Lending Her Voice

How artist-activist Dr. Karen Wilson-Ama Echefu uplifts the cause through song

By Lisa Moore

Imagine the elemental power of a rumbling volcano, the rush of a swift river or the sweep of potent wind through the pine — that’s the resonant voice of Dr. Karen Wilson-Ama Echefu, who is lending her powerful songs to the cause of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition and its quest for justice. 

“Dr. Karen,” as she’s affectionately known, earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history with a specialization in African Diasporic Folklore from the University of California, Riverside, in 2007. She has worked for decades as a singer, storyteller and teaching artist, inspiring people to share their stories through art. “The arts can do things that nothing else can,” she says—and proves it each time she stirs hearts through song. 

Raised in Harlem, New York, and now living in Washington, D.C., Dr. Karen offered her storytelling gifts at the BACC’s first exhibit at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in 2018. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, she was glad to see the country ignited in protests for justice, but disheartened when her friend, Caroline Brewer, noted that no one was singing at the demonstrations. For Dr. Karen, that lack of song robbed the protests of some of their power, so she asked her friend Luci Murphy—another song leader at D.C.-area justice protests—for suggestions of a cause that could benefit from her voice. Luci said, “Call Marsha Coleman-Adebayo,” president of the BACC. 

Recognizing a kindred spirit, Marsha invited Karen to attend a BACC protest at the construction site along River Road where excavators have left a massive hole in what had once been sacred ground for a thriving Black community that was pushed out decades ago by development and restrictive covenants. Marsha had invited Karen to come and tell a story, but the scene was better suited for chanting and song. “I started singing freedom songs and spirituals,” she says. When the crowd began to chant “this is the scene of a crime,” Dr. Karen spontaneously turned those words into a song—and that became the anthem for Moses Cemetery. 

Since then, Dr. Karen has attended many protests with the BACC and written three songs for the cause. When she sings, she weaves in the names of Black people who had been buried at Moses Cemetery, including Cora and Jeremiah Botts, the Jackson family, the Masons, the Burleys. Singing their names helps keep their memory alive, and memory is the lifeblood of history.

“The BACC is working to protect the cemetery and what it represents,” says Dr. Karen. “They are working in concert with those who came before, and that’s very strengthening. It’s not easy. But one reason why the story is important to me, as a historian, is that the story, when properly told, sheds light. Desecration must be done in darkness. Story sheds light, and helps everyone to face the truth.” 

For Karen, victory will come when Montgomery County acknowledges that Moses Cemetery and much of the surrounding land belonged to a thriving Black community and was taken without legal grounds. She’d also like to see the creation of a museum, “a memorial to say these people were here, they did well, they brought their Africanicity with them, and they left through no fault of their own. We can tell their story.”

Dr. Karen sees this as the path toward healing, toward recognizing the Black community’s contributions that have been “erased, overlooked or just stolen.” But in a broader sense, she sees success for Moses Cemetery as repair for the entire society. “History is all of our stories,” she says. “A story that is not told is the loudest story in the house. If it is not told, then some people have to stay in a skewed narrative. If we do not know our history, we are dooming our children and grandchildren to make the same mistakes. We have the opportunity here to reimagine a society where everyone can do well. No one has to be told fairy tales about who they are or who someone else is. We can look at our contributions and see ourselves as strong and capable, with everyone working together.” 

Is that utopian vision possible? Dr. Karen knows that many people flinch when being asked to face the truth of the past, and that many white people rebel against discussing the systemic racism born of slavery and colonization and painfully impacting millions of lives to this day. But she uses an apt analogy to explain why facing the pain is vital: “It’s like having frostbite,” she says. “It hurts so much you just want to go to sleep, but if you go to sleep, you never wake up. You have to keep walking, and that’s painful. You’re hurting, but you move through it, you become stronger, and you begin to heal.” 

And so Dr. Karen tells stories, sings truth, inspires people to hold onto hope. “We can’t afford hopelessness ,” she says. “If the Black people who lived in the River Road community had been hopeless, by the time they got to 1865 they wouldn’t have had anything to move forward with.” But move forward they did, despite all odds, and the Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road—a vestige of that community—remains a beacon of light shining on the past and leading the way forward.

One of the songs Dr. Karen wrote for the BACC was inspired by Harriet Tubman and captures this spirit of hope. “When the lanterns come, keep going,” she sings. “And when the dogs bark, keep going. And when the guns fire, keep going. Keep going. Move on.” 

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