While the world of classical music is not new to making big political statements in the music itself, it also isn’t new to deep-seated systemic issues of discrimination. As protests upholding the importance of black lives reached all 50 states this week, direct messages about these issues began to be released and published by black classical music performers and writers.
Remembering that the death of George Floyd is only the most recent touch point, African American musicians have been shining a spotlight on racial injustice as long as it has been happening – from spirituals to oratorios and solo piano music. Recently, New Orleans-based pianist Courtney Bryan had already planned a concert with Hyde Park Jazz Fest in memory of Sandra Bland. And in November 2019, music theorist Phil Ewell shared a look at what he calls “Music Theory’s White Frame.” But the events of the past week, nationwide, have intensified the conversation both in the concert hall and out.
The New York Philharmonic is nearly two centuries old, and Anthony McGill is the first black principal player in the ensemble’s history. In his interview with NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog, McGill points out what he finds are two major misconceptions: many who protest do love their country, and pointing out that something matters doesn’t mean that nothing else matters. After composing his thoughts, McGill wrote a post on facebook, and included a call to other musicians to, as he said, “#taketwoknees.” He included a video of himself performing God Bless America by Irving Berlin, but in a minor key. As he told Deceptive Cadence, he agrees that this is a beautiful country, but suggests that for now, its melody is a bit off.
“…the melody can go off, and we need to acknowledge that we can hear it. We can’t pretend like it hasn’t turned to something darker.”
Firstly, I would like to thank my friends Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, and Weston Sprott, trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera, for including me in this challenge #taketwoknees #icareaboutblacklivesI want to be very clear with my words at this extremely sensitive time. The murder of black people in this country by those sworn to protect all, is our America. I feel great sadness and frustration for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery AND Breonna Taylor AND George Floyd AND every other person whose name I’ve learned because they were victims of a system which views us as perpetual villains. That concept of “villain” was created in the fields of chattel slavery and I am a direct survivor/descendant of that. My last name, Underwood, was literally branded on my forefathers and mothers to show whom they belonged to. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the New Jim Crow is amongst us. Make no mistake, even as I sit in a privileged seat living my dream, I too have been harassed and threatened by law enforcement several times. I thank God I was able to walk away with my life in those instances.I feel the mounting pressure which compels me to encourage all allies, no matter what cultural background you come from, to learn about the unique lineage of descendants of American slavery, Jim Crow, and now the New Jim Crow. Although, there were many different cultural groups of color that increased their immigration to this country in the 60s/70s, the people who laid the ground work and legacy for liberation are the black people who came here in chains. Not of their own will, but chains in the bottom of slave ships. We were not immigrants here. To truly understand why these murders keep happening, you must understand the root of why black people are killed with impunity in the first place. This is not just some political statement, but the history of this country. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is not even a common language when the term equality is used. Negro and white have fundamentally different definitions. Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America in 1967 [and today] including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close that gap—essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it. Most of the abrasions between Negroes and white liberals arise from this fact.”In addition to your prayers, posts, and thoughts, I encourage you to become properly educated to give context to today’s unfortunate events. I urge you to read “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Read them with friends and family members, and then I believe you can have a better lens that will guide you to proper “action items” so that we will have a truly “just” America.
Posted by Titus Underwood on Friday, May 29, 2020
Underwood is performing the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.
Later in the week Underwood published a video compiled by several musicians, performing Lift Every Voice And Sing by J. Rosamund Johnson and James Weldon Johnson. Claudette Lindsay-Habermann wrote about this particular song for NPR’s American Anthem series. While pointing to a bright future, the lyrics of the song acknowledge a difficult past.
A month ago we decided to record Lift Every Voice and Sing to inspire young black musicians who don't often see representation of themselves in orchestral music. Instead, here we are again mourning senseless loss of lives and fighting for justice. This recording is for every protester, every freedom fighter, everyone who needs to be lifted up, and to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the numerous others whose lives have been stolen by police violence. #BLACKLIVESMATTER#STOPKILLINGUS#NEWCIVILRIGHTS#LIFTOURVOICE#TAKETWOKNEES#ICAREABOUTBLACKLIVES#FORTHECULTURE#BLACKEXCELLENCE#BLACKUNITY
Posted by Titus Underwood on Thursday, June 4, 2020
WQXR: On Taking Lip Service
James Bennett, II might describe himself as a classical music lover (and pineapple enthusiast), but the analysis of pieces and time periods in his Hear Me Out column certainly go further than that label. This week his editorial analysis of gatekeeping within classical music was a thorough look at the need for action behind words, especially in the case of #BlackoutTuesday social media posts. Bennett even acknowledges WQXR itself, and the work that the station still continues to do. In general, he urges a sense of self-awareness, both for PR and for action’s sake.
Trilloquy: The Overture to Season 2
91Classical listeners may be familiar with the voices of Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship, who are part of Classical24. Their studio is located in Minneapolis, where protests first broke out as a reaction to the killing of George Floyd, for which four police officers are now charged.
“As we check our accidentals, I’m thinking of the very sharp reaction that the country and the world has had to the murder of George Floyd.” -Garrett McQueen
Blakenship recalled the reaction in the twin cities to the killing of Philando Castille, which was largely a peaceful protest, and how different that was from now. Thursday night of last week, the protest was within 5 minutes of the Classical24 studio. As the hosts go in overnight even now, the city is under curfew.
The night before the protests really took off, Classical24’s music director programmed Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed gave McQueen the chance to directly address the audience within this historic moment. As he points out in Trilloquy, the piece directly named the precise importance of the national conversation – a moment with incredible weight for classical radio, broadcast to 250 stations around the country.
Hear the entire episode here:
YourClassical: The power (and complicity) of classical music.
McQueen also published an editorial article for YourClassical, Classical24’s online presence. In it, he outlines issues with even how we define classical music as a genre, and invites individuals and institutions alike to examine what makes us complicit in systemic racism.
We will continue to update this post as more musicians share their mindset during this time.