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Neal Lester is quite aware of how music and social movements can bring people together in divisive times, but when rock guitarist Dick Wagner penned an original tune for Humanity 101, the power of that moment didn’t immediately register.
“Actually, we didn’t want a song, and there was never an ask,” said Lester, founding director of ASU’s Project Humanities and foundation professor of English. “Eventually, it occurred to me, ‘Absolutely we need a song!’ But the song came before there was an awareness for the need of a song.”
Now, “Humanity (Love is in the Air)”, a plea for tolerance, peace, empathy and creativity, will serve as Humanity 101’s official theme music. (Hear a sample below.)
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Recorded and produced by Motown’s Bobby Taylor, the new tune will be the centerpiece of Project Humanities' “Music and Social Movements Concert: The Unveiling of Humanity (Love is in the Air)” at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Tempe’s Sun Studios of Arizona.
The free concert will feature music by local bands, a spoken word performance, a behind-the-scenes video of the making of “Humanity (Love is in the Air)” and a brief presentation by Don Guillory on the history of music and social movements.
Guillory, a history instructor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said music is a powerful tool to convey messages and spark emotion.
“Through much of this history of mankind, music and musical expression have helped facilitate communication, whether it was on the battlefield or demonstrating social strife to a wider audience,” Guillory said. He added that music tells the stories of people who are seeking inclusion and appropriate representation in the American landscape.
“Music can help explain grievances due to its unique ability to touch the soul of a person,” Guillory said.
Lester said he's already caught a glimpse of how “Humanity (Love is in the Air)” has affected people.
“When we recorded ‘Humanity,' people were in tears by the end of the session,” Lester said. “It wasn’t tears of exhaustion, but tears of joy because they were continuing the legacy of someone else’s work.”
Lester is referring to Wagner's legacy. Known as the "Maestro of Rock" for his collaborations with Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Kiss and Lou Reed, Wagner wrote and recorded a demo of the song shortly after meeting Lester for lunch in spring 2014. He died months later after years of declining health, and the song went unfinished.
For his part, Lester wouldn’t give up on the work. At the insistence of Wagner’s manager, Susan Michelson, Lester reached out to producer Bobby Taylor in Hong Kong to see if he'd be interested in flying to Arizona to finish the song. Taylor hadn't been in the states since 2009, but an honorarium by the Puffin West Foundation helped make it happen.
The 82-year-old Taylor became known for discovering Michael Jackson and working with Jimi Hendrix, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and the Temptations. He also fronted Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, a Canadian band that charted a handful of soul and R&B songs.
Over a four-day period in October, Taylor led a group of about 20 singers and musicians — including three members of ASU’s Gospel Choir — at Well Spring Studios in Phoenix and Sun Studios of Arizona in Tempe to finish the song.
Michelson said Wagner would have been pleased.
“He would have loved the finished product and found it inspiring,” Michelson said. “Dick would have also enjoyed collaborating with Bobby Taylor.”
Lester said with the contentious and divisive 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, “Humanity (Love is in the Air)” resonates much stronger today than when it was written.
“The song asks us to shed our vanity and humble ourselves by taking a risk by being vulnerable,” Lester said. “Helping someone and stepping outside of ourselves is acknowledging vulnerability and that's the risk of our individual and shared humanity.”
To RSVP or register for “Music and Social Movements Concert: The Unveiling of Humanity (Love is in the Air)” go here.
For more information, call 480-727-7030 or visit https://humanities.asu.edu/
Top photo: Producer Bobby Taylor gives notes to musicians as they prepare to record the song created for Project Humanities entitled "Humanity (Love is in the Air)", in Phoenix on Oct. 17, 2016. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now