VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY DIVINITY SCHOOL HOSTS CONVERSATION WITH GARTH BROOKS AND STEPHANIE DAVIS
“We Shall Be Free” in 2023: Pursuing Unity Through Music
Vanderbilt University Divinity School welcomed Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis to Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium on April 11 for “We Shall Be Free” in 2023: Pursuing Unity Through Music, a conversation about the song’s enduring relevance after 31 years.
Released in 1992 on Garth Brooks’s album The Chase, “We Shall Be Free” is a call to unity, peace, and the social acceptance that each one of us is different and each one of us is the same. Brooks and Stephanie Davis co-wrote the song in response to the Los Angeles riots that erupted in April 1992 after four L.A. police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. The lyrics, set to a gospel melody, yearn for a time “when we all walk hand in hand,” a world without hunger, racism, homelessness, homophobia, economic exploitation, and needless violence.
Dr. James Byrd, Vanderbilt Professor of American Religious History and Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair of Wesleyan Studies, moderated the discussion, which included how the song was written, recorded, and produced; how it was received at country radio; the concept for the music video; and the song’s relevance today. In his opening remarks, Byrd said “We Shall Be Free” is a song “that challenges us to be our best selves, a song that names the challenges we face while also extending hope for what we may become.” The event concluded with an audience Q&A session.
“I believe in those lyrics more today, than I did the day we wrote the song,” Brooks remarked. “We need to celebrate our differences instead of letting them divide us. Our differences make us stronger.”
Davis echoed that sentiment when she encouraged people to get out of their comfort zones and try to understand the people they disagree with. “If we’re gonna love people, we need to get to know them—to hear their stories and get to know them as people,” she said.
“We Shall Be Free” has become a highlight of Brooks’s concerts. He chose to perform it when he was asked to sing at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial and at Equality Rocks 2000. When Brooks received the Kennedy Center Honor, Gladys Knight performed the song at his request.