For the past month or so I've been shooting for June 1st. That's the day when all of my outside gigs are done (for at least a couple days) and I get to relax for a bit. The biggest outside activities that have had me tied up lately are the pre-concert interviews I do for the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra. I'll be sure to report back about the ones I have this week, on the topic of Gershwin as a culture vulture. It's the interviews I gave LAST week that I'm here to talk about today.
They went perfectly fine, by the way. Better than fine, even, because my subject, Joshua Weilerstein, was such a good sport. It's easy for those talks to turn into "So why did you became a musician" or "What do you like to do for fun", but I'm always interested in giving the audience a little meat. We talked about the concert as it applies to many of today's issues, including religion separating people, and much more. Shout out to Josh for a really great pair of talks.
The second of the two interviews took place on a Saturday evening - the night I have off from my radio gig at APM. With that in mind, I wanted to go out and have some fun afterward, and wanted to dress appropriately. It took me about 30 minutes to decide what I wanted to wear, because I was dealing with something I've finally decided to say goodbye to forever - RESPECTABILITY POLITICS.
Here's how Wikipedia defines it:
Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with dominant values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference.
It might seem pretty insignificant if you've never been black in white spaces, but it is! I wanted to dress the way I wanted to dress, and because of societal norms, I had to think about how I'd look on an orchestral stage as the only black person not just in the room, but in the entire BUILDING. In the heat of my distress, I made a decision - I will not allow respectability politics to have a place in my life anymore. Not ever again. Never.
So I went in my closet, grabbed my Forces, and went to do my job. No one died, no one got hurt, and everything was just fine. If you've made it this far, I beg you - help me dismantle and destroy respectability politics by saying goodbye to them with me!
One of the many running jokes I maintained with my listeners at WUOT-FM in Knoxville was my disdain for Brahms. When I want to listen to classical music, I don't want to hear orchestra soup, and that's how I've always categorized his symphonies. Since leaving Knoxville I've been able to find an appreciation for Brahms' music (still not his symphonies, though), and in a public announcement I declared George Gershwin my next least favorite composer.
Don't get me wrong - his music is really fun, but where does it come from? He didn't come from the communities that codified and maintained the sound of jazz, so why is his music filled with it? Gershwin certainly didn't come from South Carolina, but that didn't keep him from writing the "jive-talkin'" folk opera you know as Porgy and Bess, now did it? Again, my disfavor for Gershwin isn't tied to his music, but rather the aesthetics he became famous for that are unquestionably connected to black music. Non-black people are more than welcome to utilize what black people have created (in a respectful manner), but I can't help but to think about Gershwin as someone who made his way on the backs of people who couldn't, considering the violent racial politics that plagued the nation in the early parts of the 20th century.
I say all of that to set the stage for an opportunity I was offered back in October. I have a contact at the Minnesota Orchestra who thought it would be good for me to put together a panel about Gershwin and the idea of cultural appropriation for their upcoming performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto. There's nothing I love more than making waves in a public space, so obviously I accepted. After assembling the panel (of black music professionals here in the Twin Cities) I got a phone call from my contact, who said the Minnesota Orchestra administration was concerned about the panel. After a pretty heated conversation (and a few e-mails) I was assured that I would be given the freedom to explore conversations the way I wanted - AUTHENTICALLY.
Let me tell you - I was completely prepared to cancel this panel and invite my guests to have the discussion on Trilloquy instead. I guess I can understand why people at an organization as large as the Minnesota Orchestra would be concerned - there are lots of non-black people that would feel uncomfortable with this conversation, and may even pull their money! To hell with the fact that my years of experience on AND off the stage still leave me feeling uncomfortable in those spaces - you have to maintain a certain climate to maintain your dollars...
I'm probably gonna roast Gershwin next week at the panel, but I won't make any promises. My goal is only to inform, but this situation has left a sour taste in my mouth. Are orchestras actually interested in conversations like these, or do they just want credit for them after censoring the perspective? Will orchestras be among the final institutions interested in ACTUAL cultural competency? If you'll be in the Twin Cities next Thursday and Friday (May 30th and 31st), join me, Janis Lane-Ewart, and Phillip Schoultz for an exploration of George Gershwin's proximity to cultural appropriation at Orchestra Hall, beginning at 7 PM both nights.
And PS - TRILLOQUY DROPS TODAY! The trailer is live, and the first two episodes should be available by the end of the day. You can listen through iTunes, Spotify, and Your Classical.
The summer between finishing graduate school and starting my contract with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was one filled with work. During the day, I worked as a temp at the Memphis Board of Education, and by night I was a taxi dispatcher. The boss at the taxi company (and many of the employees) were from India, and one night I had an unexpected moment of truth from one of them. I think the guy's name was Avi - he said something along the lines of, "I'm really familiar with Indian classical music, but you'll have to teach me more about the classical music YOU play".
My first thought was, "Indian classical music?". My second thought was, "of course - every culture has it's own 'classic' music - especially India". From that moment forward I stopped using the phrase "classical" music in reference to the instrumental music from western Europe, but rather any sort of music in a classic style. That idea went on to inspire the way I program "classical" music on my radio show - music from east Asia, the Middle East, the bayou of Louisiana, and anywhere else can rightfully be called "classical", if it's in a classic style. Nina Simone even famously said this:
With those ideas in mind, I went on a school visit today to find out what a few kids consider their own "classical" music. I gave them my shout-out this week, but I also wanted to reflect on it here. The first young lady I spoke with said that her "classical" music is TLC. When I asked her to go a little further, she said that more modern groups like Destiny's Child and the City Girls always remind her of TLC, and that TLC is a group that is a classic part of her experience. Why shouldn't TLC be considered classical in their own way then?
Another student said that for her, "classical" music is defined by Bob Marley. She was wearing locs, so that was easy for me to understand, and the way she talked about other artists who have been inspired by Marley made it clear to me that she knew exactly what she was talking about.
Classical music radio (in it's more traditional sense) has embraced these ideas, but in a pretty specific way. It's ok to explore music for erhu on classical radio, or maybe a concerto for electric guitar, but it seems like black music gets left out often times. If Schubert lieder is "classical" music, (music for voice and piano), why can't this song by Nicki Minaj be the same? If we embrace the instrumental music inspired by English folk songs, we should also embrace the instrumental music inspired by pop songs too, right?
It probably seems like I'm trolling right now, but I'm all about dismantling traditions and institutions, and breaking down the definition of "classical" music is something I'm going to always work toward. If it's music performed in any sort of classic style, I'm going to call it "classical" music.
I'm going to make it a personal goal of mine to get this piece of CLASSICAL music on my show:
We're just about here - the release of Trilloquy is just two weeks away! Months of recording, editing, brainstorming, deleting, re-recording, traveling, and everything in between are about to be realized, and I couldn't be more excited! My current excitement hasn't always been there, though. I wanted this to be a completely independent project, but I was convinced by my co-host to do it in conjunction with American Public Media.
Anyone who's tried to produce a podcast has surely listened to others, and that's definitely the case for me. It was hearing topics discussed on podcasts that could work inside the walls of classical music that inspired Trilloquy, after all. All of my favorite podcasts have something in common that mine won't have, though - they're all totally INDEPENDENT! What does that mean? Why does it matter? For me, the answer goes back to my ultimate life goal - FREEDOM. This podcast was supposed to be the first few steps in the miles and miles I have to go before reaching complete professional freedom, but starting the walk a little un-independently is what I have to do for now - hurdles and all.
The first big hurdle in the road concerned Trilloquy's logo. After submitting what I'd already created to the Trilloquy team, I was presented with several different options for a logo. While it felt really good to sit in a conference room and let people make their logo bids to me, I didn't see anything like what I had originally presented. At that point I decided to postpone the entire process, because I felt like things were too quickly leaving my hands. After a few more meetings, the team helped me understand their vision behind the logo, and we're rolling again (even though I'm still waiting to see proofs).
My limitations continued to grow over the next several days, including language, editing, and even publishing! When I had to agree to sell the internet domains for Trilloquy, I knew I was in deep, and went to a private corner to let a few tears out. I believe in this project, and the thought of it changing because I'm going with the organization (as opposed to doing it independently) still makes me very nervous, but the pros out-weigh the cons. If I want to reach the largest audience possible, this is the way. If I want to have access to the funds that will make traveling, interviewing, and developing easier, this is the way. If I don't want to have to sneak around and work on this podcast at work, this is the way. As the father of Trilloquy, I can't help but to hang on to some of my doubts, but my manager, and my Trilloquy co-host have both convinced me that this is the way. Plus, it IS an honor for an organization like APM to be interested in what was once just an idea of mine. Here's to partnership!
My podcast hero, Joe Budden, explores this topic pretty regularly as it applies to the music industry. His beef with folks like SONY is that artists don't always get their just due - the label takes most of the money, and gives the artist enough to think s/he's making the big bucks. When it comes time for those artists to leave the label, there's some big time finessing that has to happen to take the music with them. While I've gone with "the label" for now, please understand I have a few finesses up my sleeve, in case I do leave American Public Media in the future. No plans to abandon the ship just yet, though - let's see what the first few years of Trilloquy look like first.