For violinist Gwen Laster, it was Sandra Bland, the woman found dead in a Texas cell in July 2015 after a traffic stop’s senseless escalation. For Ambrose Akinmusire, the trumpeter, it was Oscar Grant, shot dead by a transit police officer on a station platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. For clarinetist Eun Lee and many in New York, it was the choke-hold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July 2014.
Most of all, it was the relentless accumulation of tragedies: Michael Brown in Ferguson; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Renisha McBride in Detroit; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Trayvon Martin in Sanford; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge; Philando Castile in St. Paul; the names go on. The ongoing crisis has moved jazz and classical artists, like many others, to create work that affirms a straightforward idea—first a slogan, then a movement, then an encapsulation of the national moment: Black Lives Matter.
The work is taking place in studios and onstage, in the form of compositions, recordings, and performances. It happens in the community, too—through mobilization and political action among artists themselves; before audiences old and new; in collaboration with activists in the cities they live in; and on the digital networks they frequent. The work is peppered with references to specific deaths and the vocabulary of pain and defiance they have produced: Breathless, the 2015 album by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, echoes Garner’s dying cry—“I can’t breathe”—captured on a witness’s harrowing video. “Sing Her Name,” the 2016 concert project by New York City’s The Dream Unfinished orchestra—a musician-organized response to the current crisis—answers a call familiar from rallies and vigils: “Say her name.” The hoodie has entered the iconography of performance, as it has in visual art.
Beyond tribute songs and benefit concerts, the work is expanding, in some cases, to address the structural dimensions of the crises of Black life: mass incarceration, poor schools, surveillance, entrenched systems that reproduce economic inequality. It strains, too, against institutional constraints of its own—particularly in the classical world, historically less comfortable with activism and still confronting issues of racial equity. At the same time, it’s helping to push down some of these barriers, by dint of artist initiative and cross-genre collaboration.
For many musicians, it’s simply a matter of great urgency, deeply felt.
Sandra Bland, 28, was found hanged on July 13, 2015, in Waller County jail, Texas, three days after a police stop for not signaling a lane change. Her family has contested the coroner’s ruling of suicide. The police dash-cam video of the initial stop and another from an eyewitness capture an absurd, infuriating scene. It went viral on social media. “I watched the video over and over,” said Gwen Laster. “I always knew she never committed suicide in the jail cell. I just cried.”
A few weeks later, Laster was herself pulled over near her town in the Hudson Valley. A nine-day lapse in her insurance—by then resolved—attracted the police’s interest, she said. “My car was towed, I was interrogated, I was searched, and I had to appear in court twice,” Laster said. Her sadness and outrage at what happened to a fellow Black woman became intertwined with an even more personal agitation. “I thought, this is a time for you to do something,” she said. “This little voice said, why don’t you write something new?”
Laster, who grew up in Detroit, leads a string quartet, the New Muse 4tet, is a member of the all-Black and Latino Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, and has accompanied stars like Natalie Cole and Alicia Keys. It had been a few years since she had composed work of her own. Now, her three-part “Black Lives Matter Suite” is nearing a late-October premiere. The first movement, dedicated to Sandra Bland, earned her a Mid-Hudson Arts commission to complete the piece. The second is dedicated to Samuel Harrell, a Black man with bipolar disorder beaten to death by guards in Fishkill prison, in Laster’s hometown of Beacon, in April 2015. The third addresses the Newburgh Four, four Black Muslim men from just across the Hudson, arrested in 2009 in a FBI terrorism sting that critics believe was entrapment.
The approach links a recent incident with a high national profile with others close to home. “I wanted to focus on local situations,” Laster said. She has paired the process with dialogue in her community. In early 2016, she organized an event at a local venue where she played works in progress. With two quartet members unavailable, she wrote a new arrangement for violin, viola, spoken word artist, and electric bass. A conversation with the audience of 50, including some local officials, ensued. The room was about 80 percent white, Laster said. “They were very sympathetic. They wanted to become more involved, know the makings of the community, what the police force is all about. They completely understood this could happen to anybody.”
But the conversation was more than an opportunity to build awareness. For Laster, it was part of the compositional process. After Harrell’s death, she joined a vigil where she met his family members—some from nearby Kingston, N.Y., others from North Carolina. “They were very dignified people, very upbeat, very patient,” she said. “I just took in the energy of his family, as well as the community dialogue, and used that as my starting point.”
As a result, she says, while the Sandra Bland section is “heavy”—its passages follow the phases of Bland’s confrontation with the officer—the piece on Harrell has a different tonality. “I just want it to be beautiful,” she said. “It’s a little bittersweet, and of course it’s a tragedy; but I want it to be uplifting, because of course, I want there to be some justice.”
Just as it can be difficult to find words in the wake of recurring injustice and violence—circulated to the point of saturation online, yet each with its own unique circumstances and nuances—so too can it be hard to forge an apt artistic response. But musicians are trying. “Sanctum,” an orchestral work by New Orleans-raised composer Courtney Bryan, premiered by the American Composers Orchestra in April 2015, layers recorded sounds, including the voice of Marlene Pinnock, a Black woman who survived a police beating in California, and those of protesters in Ferguson during the confrontations following Brown’s death. Performances of “I, Too, Sing America,” a program of music and text by African-American composers and poets, in 2015 included projected photographs of victims of police violence, as well as spoken passages honoring them.
Others expand the frame, linking crisis and resistance in Black life today with antecedents and related themes. “Blackbird, Fly,” for instance, by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, connects the two men’s Haitian roots, Black immigrant aspirations, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Black Wall Street,” a staged concert by vocalist Alicia Hall Moran that premiered in 2015, addresses the obscured history of Black-owned banks and financial institutions from the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 (which destroyed the country’s most prosperous site of Black business) to the present day. “I want to be on the ground level of artists making noise about contemporary life, at the same time that I use the voice techniques that have been handed down from bygone eras,” said Hall Moran. “Black Wall Street,” she said, is “autobiographic Black justice fantasy.”
Infusing music and performance with the energy of Black Lives Matter, and vice versa, tends to come more easily in jazz than in classical music. Jazz, like the blues and spirituals, is fundamentally African-American music; though it has internationalized and grown new branches, it remains a core text of Black pain, resilience, and uplift. Its history is closely history is closely bound with the politics of Black liberation, from the Civil Rights movement—witness Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960) or, more obliquely, John Coltrane’s Alabama (1963)—to the Black Power and Black Arts activities of the early 1970s.
While political statements were less prominent in the jazz mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, Black Lives Matter has contributed to an ongoing resurgence that began, arguably, with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The racialized response to the storm and the devastation of New Orleans, a holy site of the music and culture, set in motion a new wave of resistance jazz, signaled perhaps most clearly by Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” (2007). Recent developments in the field—such as pianist Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio” neo-soul collaborations, or the fresh attention paid to Los Angeles’s cultural politics in the wake of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic—reflect a broad embrace of political consciousness, as well as an increasingly receptive audience.
Amid this heightened awareness, a number of artists have sought to honor individual victims of violence, creating eulogies for the new movement’s martyrs. On each of his albums for Blue Note, the 34-year-old trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire offers one such contribution. “My Name is Oscar,” off 2011’s When the Heart Emerges Glistening, sees Akinmusire setting down his trumpet to instead speak a short, clipped text against Justin Brown’s drums. “Inauguration … 19 days,” he intones, drawing a line between Oscar Grant’s death and the inauguration, later the same month, of a Black president.
“Rollcall for Those Absent,” off 2014’s The Imagined Savior Is Far Harder to Paint, adds a keyboard to the mix; this time the voice is that of a young child, who reads off a list of names. They reach back to Amadou Diallo (killed by New York City police in 1999), and continue up to Martin, whose name the child repeats several times.
Akinmusire, a Bay Area native who grew up around former Black Panthers and other activists, prefers not to comment other than through his music. “I hope my music and all music made today reflects this time,” he said, simply. His respectful demurral signals the emotional toll that the litany of violence can take, both for musicians—many of whom have their own experiences with racism and law enforcement—and for the audience.
The sense of accumulating tragedy pervades, in title and tone, another 2014 work: Vijay Iyer’s “Suite for Trayvon (And Thousands More),” written for Trio 3 (Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Oliver Lake) and piano. Its flow, spread across three parts, evokes the mix of caution and vitality in a young Black man’s life, then the meditative sadness that ensues when his life is violently taken. Iyer’s choice to collaborate with three elders of the music—all septuagenarians—sets Martin’s death in a larger history. In performance, Iyer said, the piece served as “a kind of ritual” for the musicians and the audience. “You could feel people breathing together at the end. At that point, we are reminded that we’re all in it together.”
The Indian-American Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur fellow and a professor at Harvard, has consistently used his platform as a performer to express a frank politics. In December 2014, he opened three performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a piece that, in his words, “ambushed the audience.” Billed as an untitled piano solo, it was in fact a choreographed group performance that opened with Iyer lying on the floor, inert, amid a field of other bodies. After Iyer rose and moved to the piano, the others—some trained dancers and others not—gradually stood as well, each one interpreting gestures against the backdrop of his music. At the end, the inscription “BLACK LIVES MATTER” appeared on a large screen. The combined effect left many in the audience in tears.
“I asked the performers to think of this as not as a work of art, but as an action,” he said. “They created the movements from their own interactions with the police, so it was disturbingly real for them.”
Balancing this emotional load with the urgency of protest is its own artistic challenge. “The pile-up of tragedies is devastating for anyone with an ounce of compassion,” Iyer said. “You can't just show everyone the trauma and then leave them there. You want to bring people to a point of arrival that might give someone a moment of resolve, or help someone catch a glimpse of what can be done.”
A sense of common purpose, reaching beyond artistic and professional silos, pervaded The Dream Unfinished’s “Sing Her Name” event this past July, perhaps the classical community’s most ambitious Black Lives Matter initiative to date. A concert with tinges of a rally, it featured orchestral performances of works by the composers Ethel Smyth, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds, along with Bryan’s new commission; between performed pieces, some 10 speakers—among them Iyer, as well as scholars and policy activists—offered comment. Around 700 people attended, said Eun Lee, the Dream Unfinished’s founder, more than twice the number at the organization’s inaugural orchestral concert in 2015.
In summer 2014, with Eric Garner’s death and the events in Ferguson front of mind, Lee had searched for an organized response within the classical music community that she might join, imagining at first that some major presenting organization would be on the case. “But that proved fruitless,” Lee said. “So I decided to start asking around my circle of friends, which include classical musicians and socially-minded folks.” A conversation on Facebook led to the suggestion of a concert to mark the anniversary of Garner’s passing and the formation of a provisional team of organizers. A series of chamber events led up to the concert, along with guerrilla performances in public spaces such as Grand Central Station.
As the concept of The Dream Unfinished took form, Lee and colleagues decided it should emphasize Black composers. “There are a ton of benefit classical concerts,” she said. “And a ton of them play Beethoven 9 and Dvořák 9. We came up with a simple but apparently radical idea: If you talk about Black Lives Matter, then maybe it matters to our programming. We committed to program composers of African descent; if we include others, there has to be something to their story that indicates they would have been an ally.” Thus the politically-active Leonard Bernstein in the first year, and Smyth, the 19th-century British suffragist, in 2016.
The broad impact of the first event, not least on the musicians themselves, compelled Lee and her colleagues to expand beyond their initial one-off concept. “With a pick-up orchestra, usually people leave immediately afterwards,” Lee said. Not so here: “Everybody wanted to decompress and talk about it with each other. We had players from the New York Phil and the Met Opera, playing for free, and they were going out of their way to thank us for letting them participate.” Lee is now planning the 2017 season, built on the theme of solitary confinement, and devising themes for the following years with her colleagues.
Major institutions in classical music haven’t been entirely idle in response to the current crisis. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (which has a long-standing partnership with the Soulful Symphony, a 75-member African-American ensemble) organized a “One Baltimore” concert in May 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray and the confrontations that followed. Some 20 BSO players performed; one, bassist Jonathan Jensen, told the Baltimore Sun, “This takes us out of our isolated world; finding ways to do it more often would be great.” But discussion of race in the classical world mostly dwells on the question of under-representation, and how to boost Black and Latino musician and audience numbers, rather than the issues facing the broader community.
“I see a tremendous resilience in the Black community, but I see very little being done in the traditional white world,” said Paola Prestini, the composer and founder of the year-old Brooklyn venue National Sawdust. “It has to be part of every single day of our lives, in terms of thinking about how we program and how we commission.” National Sawdust presented Hall Moran’s “Black Wall Street,” and has commissioned work by Helga Davis and others. But Prestini says it’s appropriate in some ways that the task of initiating work on Black Lives Matter—or other social issues—be undertaken by musicians themselves. “Not everybody can be an activist, entrepreneur, artist, and educator, but everybody can be more than just one thing.”
For Terrance McKnight, the evening host on WQXR and a prominent Black voice on classical radio, the current moment holds great potential—both for musicians to raise their voices in response to a national crisis, and to accelerate the pace of change in the music world itself. “It’s a unique time for Black musicians to talk about these issues, and not to have to hide behind something,” McKnight said. Moreover, he said, arts institutions face urgency to grow new audiences amid changing demographics, and major foundations increasingly prioritize diversity as a driver of grant-making. “The creative power of diversity is going to force some change.”
Ultimately, McKnight said, making Black lives matter in the nation at large is of a piece with doing the same in audience and artist development, programming, and institution-building. “The larger problem is the inequity,” McKnight said. “Once we start looking at each other as [containing] limitless possibility, then somebody like Sandra Bland might not have been pulled over and considered arrogant. Once we look at each other as [containing] limitless possibility, then that little girl over there could be the next Florence Price, so I have to treat her as such.”
Siddhartha Mitter covers topics in arts and politics. He is a frequent contributor to The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, and other outlets.