I grew up in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C.. Back then, D.C. was Black, it was Chocolate City. My elementary school was Black. My neighbors were Black. My church was Black (not surprising, even today Sunday mornings continue to be the most segregated time of the week in America). As a Black boy, growing up in Black D.C. I was surrounded by Blackness surrounded by Whiteness. Don't get me wrong, I was not stranger to Whiteness even in Washington, D.C.. The important buildings in our nation's capital were/are for the most part white; the White House is, well, white. The Capitol Building, white. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials are all white. And one only had to look to ones television to have seen that this Deep cozy Blackness that I had been blessed to be immersed in was an anomaly in Reagan's America. The nation was a lot whiter than my world.
When you grow up in Blackness, you view the world as a Black world. My public elementary school teachers did not wait until February to break out the pictures of black achievers, we learned our history and culture throughout the school year. I had Howard and UDC HBCUs a short walk or transit ride away.
A. Phillip Randolph, Frederick Douglass, Vernon Jordan all attended my Black church, Metropolitan AMEC, a church built by freed slaves. Yes, in the 70s and early 80's, we still had White Jesus as a focal point in the sanctuary. But my favorite part of Sunday mornings was the music. Because Metropolitan, AMEC was considered the "National Cathedral of African Methodism" we had an extensive music program. Multiple choirs, talented musical directors. We had choirs for children, choirs for elders, choirs for men, choirs for women. We had a gospel choir, the Metro Aires, and a classical choir, the Cathedral Choir. Both choirs were instrumental in my musical development but the latter would set me on the path I currently find myself on. Now, I had no reason to think that one music was singing music primarily composed/written by Black people and the other by Whites. The Cathedral choir presented Handel's Messiah every first Sunday in Advent and I had no reason to think that George Frederick Handle was anything other than Black. Our Black choir in our Black church was performing Handel's Messiah conducted by a Black conductor with mostly black musicians (in front of a mural of White Jesus but you know...). Why wouldn't Handel be Black? I wanted to be G.F. Handel. I wanted to write music that big and make people react the way I saw them react to his arias to my arias.
It didn't take me long to realize that this Handel guy was White and lived centuries before my name was even an idea. Still, the dream I chased was to be Handel, or Beethoven, or Mahler. As I grew in my appreciation for classical music and its multitude of composers, I began to notice a few troubling facts. There were not a lot of Western classical composers who had the skin color of a beautiful cello and the stories told through oratorio or opera were not of those who originated where humans and music originated or of those who had been stolen from that very same place. It seemed that this music that as an innocent child I once thought belong to me was not of me and perhaps not for me.
Now, I have explored many genres of music and have a deep affection for jazz, soul, blues, hip hop, electronic/dance music. And in these genres, Black and Brown stories are a wonderful woven blanket beautifully worn. And I want to weave a similar blanket for classical music. I want to wrap new classical music in bright brilliant tapestry of brown and black stories.
It began in 2007 with a song cycle based on poems by Langston Hughes Dream Variations: the Hughes Song Cycle, and then 2010, the legend of John Henry Railing Forward: the John Henry Suite, and now with my collaborator Venessa Fuentes through our OperaWorks 52 venture, we will premier our first opera (mine as a composer and Venessa's as a librettist), Mother King: a Black conceptual opera. The mission of OperaWorks 52 is to bring opera back to the people. Pushing beyond the confines of the genre, we advocate for the stories, legends, and mythologies of people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. OperaWorks 52 challenges the status quo of Euro-centric exclusivity and makes way for boundless possibility.
Imagine the possibilities!
Through this blog, I will continue to explore these themes as well as how art, especially in communities of color is interwoven in to the fabric of our existence.
This summer, I hope you come back and read more about Mother King and other upcoming projects, as well.
You can experience Mother King up close and personal at Public Functionary, 1400 12th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418 from July 20-22 and July 27-29. Get your tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2985243
Fight the good fight!