DJ Spooky Reimagines Infamously Racist 1915 Film

Will Debut Multimedia Performance, 'Rebirth of a Nation,' at Kennedy Center

DJ Spooky
DJ Spooky (Courtesy photo)

You may not recognize the name or even the face of Paul D. Miller, an accomplished composer, multimedia artist, editor and author whose career continues to soar with meteoric proportions.

But once you’ve witnessed this D.C. native employ his provocative imagination and extensive knowledge of music, cast through the lens of his unique art of remixing, you’ll never forget the sound of his alter ego, DJ Spooky.

And as part of the Kennedy Center’s JFK Centennial Week, DJ Spooky, along with a string quartet from the District-based music ensemble Sound Impact, will present “Rebirth of a Nation,” conceived as a reimaging of director D.W. Griffith’s infamous racist silent film, “The Birth of a Nation,” first shown in 1915.

The culturally significant project, debuting on Tuesday, May 23 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, will showcase the deejay as “artist” accompanied by two violins, a viola and a cello, along with three screen video projections controlled live on stage by DJ Spooky.

In describing his work and the influences that led him to consider tackling the images and ideology that serves as the basis of Griffith’s controversial film, he says he wanted to examine how “exploitation and political still haunt the world to this day.”

We asked him to tell us more about his project, a commissioned piece by the Lincoln Center Festival in 2004 and has been performed in venues around the world from the Sydney Festival to the Herod Atticus Amphitheater.

Washington Informer: Given the controversy that has long surrounded “The Birth of a Nation,” what prompted you to use this as the foundation of your project?

DJ Spooky: I’ve been a firm believer that history is increasingly important. The problem of our time is that people too easily forget how the gains we’ve made in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights — you name it, all come into being because people were unwilling to accept the world as it was and they wanted to change it. I’ve wanted to look at cinema as a reflection of the possibilities that we have at our disposal. It’s so important to remember — the past is never the past. It lingers in the present at every level.

WI: What are your goals for the audience as they experience this multi-faceted presentation?

DJ Spooky: I want people to walk out of the Kennedy Center feeling like they saw history as a cinematic remix and realize that the world is what we make it. Let’s face it — “Birth of a Nation” is a propaganda film. This is anti-propaganda propaganda.

WI: How did you first get interested in working as a DJ? What prompted you to develop your music in ways that are so different from others — so out of the box?

DJ Spooky: I’m from Washington, D.C., and grew up in a household that valued information. My father was Dean of Howard University Law School and my mother owned a store called Toast and Strawberries at DuPont Circle. I grew up listening to music that came from Washington — Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds, Trouble Funk, Minir Threat, Bad Brains and later Thievery Corporation and beyond. I never planned on being a DJ. I was planning on being a diplomat. So, I guess this is just an extension of that process of thinking about international D.C. culture.

WI: Do you believe that entertainers have a responsibility to address societal ills, problems and challenges? problems/challenges?

DJ Spooky: Absolutely.

WI: In your recent travels abroad, what was the focus of your music and how were you received?

DJ Spooky: One of my favorite projects is where I took a studio to Antarctica and wrote a symphony about the sound of ice. To me, environmental issues are more than ever at the core of what Americans can do to help the world. We need to understand that human rights, civil rights and environmental justice are all tied together. “Rebirth of a Nation” is a kind of call to people to realize — we are all in this together.

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About D. Kevin McNeir – Washington Informer Editor 192 Articles

Kevin, an award-winning veteran journalist, book editor and educator, is the editor for The Washington Informer where he displays a keen insight for political news, editorial development and lifestyle features. A staunch Wolverine, the Detroit native left a promising career at IBM to pursue his passion for writing under the tutelage of the late Sam Logan, founding publisher of the Michigan Chronicle. His journey has continued to press rooms in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and currently Washington, D.C. With two master's degrees from Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary, he finds great joy in his children and grandchildren and is completing his first book, "Growing up Motown" which chronicles his childhood memories with legends like Marvin Gaye, Kim Weston, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Gladys Knight, Berry Gordy and the Jackson Five.

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