On June 26, 2015, President Barack Obama stunned the nation with his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” After delivering a eulogy for South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a pastor killed along with eight others in a shooting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, he led nearly 6,000 mourners in song. The spontaneous performance—which was immortalized by several national news crews—was described as a testament to the power of music, a transcendent message of hope, and the initiation of the country’s collective healing. It was also hailed as one of the most powerful moments of Obama’s presidency.
That musical statement has since captured the attention of artists, and inspired a chain of projects that explore how communities can come together and find grace in the wake of national tragedy. Not long after the 2015 shooting, singer-songwriter Zoe Mulford wrote “The President Sang Amazing Grace” as a way to contend with this difficult history and keep the memory of the victims alive. The song was subsequently covered by legendary singer, songwriter, and activist Joan Baez on her studio album, Whistle Down the Wind, a collection of protest songs written by various folk artists. Baez was driving when she first heard Mulford’s work. “I had to pull over to make sure I heard whose song it was because I knew I had to sing it,” she later told The Atlantic.
Baez’s rendition sparked further artistic collaborations, this time with Emmy Award-winning animator Jeff Scher and filmmaker and songwriter Rick Litvin, adjunct professor and associate arts professor, respectively, in the Undergraduate Department of Film and Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Baez asked Litvin to make 10 music videos to accompany her latest album, and it was “The President Sang Amazing Grace” that resonated most with the filmmakers, inspiring an animated video comprised of evocative watercolor and pastel paintings. Scher said that he painted many scenes under the camera so they would bloom from the white of the paper—like a photograph being developed or a memory emerging from a cloud—to make it feel as though the images were being remembered. The video launched on The Atlantic and quickly racked up nearly half a million views.
Now, “The President Sang Amazing Grace” has taken on new life as a children’s picture book that includes the lyrics to the song, Scher’s paintings, excerpts from Obama’s eulogy, biographies of those who were killed, historical context, and sheet music. It’s designed as an artistic toolkit to help parents have conversations with their children about violence as a painful part of American life.
NYU News spoke to producer Rick Litvin—who conceptualized and produced the music video and helped adapt it into book form—about how art and literature can inspire children and adults to find grace after national tragedy.
Why did Obama’s singing resonate so deeply with so many people?
There are times when grief, loss, and pain are expressed and acknowledged in a simple way that connects with people’s core humanity. President Obama was able to unify the population in a way that felt natural, accessible, and apolitical. That historic moment became emblematic of our country’s collective mourning for the victims of the Charleston church shooting, which is why it became the focus of these artistic endeavors.
How can this book help parents have difficult conversations with their children about recent tragedies?
This book is grounded in the belief that conversations about important events are central to understanding the painful narratives of our country. But these conversations must include children, parents, teachers, caretakers, and one another. When you read to a child, you help them to discover new ideas and form memories. This book ensures the memory of that day stays alive in the next generation.
I believe that kids are smart and empathetic—their innocence means they are intuitively able to understand and connect with people and ideas in a natural way. If you explain these painful truths to children through a humanistic approach, they will learn to employ emotion and intelligence to make connections between the past and present. Books are marvelous in this way. And picture books are particularly great at engaging children’s innate curiosity and stimulating their unique interpretative power. Great storytellers and artists make ideas and deeper truths come alive in adults and children alike.
The book addresses a difficult topic. Is this content too heavy for a children's book?
In the making of the video, we made a conscious decision to not include any visual references to the shooter. Ultimately, parents and caretakers are responsible for decisions regarding the appropriateness of the content they show their children, but we know that school kids are already engaged in these conversations. The recent string of mass shootings has elevated the perceived threat and nearly every American public school now conducts lockdown drills to prepare students for active shooter situations. It’s important to help children grapple with their present-day reality and provide opportunities for them to ask questions. This book offers guidance for what good leadership looks like in difficult times such as these, which is a great thing to inspire in kids.
This project incorporates folk music, illustration, and film to tell the story of a powerful moment in Obama’s presidency. How does art help us make sense of history?
There are so many ways in which short-form storytelling connects with people. Song, film, music, and painting all have a unique power to tease out the threads of our shared humanity but may resonate in different ways with different people. Some people might be intrigued by visuals while others connect with voice or the clarity of the words. For example, Joan Baez’s performance is both soulful and powerful, and the authority of her vocals resonates deeply with many listeners. On the other hand, Jeff Scher has a talent for engraving every frame of the video with distinct markings, shapes, textures, and forms that helps to keep the focus of the film on the victims and places the viewer at the center of what happened that day. His work is raw and immediate but watercolors and pastels also give everything a spiritual luminance.
Rev. Sharon Risher’s mother died in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. When she saw the video, she said a feeling of pride settled in her heart, knowing that her mother was being honored in this way.
What can this project teach us about coming together, even in politically divisive times?
Even in these troubled times, I believe that honoring the voices of victims through art is a unifying act. Art helps us to deeply feel and understand our pain and inspires us to become caretakers of the narratives that can help push forward positive and structural change. We have a responsibility to tell stories that remind us of who we are and the histories that have shaped us in an effort to inspire a better future.