Esperanza Spalding said she had never seen an episode of “Roots,” the seminal mini-series about slavery, and that she had few memories of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel of the same name.
Nevertheless, the four-time Grammy winner headlined a pop-up concert in Harlem sponsored by the History Channel, to celebrate the reboot of the groundbreaking 1977 series. The new show will air over four nights beginning on Memorial Day.
Concertgoers turned out on a sunny Wednesday to see the 31-year-old songstress, whose music encompasses jazz, funk, pop and rock, and they cheered as Ms. Spalding floated on stage in a striking full-length black dress that seemed to take the shape of a pyramid. She changed into a white ensemble halfway through her performance.
— Marc Rivers (@marcarivers) May 26, 2016
Despite her participation in the promotional event, she expressed ambivalence about the remake of the series and Hollywood slave stories in general.
“Who is the demographic that can’t wait to see a bunch of black people get whipped and cussed at,” she said, calling the reboot a “re-wounding.”
Some attendees echoed Ms. Spalding’s sentiment.
“I’m so tired of these movies,” said Talysia Francis, a junior at American University who was at the concert, referring to the “Roots” remake. “I feel like a lot of these movies come out of white guilt,” she added. “There are so many other stories about black people that need to be told.”
Christina Norris, 42, who works in the area, agreed.
“Why are we always running through the trees and getting chased by dogs?” she said.
The entertainment industry appears to have taken more interest in stories about slavery recently. “Roots” arrives in a year that’s already seen “Underground,” a television show about the Underground Railroad in Antebellum Georgia. “Twelve Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture in 2014, and the film “The Birth of a Nation,” a biopic of Nat Turner from the actor and director Nate Parker, arrives in October. These movies and TV shows are also coming at a time when Hollywood has been chastened by critics for a lack of diversity.
Shawn Antoine II, a junior at the University of Rhode Island, said he hoped that the “Roots” remake would stand out from the original.
“Hopefully the reboot will have some impact on today’s generation,” he said. “We need to continue to show how far blacks have come and show today’s generation what our ancestors endured.”
The Harlem performance was the final one for “Rhythm and Roots,” a daylong series featuring music from the African diaspora. Other events took place across New York City.
Ms. Spalding played songs from her latest album, “Emily’s D+Evolution,” which highlights social strife and black expression.
— Marc Rivers (@marcarivers) May 25, 2016
“Seeing what has been done that’s revolutionary in terms of creating more sustainable equality, that’s interesting to me,” she said. “I don’t need to see the same re-wounding of my people. That doesn’t feel constructive to me personally.”