Actor and activist Brandon Victor Dixon ’99 offered an Upper School assembly talk about social justice and the arts over Zoom last week. “The arts contribute to the forward movement and evolution of culture and society,” said Dixon, who also described the intersection of arts and advocacy in his own work in The Lion King, The Scottsboro Boys, Motown: The Musical, Rent, and Hamilton.
Noted Dixon: “Historically, theater, the arts, and music have not shied away from challenging subjects:, race, gender, class, sexual preference, you name it. Typically the arts and artists create a kind of a lens and a window for us as society to reflect on ourselves, where we are, the things that we admit about ourselves, and things we hide about ourselves, they create a kind of conduit to bring those things forward.”
“The discussion about fighting for social justice always feels very big, very macro, very political, very, heavy,” said Dixon. “But I think it’s always important to kind of pull back from the immediacy of issues and remind people that its also very basic. It’s simply applying the principle of treating others the way you wish to be treated, and ensuring that others are treated the way you wish to be treated. It’s fighting for those who can't fight for themselves and recognizing a need and fulfilling that need because you can. It’s defending others even before there is a need to defend yourself.”
The role of the arts in social justice is powerful, according to Dixon. “Arts are the most exponentially transformative force in our society. … Not only do they entertain or delight, but more importantly than that, the arts inspire. They educate, they inform, they break silos, and they fuel movements that can catalyze change. A poem, an album, a play can transform a generation.”
Added Dixon: “Life is really about perspective. A lot of the challenges we see around us seem insurmountable. They seem daunting, like we’ll never be able to get there. But one thing people need to recognize—and one thing that artists I think are tapped into—is that things can change in a moment. Everything is about a shift in perspective. And fewer things are more powerful than unlocking a person’s perspective, unlocking a person’s ability to feel differently about something or somebody they think they know. A dynamic and insightful piece of art manages to penetrate your defenses and expose you to something that you might not have been expecting.”
Thanks to the Cultural Awareness Organization, Donna Denizé, OJ Johnson, and Mark Bishop for organizing the assembly.