Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel parable of the sower was published 30 years ago, in 1993. This Afrofuturist book about a dystopian America set in our time now feels positively prophetic — and a new musical interpretation of Butler’s novel is making the rounds nationwide.
On a recent warm evening in Manhattan, we sit rehearsing among 170 community singers who are part of the Parable performance at Lincoln Center in New York alongside professional musicians. They learn a chorus that includes the first words of Octavia Butler’s novel.
“Whatever you touch, you change. Whatever you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change,” they sing.
parable of the sower takes place in the year 2024. There is a climate crisis driving people from their homes. Gun violence and drug use are rampant. In the following, Parable of the Talents, an authoritarian politician vows to “make America great again”. (It’s a phrase Butler observed Ronald Reagan use on the campaign trail during his successful presidential run in 1980.)
Ehud Lazin/Lincoln Center
Against all this chaos, the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina, yearns to shape a very different reality. The words the choir sings are the building blocks of a new religion that Olamina has envisioned, called Earthseed.
The opera version of parable of the sower was created by singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and his mother, activist and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the Sweet Honey in the Rock ensemble and is now retired.
Toshi Reagon says she and her mother share a deep love for Octavia Butler’s writing. Their first joint opportunity to explore Butler’s work through music came in the 1990s.
“Toni Morrison asked my mom to come to Princeton to do the Princeton workshop,” Reagon explains. “It’s an opportunity for an artist to teach at Princeton for a semester. Mom was really busy at the time, and she thought, ‘Maybe Toshi can do half the class!’ I was like, you know, young in my career. And I was like, ‘Woo hoo, I’m going to go teach at Princeton for Toni Morrison – yay, that’s so cool!'” she laughs.
Eventually, mother and daughter began writing their own musical interpretation of Parable of the Sower. Fortunately, the Reagons were granted free reign by Butler herself, who died in 2006. As in Butler’s work, the Reagons’ music references centuries of African-American history and culture, swinging easily between the past , the present and the future.
As Octavia Butler told WHYY Fresh air in 1993, she Parable the novels were about the use and abuse of power in a broken society. “They don’t have the power to make their lives better, but they do have the power to make other people even more miserable,” Butler said. “And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.”
Ehud Lazin/Lincoln Center
There’s a lot of sheer brutality in Butler’s narrative. But fans also find great comfort and solidarity in Butler’s vision of resistance. Among them is four-time Hugo winner NK Jemisin, who began reading Butler as a young man and wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of parable of the sower. Jemisin sees many parallels between Butler’s imagination of 2024 and today’s social and political climate.
“In these books, Butler addresses the whole issue of trying to live in a society that doesn’t respect your needs, even your bodily autonomy,” Jemisin observes. “I need that hope, I need that encouragement, that reminder that these things go in cycles and the cycle will end at some point and we will push back.”
Some readers took Butler’s work and the character Olamina’s concept of Earthseed as spiritual texts. “I’m not an Earthseed practitioner myself,” says Jemisin, “but I see the appeal of it. I see the power of it. It’s less of a faith than a codification of things survivors have need to survive – the beliefs that will keep you going, the beliefs that will keep you fighting.”
Toshi Reagon regards Butler’s writings as inspiring guides to thought and action.
“Parable is the wake-up call: “Hey y’all, stop messing around,” she says. “That’s what’s going to happen in 30 years if you don’t really do something for yourself.”
Reagon says she finds guidance on how to navigate living together in the Earthseed groups the main character creates. Reagon says we see that kind of instant community in real life — in bad times and in good times.
“When there are disasters, people come together and start creating together and figuring out how to survive,” she says. “I love festival videos where no one is dancing, then one person gets up and starts dancing, then someone else walks in. Then it’s like 500 people are dancing. There are huge possibilities joy in the communities. Personally, I think that the more joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, the better it is for us!”
This brings us back to the importance of singing in community: this is why the Reagons decided to tell the parable of the sower in music.
“Singing this story is evoking us all into space to be in a vibrational relationship so we can truly feel like we’re not alone like we’re not alone,” Toshi Reagon says emphatically. “We breathe, we are alive, we are together. We have the ability to change and change however we can in our lives.”
And so, says Reagon, her work is an invitation, just as Octavia Butler’s writing is: to imagine and create a different world.