Vy Higginsen on the music of Harlem as an intergenerational tool kit for survival

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When Vy Higginsen, Executive Director of Harlem’s prestigious Mama Foundation for the Arts, auditioned young people for roles in her theatre, off-Broadway plays, and musical showcases, she grew troubled. How could these young people not know the songs of the black church? The songs of survival? The songs that nourished the African American community even when every other freedom was stripped from them?

What Vy discovered was a cultural hole in the fabric of her beloved Harlem community. As a music activist and community cultural champion who continues to carry the torch of the Harlem Renaissance, her only option was to mend it.

Vy set out to save the music of her ancestors, of her Preacher-Daddy’s church, of her generation. What Vy didn’t do was set out to save the children.

But, as she taught a new generation about the music that lived deep inside of them, inside their very cells, she witnessed an awakening that rocked her.

Vy Higginsen defies any box you try to put her in. The first female ad executive at Ebony magazine, contributing editor at Essence, she went on to become New York City’s first black primetime radio personality. After touring with her big sister Doris as she performed her hit “Just One Look,” Vy came home and wrote Mama, I Want to Sing the internationally acclaimed, longest running off-Broadway black musical in history.

In this clip, Vy describes the palpable shift to minds, bodies, and spirits as her students are taught songs of praise. Notes and lyrics expand throats and hearts. Through its healing vibrations, the Gospel music weaves a new generation into its cultural legacy.

These kids bear the weight of an American society newly emboldened to hate. They are the recipients of decades of systemic racism in their schools, families, and neighborhoods. This music is more than just art history: it becomes a tool kit for survival.

It was a gamble, though. Vy and her team had to wonder, would the big-throated cries of women on slave’s ships that began the cultural legacy of America’s greatest export – jazz, R&B, gospel, the blues, hip hop—offer the same power to young people, decades later?

There was a collective exhale from the watchful older generation as the music animated the young people, nourishing their hungry spirits. Songs vibrant with memory of their heritage and strength. Not only was their cultural legacy alive, it would now be reimagined, reinterpreted for contemporary relevance by the next generation.

Even Vy, in her visionary brilliance, didn’t see that coming. “The first act in life is learning how to make a living,” Vy counsels, “and the second act is learning how to make a life.” It turns out that if you save the music, you save the children. And when you fuse the music into the children, you bridge generations and heal communities.

Not bad for life’s second act.


This story is part of an ongoing series featuring changemakers over 50. It’s created in partnership with Encore.org’sGeneration to Generation campaign, which connects older adults to kids who need champions.

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