NACF National Artist Fellow Wins Great American Song Contest

Thea Hopkins (Aquinnah Wampanoag) was on tour in the United Kingdom in August of 2014 when she heard the news about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident was getting a lot of international attention, and the timing coincided with the anniversary of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy lynched to death in Mississippi in August of 1955. The 2014 protests in response to the tragedy of Michael Brown spurred Thea to finish The Ghost of Emmett Till, a song she had started writing earlier that year and which was recently awarded the Grand Prize Winner at the 22nd Great American Song Contest.

The Ghost of Emmett Till is a ballad that vividly depicts the pain and injustice that, regrettably, are still experienced in this country to this day. Thea’s storytelling is poignant, and despite being written almost seven years ago, the song poetically addresses the pressing issues of racism and the need for justice and reparation:

The Ghost of Emmett Till walks across this land
Still waiting for America to take his hand (…)”

Thea writes a lot of songs, some of which she records, others not. So after writing The Ghost of Emmett Till, she wasn’t sure whether to include it in her next album. She thought it might be too harsh of an indictment and that maybe, during the Obama years, the country had moved away from that. But she soon realized that these issues were still very much alive and decided to include the song in her album Love Come Down, which she had started working on during her NACF fellowship.

“I like to write about the human experience, whether it be personal or something that I’m reflecting on. Paraphrasing Woodie Guthrie, it’s a songwriter’s job to comfort the afflicted and to afflict those who are comfortable. Sometimes I like doing that with music. I like being able to express what I need to express. That’s why I wrote ‘The Ghost of Emmett Till’.”

Throughout her career, Thea has addressed intolerance and violence in some of her other songs. It was one of these songs, Jesus is on the Wire, that led to her breakthrough in 2004 when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded the tune. The song was a tribute to Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student attacked and killed near Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. And in her song Whatcha Gonna Do, Thea addressed the plight of displaced people and communities crippled from jobs moving overseas.

Since her NACF Fellowship in 2016, Thea’s music community has expanded, and she has connected with Indigenous artists and organizations both nationally and internationally. In 2019, she received a three-year fellowship from Western Arts Alliance for the Indigenous Launch Pad. Shortly after that, Thea was invited to be part of the indigenous singer-songwriter intensive at the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada and later connected with the International Indigenous Summit in Toronto.

During the pandemic, Thea set up a home studio and is working on her new album due to be released in early 2022. She is also putting together an indigenous artist program titled In the Roundhouse, which will feature modern music created by members of Indigenous tribes, along with some traditional, timeless tribal artistry. Her goal with In the Roundhouse is to expand awareness of contemporary indigenous music and provide opportunities to Native youth and communities through workshops and performances by indigenous artists. The event will be a combination of virtual workshops and an outdoor performance by Thea and other Native artists scheduled for September in Providence, Rhode Island.

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