King’s words into the present, an attempt to understand the nature of time in a world where history keeps repeating itself. The result, also called A Time to Break Silence, is unsettling and surreal. King’s audio is paired with footage shot in an abandoned Detroit church, with a roaming primate calling to mind the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opened in wide release on April 10, 1968 — six days after King’s assassination. The common denominator is an original techno score by Ray 7 of the Detroit DJ collective Underground Resistance, a group of activist Detroit musicians who have been combining thumping bass with radical politics since the late Eighties. His electronic beats not only give the film rhythm; they seem to suggest that a harmonious future still might be possible.

Needless to say, this thing never made it to theaters. A Time to Break Silence premiered in the U.K. and has screened a handful of times in the U.S. since then. Tonight, it comes to New York, with Ray, Arceneaux, and fellow Underground Resistance DJ John Dixon leading a screening and live performance at the Union Theological Seminary, the home of liberation theologians like James Cone. The venue is across the street from Riverside Church, and this is the first time it will host the film. “This was one of my fantasies, to bring the speech back to Riverside,” Arceneaux tells the Voice on a cross-country conference call. “We’re gonna make the holy water catch on fire, start bubbling.”

Village Voice: What gave you the idea for this project?

Edgar Arceneaux: When I [started] this project, I discovered that the speech Martin Luther King had given in 1967 where he came out against the Vietnam War was the beginning of the end of his political career: A year to the day of him giving that speech, he was assassinated. Then there’s the coincidence that the film 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in theaters days later. I wanted to do something about these two realities, because both the speech [and] the film — which were being written in the same time — look at the duality of technology. It could be used as either a weapon to destroy or a tool to build.

I had been researching techno, and I had learned how it was the music of the future, the music of machine. Underground Resistance is really aware of the politics of this technology and has used a lot of that in how they talk about what they do. I wanted to bring all of that together, and I was introduced to Ray, and we started developing the music together.

Ray, how did you approach creating a soundtrack for this speech?

Ray 7: I wasn’t sure of what it was gonna be at first. After Edgar started describing the scenes to me, I just tried to [build] on the visuals more, to make it possible [to] feel the visuals. From my point of view, it’s sort of a mixture of past, present, and future. Even though the King speech is in the past, it’s still relevant today. And the music to me represents the future of the speech.

Arceneaux: When we do it live, Ray 7, John Dixon, and then a singer, Aran Mya, [improvise] during the presentation. They’ll be able to riff off of each other in the space and bring the soundtrack to life in the room.

Ray: Some of it will be totally improvised. We approach it more like jazz musicians.

In his speech, King says that “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony.” Do you ever feel that way when you’re making art?

Arceneaux: It was a magical experience to watch [Ray] take these different combinations, first laying down the bass and then adding another layer on top and then adding another one and another one. And next thing you knew you had a cold-blooded song! Just watching that process was beautiful and magical and amazing all at the same time.

And for King, any time you speak the truth on something this big, you’re also implicated in it. You’re gonna implicate your friends and you’re gonna implicate your family. It’s never clean. That’s what I think about, that agony, because he knew a good portion of his supporters were gonna leave him [because of this speech]. To some degree, what I was doing with the film was showing that, as Ray said, his project is as relevant today as it was back then.

Churches all over Detroit are closing. Churches all over the country — particularly Catholic ones — are closing. The ideas in the speech have outlived the institutions themselves. The church is failing, but the ideas still have power. That’s the way that we feel about the music as well. The music is the music of the future, but it’s living in the present. And it’s not really supposed to be in a church. It’s dance music. But here it is.

A lot of people say that techno or dance music is their religion. It’s become almost a cliché, but in this context, do you think there’s truth in that comparison?

Ray: Actually, I do. All forms of music bring people together from different backgrounds. Sometimes it amazes me. I’m like, “Wow, I wouldn’t think that this person would even be interested in this music.” And they’re really big fans. We bring all types of people together.

Is there something prophetic in techno music?

Ray: The way we’ve always approached it, it’s an emotional type of music. You make it to make you feel a certain type of way. It’s still dance, so it’s a moving, powerful music — not something that you should be able to listen to and just stand around. It should be a living, breathing thing, something that evokes emotion in you, makes you want to do things, whether it’s dance or look toward the future. We want people to wake up and see what’s happening, get off the brainwashing tip. Or the consumer tip.

Edgar, how does your vision of your art and your film compare to that vision for music?

Arceneaux: The “Time to Break Silence” speech was written in ’67. 2001 came out in 1968. So the question is, “What is the past doing when it comes back into the present?” In this instance, Dr. King is giving the speech over and over again. The film starts at sunrise and it ends at sunset, and it starts over again the next morning. The music is the space for freedom. One thing about Underground Resistance that I love so much is the way in which they work, how creative their process is. As a way of imagining the creative potential that’s alive and well in Detroit today, it was important for me to have a voice in this examination of the past that shows people making really progressive music right now. So for me their inclusion in the film was essential, because it grounds the film in both the present and the future. It shows that the story about Detroit as a city that’s in decline is not true. That same innovative spirit that made Ford Motor Cars is alive and well in the music industry, still, right now.

A Time to Break Silence screens at 7 p.m. tonight at Union Seminary’s James Chapel. Click here for more information.