Announcer: This program was made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
One of the things I love about teaching is seeing kids who didn't believe in themself develop that self-confidence and then go on to do big things with it.
I definitely consider myself a teacher first, poet second.
I use poetry as a vehicle to reach young people and adults.
30 students look at me and 45 minutes later look to me, and I'm hooked, and I'm floating and anchored at the same time for the first time, and I'm whole and broken open, and I'm spinning and stunned still.
♪ Hi, everyone.
This is "Beyond the Canvas" from the "PBS NewsHour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
Tonight's episode focuses on art through the power of words.
Now you just heard from educator and poet Peter Kahn.
His award-winning poetry program in Oak Park, Illinois, his produced multiple poet laureates, including one who's earned the national title.
Kahn is joined by author Louise Erdrich, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, journalist Terence Smith, and several Black women breaking barriers in the country music industry.
All of them have harnessed the power of the word-- written, spoken, and sung-- to change their corner of the world and inspire others to do the same.
Now the people you're about to meet were first featured on the "PBS NewsHour."
Tonight, you'll meet them on a new canvas and maybe see them and their work through a different lens right here on "Beyond the Canvas."
Now back to this brief but spectacular take from Peter Kahn.
I used to hate poetry.
I hated it as a student, I hated it as a teacher.
I was inept at teaching it, and in the mid-nineties, I brought in a former student Jonathan Vaughn to help me out, and he came in, and he mentioned the idea of a poetry slam, and my students asked if we could do that, so we went ahead an did a poetry slam, and the student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning it, and everybody looked at the kid differently after that, and he looked at himself differently, more importantly, and a light bulb went on.
We teach them some basic skills and some more advanced skills, but it's really about their voice, and it's about personal narrative and sharing with them some contemporary poets they might not be familiar with, particularly writers of color, and giving them ways into their own narrative and the tools that they can write poems that they're proud of.
Girls: All the girls whose bodies are a question... whose skin is open-ended... be a bleeding bible... be the breast milk... and the Brisk tea.
Be the Brandy... and Beyoncé.
Be the bad... and the booty... and the brain cells.
I think it's tragic how little investment there is in poetry and other arts in schools.
We are so fortunate that our school has made this big investment, and one of my life goals is to get this kind of programming in other schools.
Poetry is having quite a heyday now.
Because we're going through so much as a society, as a world, writing about what you're going through is a really healthy way of doing that.
My name is Peter Kahn, and this is my brief but spectacular take on how spoken word poetry amplifies student voice.
Our next guest is Louise Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, whose recent book titled "The Sentence" has an almost shocking immediacy.
Set in Minneapolis against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Erdrich tells a compelling story about how we cope with pain and fear and injustice.
Jeffrey Brown spoke with Erdrich about her work and how she finds the words to reflect on what we've endured and make sense of the unimaginable.
Brown: Another day in the life of a small independent bookstore, but this one in Minneapolis is a bit unusual.
It has a confessional and a canoe overhead.
It specializes in Native American literature and subjects, and there's a ghost who hovers in the fiction section, a former customer who died but refuses to leave.
The store is real enough.
It's called Birchbark Books.
The ghost story is fiction, titled "The Sentence," written by store owner and acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich.
I was always going to write a book about a ghost in a bookstore.
You--because-- well, because... Why wouldn't you?
Why wouldn't you want to write about a haunted bookstore?
Because there's so much life in a bookstore.
You know, a book is so much more than a transactional object.
The words are flooding in, and ideas are filling you and emotion.
It's haunting in a good way.
Brown: But her story is also about a deeper and more painful hunting of the city in which she lives and works, amid pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in South Minneapolis and the protests that followed.
It's told through the voice of a character named Tookie, a Native woman with her own difficult past.
Erdrich: This is the first book I've ever written, you know, in real time.
Brown: Was it hard to do?
Was it a good escape from what was happening?
It wasn't an escape.
It was-- it was the most difficult piece of writing I have ever done.
Brown: Erdrich grew up in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, daughter of a German American father and Chippewa mother.
She's a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a tribal nation near the Canadian border, and much of her prolific and often bestselling writing-- novels, children's books, poetry--has centered on the experience of indigenous people in the Upper Midwest.
"The Round House" won the 2012 National Book Award, "The Night Watchman" the 2021 Pulitzer Prize.
It's a fictionalized account of her grandfather Patrick Gourneau, a tribal leader, and his generation's struggle in the 1950s against so-called termination, an effort by the U.S. government to tear up treaties and take back tribal reservation lands.
Her way into difficult subjects, she told me on a walk along the Mississippi River, is always through stories.
Erdrich: If you're going to talk about termination, it's really very technical and boring...
but if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone who is suddenly faced with termination, then it's very different, and then it becomes not a matter of politics but a matter of what this does to a human being.
Brown: In "The Sentence," as in real life, Erdrich's Native characters join the protests with a deep sense of a long history of police brutality aimed at American Indians who migrated or were pushed into the Twin Cities.
The characters-- to them, what's happening in real time Minneapolis 2020 feels very familiar to them.
Did it feel familiar to you?
Yeah, in a terrible way.
Brown: Erdrich herself loves nothing more than offering recommendations to an eager reader.
Also, and especially, there's the portrait of those she calls "Indigerati."
Native literature lovers, right?
Yes, and, you know, immersed in their language and immersed in their worlds and setting their own agenda for life, but I have 4 daughters, so I was very--I was really touched by them all the time.
Brown: One daughter Persia studied and now teaches the Native Ojibwe language to young children.
Erdrich: There's a very deep thing that's happening there because my grandfather was the last person in our family who spoke Ojibwe fluently.
He had no one to really speak with at some point, but my daughter would have been able to speak with him.
Brown: Her bookstore also exemplifies an exciting new chapter in American literature, an explosion of works in recent years by a new generation of Native writers with Louise Erdrich, writer and bookstore owner, helping to lead the way.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Minneapolis.
Like Erdrich, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile is using the power of words to take up space in a world that's often excluded people like her.
Carlile has released 7 studio albums and received 17 Grammy nominations to date.
In her work, which draws from country and American roots music, Carlile is helping to pave the way for more women an more queer people in both genres.
Jeffrey Brown met up with Carlile in Seattle to talk about her recent memoir and reflect on her chart-topping, barrier-breaking career.
♪ ♪ Come back now ♪ ♪ Even if you call me out ♪ Brown: Brandi Carlile calls her new record "In These Silent Days" a pandemic album born from a time of isolation with family at her rural home an hour outside Seattle, a time to stop and reflect on her climb to stardom and where it began in places like the city's Paragon Restaurant and Bar.
I remember coming in here right around this time of day when I knew I could talk to the manager and it wouldn't be too busy, and I said, "Hey.
I've got a P.A.
system "and a guitar player, "and if you give me-- like, maybe we'll start "6 p.m. on Sunday nights, "we'll do it for free for a month, "and if a month later you have seen that "you have an uptick on Sunday nights, then you could start paying me or feeding us, or"... "You might consider paying me"?
Brown: Gigs at local Seattle spots were the norm for years along with busking for tips at the famed Pike Place Market, the hardworking life of a very hardworking musician trying to make it.
Carlile: ♪ And the joke's on them ♪ Brown: Her stunning performance at the 2019 Grammys of "The Joke," a ballad to those who feel marginalized, brought her national attention.
Now 40, Carlile told her own coming-of-age story in a recent memoir titled "Broken Horses" about growing up poor in rural Washington state.
A self-described misfit, Carlile writes of being gay in a community with few role models and a church that didn't accept her.
From the beginning, though, she was, she says, addicted to performing.
Carlile: Well, it's easy to get addicted to performing because it's quite an adrenaline rush, you know?
I wanted to do it.
I wanted to feel understood and seen.
♪ All of these lines ♪ across my face ♪ Brown: What she did somehow know for certain is that she would make it, even if that took longer than she'd hoped.
She writes of being 15 years into her career before receiving a first Grammy nomination, and only later did she come to see how gender and sexual orientation could be barriers to success.
Carlile: I definitely am still having to overcome it, and I definitely had to overcome it.
I wasn't paying much attention because I was in a state for a long time of just euphoria that these dreams were coming true and these things were happening in my life.
Brown: It's been particularly true, she says, in her world of country and American roots music.
Carlile: I chose that album cover.
Brown: That's pretty good.
Brown, voice-over: She points to another musician who would become a friend-- Tanya Tucker.
Are you guys ready to roll one?
In 2019, Carlile co-produced a critically-acclaimed comeback album with Tucker decades after Tucker had fallen from favor for an outlaw image for which her male counterparts in the 1970s were celebrated.
Carlile: It made me realize that there are just two very different lanes for women and men, particularly in roots music.
Now forget BIPOC people or LGBTQIA+ people.
There's not even a lane.
Seems to be changing a little, perhaps?
Yeah, it's changing in the tributaries.
It's changing on the edges, in Americana, folk, roots, bluegrass.
There's still a giant metallic steel door shut to country.
Brown: Today, Carlile and her wife Catherine are parents to two daughters.
Carlile: ♪ Because I am the mother of Evangeline ♪ Highwomen: ♪ When we love someone ♪ ♪ We take them to heaven ♪ Brown: She's part of a country supergroup called the Highwomen, formed in 2019, and she speaks up as she sees necessary, including with the recent Grammy nominations.
She expressed gratitude but also wondered aloud why her song "Right on Time" was shifted to a pop performance category rather than country or Americana, where she sees herself.
I think a lot of queer people are cognizant of, if not sensitive to being disenfranchised.
Country music, roots music has a vortex.
It has a culture... Mm-hmm.
and there are country queers, and they need--they need to see acceptance and affirmation in those places, you know?
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Seattle.
♪ Never gets no rest ♪ before I do ♪ ♪ Ohh ♪ ♪ ♪ I will do ♪ ♪ If anyone understands the power of words, it's former "NewsHour" correspondent Terence Smith.
For decades, he traveled the world, interviewing people from all walks of life and reporting often with a front-row seat to history.
In conversation with "NewsHour" anchor Judy Woodruff, Smith recalled some of the most monumental moments of his career, moments he recounts in his recently released memoir.
Woodruff: Terry Smith, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Well, thank you.
I like the way you're keeping up the place.
It looks fine.
We do, too.
We do, too.
So the title says it all, and, you know, it's easier to name the stories that you didn't cover over the 50 years you were a reporter than it is to name what you did.
New York City politics, the Middle East.
You were in Vietnam, Washington for many years.
What was it about this life of yours that made it the-- what it was?
You know, it's an interesting question.
I--one, my desire to go overseas to be a foreign correspondent started early when my parents took me to Europe when I was, I don't know, 11 or 12 years old, and I looked around, and I became fascinated by how people-- the different ways people work out their lives, solve their problems, do different things, and it just--it gave me a wanderlust that has never gone away.
There are so many great stories in this book, and I've been thinking back to when you were just a cub reporter.
You were in New York City... Yeah.
and covered--there was a meeting about who was gonna run for mayor...
and you were listening through a vent?
They insisted that I had bugged the room when, in fact, by happenstance, it was in a hotel room, a hotel conference room.
I was in the next room, and I heard--"My Lord, it's coming through the vent," and those voices-- Nelson Rockefeller's raspy voice and John Lindsay's very patrician Yale accent.
You couldn't miss.
You knew who was saying what.
I was taking notes furiously.
So then, a few years later, you're in the Middle East already, still a young man.
Back in the United States, Robert Kennedy is assassinated, and you get the word.
You're in Jerusalem... Yeah.
and you're told that the person who they believe has done this is Sirhan Sirhan, who has family there in the West Bank.
You go and find his father.
So I go to the-- his father's house at 10:00 at night.
I knock on the door.
I go in.
I explain who I am, a reporter for the "New York Times," and I ask him if he's heard about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
He said, "Oh, yeah.
I heard about it.
And I said, "Did you hear the name of the assassin?"
And he said, "No.
I went to bed.
I didn't hear a name."
So I said, "You have five sons, right?
Write down on my reporter's notebook here."
The fourth name Sirhan Sirhan Jr.
So I put my finger on that name, and I said, "That's the assassin."
He switched like a metronome.
He went over, and he said, um..."If he did it, he should hang.
He should hang."
One of your many overseas assignments of course was to be in Asia, in Southeast Asia.
At one point, you were-- you had a trip to Cambodia.
Later, you were in Vietnam during the war.
I spent two years as the "New York Times" bureau chief in Saigon, but before that, just a month or two before that, I was in Cambodia in November of 1968, and I went and I interviewed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state, and he told me word for word exactly what was going to happen in Vietnam, that we would have to go, that the Vietnamese would not give up, that it was their country and not ours and we'd be wise to pack up and go home.
This is 1968, Judy.
This is tens of thousands of lives short of what happened by 1975, and yet he predicted it on the money.
I put it in the "New York Times."
You reported that.
And no doubt it was read in the White House and Washington.
Paid no attention.
After 20 years at the "New York Times," you then spent, what, 20 years in broadcast television news.
You were at CBS covering the White House again, among other things.
And then you ended up being interviewed...
by Jim Lehrer... Yeah.
of course, our beloved co-founder here at the "NewsHour."
Best job you ever had?
Jim had gotten a terrific grant to create a media unit inside this broadcast, the "NewsHour," to cover the news like news.
What is your assessment today in 2021?
Absolutely more vital, absolutely more troubled.
The blending of opinion and fact in reporting that's supposed to be straight is a problem.
The news literacy in this country.
The burden of knowing whether what you hear is true has shifted to the reader or the viewer to decide, and so I think that's a tremendous change.
That's a function that editors once performed.
We have all this information at our fingertips, but in another sense, it's hard to discern truth from fiction, and that's been especially true in the last 5 years.
Terry Smith, thank you so much.
The book is "Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House."
Very good to have you back with us.
Finally, we turn to a chorus of voices, who are opening doors in the music industry that were long closed to them.
Since the earliest days of country music, there have been very few opportunities for Black women looking to break in and find success, but that hasn't stopped the women you're about to meet.
I spoke with the next generation of rising stars on the country music scene about how they found their voice in an industry that's long kept them silent.
♪ Like my good just ain't ♪ good enough ♪ ♪ My honest ain't true enough ♪ Nawaz: When Brittney Spencer released the first single from her debut EP last summer, she didn't know what to expect.
♪ But Jesus is praying... ♪ Spencer: Honestly, I didn't know that anyone would listen to this project.
I just thought that I was putting out something on all the streaming services to be able to send whenever I pitch myself for, like, a--I don't know, like a 2:00 a.m. slot at a festival or something, and so much more has happened.
♪ You can hold my hand ♪ Nawaz: In October, Spencer tweeted out her cover of a song by country supergroup the Highwomen.
A month later, she said she was floored when group member Maren Morris sent her a shout-out from the Country Music Awards stage.
Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens.
there are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre.
Nawaz: Since then, Spencer's song "Compassion," which tackles issues of racial justice, has been streamed more than 3.5 million times on Spotify.
It's been such a wild ride.
I'm just--I'm honestly just living in a constant state of gratitude.
Nawaz: Singers like Brittney Spencer, Tiera... ♪ I'm not your girl ♪ Nawaz: Chapel Hart... ♪ Oh, Jolene ♪ Nawaz: Reyna Roberts... ♪ Ahh ♪ Nawaz: Miko Marks... ♪ None for us to find ♪ Nawaz: long excluded from country music, are now breaking through and finding audiences flocking to their music.
Things are changing.
You know, people want to see a different Nashville.
Nawaz: Shannon Sanders is executive director of creative at BMI and has been in the industry for more than 25 years.
People of color, especially women, were being kept out.
A recent study from the University of Ottawa found that women of color represent less than 1% of artists signed to a major label, and over the last 20 years, Black women accounted for 0.03% of all music played on country radio.
There's already the issue of women not necessarily getting the same airplay as male artists.
Add to that being a person of color.
♪ Show the world ♪ ♪ You're a country girl ♪ Nawaz: In 2007, Rissi Palmer's song "Country Girl" made it on the "Billboard" charts, but staying on top was a different story.
How hard has it been since then to get a song back on the charts?
Oh, I don't even try.
The thing that people don't understand is how much it costs to even do this.
Nawaz: That's why Palmer is trying to help other artists get recognition outside of the typical avenues.
She hosts a show on Apple Music called "Color Me Country," a name that pays tribute to Black country singer Linda Martell's 1970 album, and Palmer created a fund that gives small grants to independent artists of color.
In the meantime, Black female country artists are bootstrapping their own careers.
Sanders: There's a lot of money being left on the floor just because people don't feel like they're invited to the party.
Black people were at the concrete pouring, if you will, of country music, and built this house, and then somehow got locked out.
So to have country open the door with open arms, I think we're set up for a real homecoming.
♪ And it... ♪ Nawaz: For Brittney Spencer, it's been a journey to find her own voice, too, moving to Nashville from her hometown of Baltimore several years ago.
I'm aware that there's not a lot of people in this space that look like me and that there's a lot of people in this space who might not know how to handle someone like me.
Does that ever make you feel like-- to put it bluntly, like "I should be programming and singing for white people?"
I stopped asking the question of whether or not something I do is good enough, and I started asking, is it me enough?
Adding her stories and her voice to the growing chorus in country music.
♪ Ahh ♪ For every artist you met tonight, it's the power of their words that's helped them break through, get to the top of their game, and make a difference with what they have to say.
The lesson is clear-- find your voice, speak up, and make some noise.
You can add your voice.
Join the conversation on our web site.
That's pbs.org/canvas, and find more "Canvas" arts stories on the "PBS NewsHour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thanks for joining me here on "Beyond the Canvas."
We'll see you soon.
Coming up on the next "Beyond the Canvas," we profile author Roxane Gay along with several other Black women leading the way in arts and culture.
Gay: It's really a question of learning how to use our voices and knowing that we have every right to do so.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: I believe that if we believe our country is truly great then it can withstand the light of the truth.
Woman: It can only be a model if people commit to the work, and sometimes, that's just one conversation at a time.
♪ Whoo ♪ ♪ ♪ Whoo ♪ ♪ ♪ Whoo ♪ ♪ ♪ Whoo ♪ ♪ Announcer: This program was made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.