I'll tell you how the trip went next week.
Because both Dell and I have to work over the holidays, we decided to take a mini vacation a little early. Now that we live in the Midwest, we're much closer to places I've always wanted to visit, but seemed a little too far away. With that in mind, we decided to spend a couple days in Denver! I've never been, and I'm really excited to experience it all this weekend, including some live music, and a bit of that LEGAL 420!
I'll tell you how the trip went next week.
Do I need to go any further, or was the title of this blog post enough for you?
As you probably know, Mississippi elected a very controversial figure into the Senate this week. For many, myself included, this was not a surprise, but that doesn't mean it isn't upsetting to know that 54% of the state's population doesn't have a problem with her willingness to be "front row" at a public hanging. When I woke up and saw the news, there was one artist, and one song, that immediately came to mind.
Before we get into that song, let's rewind about 55 years. A man from Mississippi named Medgar Evers was brutaly murdered, in front of his home, back in 1963 for his affiliations with the NAACP, and the work he'd been doing for Civil Rights. As a World War II veteran, he loved his country, and only hoped to make it better, but of course that wasn't enough for the citizens of Mississippi. No one was charged in the court trials that followed, and it wasn't until 1994 when his family finally saw justice.
This event really pissed off Nina Simone, and she responded the best way she knew how - with music. Her song, "Mississippi Goddam" was an anthem against the state of Mississippi and it's racism. As you could imagine, no one was willing to play it, but it didn't fall into obscurity! Today it's remembered as one of the most significant protest songs in American history.
So now it's 2018, and we're still having conversations about people in high power who are clearly influenced by racism. I'm not supposed to make political statements, but how could I possibly not speak out about something that threatens my existence as a black man? ((sigh))...
If you don't know the song, Mississippi Goddam, listen here. Below is a clip from an interview Nina Simone gave, in which she perfectly outlines WHY I don't use my art, and my proximity to others' art, as a reason to ignore these types of atrocities.
Between 2012 and 2014 I was on the road quite a lot. I had recently won a fellowship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and I commuted there from Memphis every other week. In 2013 I won a job with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, so for a time, I was visiting all three of those cities on a weekly basis. Needless to say, I listened to a lot of music, and discovered the magic of Podcasts.
One Podcast I listened to regularly was Nerdist, and one episode I'll never forget featured Tom Bergeron (pictured below). If you don't know him by name, he's the Emmy-winning host behind "America's Funniest Home Videos", and "Dancing with the Stars". In the interview, he talked about how he got his start in radio, and during the day, he worked as a mime. Something he remembered was the fact that his daytime audiences saw him, but never heard him, and his evening audiences heard him, but never saw him.
This concept came up, separately, last week in my therapy session. (Let me say, as an aside, that I began going to therapy because of the attention I've seen shown toward mental health in the black community and through black media). As I was exploring my thoughts about having a tighter connection with black communities, the therapist told me that this may have to do with the way my career has been shaped. As an orchestral musician, I was seen and not heard (vocally), and as a radio personality, I'm heard and not seen.
Not sure what this means, but I wanted to share anyway. My therapist will surely help me unpack this the next time I see her. Maybe my ultimate goal should be being a TV host. Maybe something different. Regardless, I can only hope that my career takes me the places it took Tom Bergeron. Maybe even beyond those places!
If you've never tried therapy, I highly recommend. You never know what you can learn about yourself!
It's just about time to head to the polls and vote in the midterm elections! I've only been of voting age for the past decade or so, but even I feel the electricity around this election like I've never felt before. Why does it matter? Why should you take the time out of your day to vote in these midterms? I think the answer is simple - it's a display of personal values.
It seems like a long time ago when Obama was running for president the first time. What I'll never forget about this era in my life was the fact that prejudices started to appear in people I'd never expect to see them. Someone I even considered a friend posted to his Facebook account (after the votes had been counted), "Damn, I wish they'd re-instated the Three-Fifths Compromise". How could I continue to be a friend to someone who said something like that? How could I not do what I can to make sure his vision never comes to fruition? With our new president, even more of this sort of rhetoric has hit the scene, and despite your political affiliation, I hope you can understand that people like me have to fight against this in every way we can.
I bring that story up to make the point that voting is our time to put our values into play. I don't believe in voting to "cancel out" a vote on the other side, but rather to do what I can to create a country, and ultimately a world, that I want to live in. If someone whose values I disagree with wins an election, so be it, but I made my voice heard. I believe in justice for those wrongfully imprisoned in America. I believe in equity for people of color, like myself. I believe in promoting freedom for ALL Americans.
My position at APM prevents me from making any "out-right" political statements, so I won't, but as a young, black, homosexual in the arts I don't really need to announce what sides I'm on, right? **POPS GUM** Instead, I'm asking you to go vote. Do your research, read up on candidates and prospective bills, and HEAD TO THE POLLS! Even if you don't believe your vote matters, show those in power (and those not yet in power) that you are willing to put your values in action.
The importance of voting has hit the black community particularly well this cycle - shout-out to rapper Remy Ma for being one of the leaders in this charge to raise the black vote. Click her image below to get a closer look at what she's been doing in regards to promoting the vote.
My very first feature at yourclassical.org and classicalmpr.org has been published! I'm very proud that it's a feature that promotes and celebrates the work of three truly innovative musicians. They have a new album out titled, "Maniac Maestro". Click the photo of them below, to learn more!
I'm about 4 months into my new life here in Minnesota, and I've started to feel something I didn't at all expect - a separation from the community I most proudly associate myself with.
Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of black folk here in the Twin Cities, and I've been lucky to make a few friends in those communities, but that doesn't mean the feeling of isolation isn't there. I feel like someone who hasn't spoken his mother tongue in a while. Someone who advocates for a community he doesn't engage. Someone whose "blackness" doesn't have a home.
To make up for this feeling of cultural isolation, I've been diving really deep into black media. The Breakfast Club out of New York City has become a daily watch for me, along with weekly podcasts, including Joe Budden's "State of the Culture" and Justin and Adrian's "For the Culture Podcast". Consuming this black media has led me to other things I've really enjoyed, namely, the HBO show, Insecure. It's funny how seeing people that look and think like you can make you feel more at home, and even safer!
So what does all of this mean? Why do I even bother mentioning it?
As I continue to dig into my proverbial pockets for my pass to the cookout, I've discovered something else really important - I want my work to cross over into blackness more often. Non-black people (especially those in classical music) need to understand that people of color - especially black people - have to share white spaces more often than not. It never works the other way around. When was the last time you found yourself in an environment that felt completely unattached to the culture you know and love?
I'm in the works (with the help of a colleague) of creating a Podcast of my own, that will explore the cross-sections of culture and classical music. I'm hoping that this form of media will connect me to other black folk like me, and vice versa. Allies are great, and I have plenty, but it would be nice to "kee-kee" with folks like my homies down in Memphis again.
Have you watched Insecure, by the way? It's a perfect look into black California - the California I remember very fondly from my days at USC. Check it out if you haven't!
Last month I had the distinct honor of attending, and presenting at the annual Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Austin, TX. I didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but it was really nice meeting other Public Radio professionals, and sharing my ideas behind what I do.
I think it’s important to demystify words and phrases that we use all the time in classical radio, that people may still not have a strong grasp of.
EXAMPLE - “What sorts of nocturnal things can you think of - maybe nocturnal animals, or most people’s nocturnal sleep schedule? How about music written under the inspiration of nighttime, and things nocturnal? Here’s a NOCTURNE by Frederic Chopin.”
2. Are there ways to address current events in the programming and delivery of classical music?
Coming from the performance world and trying to get people to come to concerts, I always made a big deal about reminding people that classical music isn’t an insular art form. It’s always had a relationship with what’s going on in the world, and always will in my opinion.
EXAMPLE - “Despite America’s racial challenges that are still in the conversations these days, early 20th century black American composers like William Grant Still, still managed to celebrate what makes us different AND the same, through classical music. You’ll hear traditional classical structures, alongside then contemporary black musical aesthetics like jazz and blues in this, his Symphony No. 1.”
EXAMPLE - “Up next, a piece by composer Jean Sibelius, titled, “Finlandia”. It was written as an anthem to both celebrate Finnish culture and its people, while protesting Russian involvement with their Press. Don’t you find it interesting that this conversation is at the front of our news these days? Feel free to think about that as you listen here.”
3. How can social media play a role in audience engagement?
I use social media each and every day to remind people that I’m on, and to either give them a sample of what’s coming, or to give them a reason to consider classical music. I’ve found emphasizing the personal, social aspect of social media to be the most effective.
This post touches on current events, but also adds a personal touch that people might find attractive. If a listener doesn’t appreciate what's being said in this post, it's fine - I'm only looking for engagement. You'll also notice that this post came with a listener correction - there's nothing I love more than learning from the audience.
If you're looking for a career in radio, or if you simply appreciate what you hear over the airwaves, I hope this post gives you something you can take away. I'm 2 years in, and looking forward to many, many more!
Major Themes, from Classical Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, is a monthly feature in which classical music experts recommend a must-hear recording based on what's happening at classical stations and programs around the country. I was honored to be asked to offer my input for an upcoming edition, and I’d like to share with you what I decided to recommend for the feature...
About 5 years ago I was sitting on my balcony in Knoxville with my then new colleague, Aaron Apaza. He received a phone call, and his ringtone was very interesting to me. It was a small vocal ensemble repetitively singing: “I was looking at the ceiling. I was looking at the ceiling. I was looking at the ceiling”. I asked him what it was, but soon forget, and resumed enjoying my gin and tonic.
Fast forward to March of 2018 – I stumbled upon those sounds again. This time, it was on a CD of music by John Adams. I’m always asking myself: What is the future of classical music? What is it going to sound like? What subjects will it cover? After a few listen-throughs, that work answered those questions for me.
“I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky” is an opera by John Adams – he calls it a “song-play”. From a very abstract, philosophical perspective, I considered that title phrase really enlightening. When applied to myself, I would think, “What realities have I settled on, and how can I see what’s beyond them? Am I perceiving something as an end, when there’s actually much more?” I still think those thoughts can be applied to this music, but the title actually comes from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquakes in Los Angeles. Can you imagine?
That catastrophe, coupled with issues of race, immigration, and the police’s relationship with society drive the plot of this work. One of my favorite lines in this opening to the opera is, “I thought everything was over, because my world lay on the wrong side of some arbitrary border”. Can you get more topical than that in classical music?
In creating this piece, John Adams collaborated with esteemed poet and essayist, June Jordon, who wrote the work’s libretto. I hadn’t heard of her before, but reading some of the other writings of this woman of African descent inspired me to seek an ever deeper relationship with this opera. She, herself, used her writings to discuss issues of gender, race, immigration, and representation – all ideas explored in this music.
If you’re interested in classical music that’s in the moment, relevant, and truly American, I highly recommend listening to this recording. Click on the album image below to hear the opening chorus:
Valentine’s Day of 2018 is a day I’ll never forget. My boyfriend, Dell, made it a very wonderful evening for me, but what I remember most is the work day.
Back at WUOT I themed each of my shows, and for the month of February I decided to begin each show with a black history fact, and to go on from there. For the Valentine’s Day edition, I began by reading this:
“My darling, it is a pleasure for me to pause while attending to important business which affects the welfare of this nation and attend to the most important business in the world, namely, choosing as my Valentine the sweetest and most lovely wife and mother in all the world. As the days go by my love grows ever greater, for you will always be my Valentine”.
That was a telegram message Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to his wife, Coretta. Isn’t that so romantic? I followed that reading with an orchestral arrangement of “My Girl”, in an effort to give the listeners something fun to experience for Valentine’s Day, along with celebrating black history, and the black musicians who made that tune famous.
After that piece was done, and as I moved further into my show, I got a note from a listener showing her appreciation for what I was doing. She felt that there was a full cohesion of current events, history, and classical music happening all at once, and suggested that I deserve an Emmy for my programming (an award I’d be more than happy to accept 😊).
I thought of this today because I’m feeling challenged.
Now that I have a national audience, the music has to reflect a much larger set of affinities and preferences within classical music. In what ways can I make the music of Bach and Beethoven topical? Is there something I’m not seeing in Mozart and Haydn that I always see in John Adams, Philip Glass, and Dmitri Shostakovich? How can I, as a host in a much larger organization, inform and help promote the communities I belong to outside of my career?
As I continue to grow into my new position at American Public Media, I’m beginning to see that it takes a lot of nuance and subtlety to present a “traditional” aesthetic in a new way. This is a challenge that I accept, but I won’t pretend there isn’t a bit of frustration at times. As you enjoy the music I play through the night, I hope you never forget that there’s nothing wrong with liking classical music that isn’t in the mainstream – instrumental music that touches on the experiences, challenges, and struggles of people living today.
With that being said, it’s always important to remember and appreciate the classics. I’m enjoying being introduced, and re-introduced, to some of the older works that I never explored much in Knoxville. Mozart is the most famous name in classical music for a reason, after all.
By the way, here’s an image of that Valentine’s Day telegram from Martin to Coretta:
I've been here in Minnesota for a few days now, and the adventure has been phenomenal! I'm already missing everyone back in Knoxville, but hopefully Dell and I (and "Grover") will have a few visitors soon!
When we arrived early Friday morning I was a bit stressed. It's not easy moving your life to a location you haven't been able to see, but after airing out our new apartment in a 100 year old building, the place is beginning to look like our own. One of my biggest concerns along the way was my car, and although it arrived with us in the condition it began the journey in, I actually haven't used it that much! Every morning I put on a suit, grab my brief case, and walk to the bus stop. It feels nice to participate in the culture of a city this way, and I hope to spread my use of public transit into the weekends.
Dell and I have also discovered some phenomenal food here. The Irish pubs we've visited haven't disappointed, and we've even tried a Nepali restaurant! Now that I'm all "grown-up" with the big boy job, though, cooking at home should be more regular than it was in Knoxville.
The bassoon is here with me (of course), and once I get a hang of what's happening at my new job, I plan on starting a chamber music collective. Getting into the standards will be fine, but I'm ready to dig deep into what is possible - let's cover some rap or death metal!
Thank you to everyone who's helped me along this transition. Things still feel fairly new, but my new city is one that I already love, and I look forward to what the future holds! Here's a photo of my new apartment building: