by Anthony R. Green
It is with sadness that we here at Castle of our Skins, along with so many in this world, are mourning the loss of a powerful advocate for equality, an intelligent woman, and a (perhaps unintentional) cultural icon, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is impossible to sum up her hundreds of accomplishments and contributions to the world, but I'd like to mention one. At one point during an interview, Justice Ginsburg was asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, and - without hesitation - she said, "When there are 9." She continued to eloquently mention how nobody questioned the moments when the SCOTUS was 100% male, and we, as a society, shouldn't question an all-female SCOTUS. (Amen!) Not only was Justice Ginsburg extremely correct in this observation, but such can and should be applied to concert programming as well. If it is "normal" to have recitals where 100% of the composers are white, then it should be "normal" to have concert programming where 100% of the composers are BILPOC. I'd like to take this a step further and apply this to entire concert seasons. I charge ANY ensemble leaders to take on this challenge.
photo source: the Supreme Court of the United States
Castle of our Skins is no stranger to supporting women's rights and gender equity. With our conscious efforts to support Black women in classical music and the arts, we have regularly featured women creators on our various platforms (including for our Founders Chat series, our BIBA Blog, and our Black Composer Miniature Challenge), we have shared Elizabeth A. Baker's powerful Ain't I A Woman Too? article for NewMusicBox, and we've curated an entire program dedicated to Black Femininity called Ain't I A Woman? With that, please enjoy a performance of "Love Let the Wind Cry ... How I Adore Thee" by the incredible Undine Smith Moore, and reflect on the greater meaning of this piece and this performance. The text is a translation of a poem by Sappho, an ancient Greek, female poet whose homosexuality is constantly being examined. The composer is a Black woman, whose work within the classical music field is significant, but whose works are not performed nearly as much as they should be. The performance is by two powerful women, representing cultural diversity and celebrating female power through music. Surely such projects are part of Justice Ginsburg's dream, and now it is up to us to continue this important work.
feature by Kelley Hollis
note: this interview originally took place in February 2020, and The Daffodil Perspective has grown since then! To keep up to date, visit their website and follow them on social media!
Welcome back to the BIBA Blog! COOS celebrates Black artistry by exposing audiences to works by exceptional Black composers. In a recent survey of 120 American orchestras ‘19-‘20 seasons, only 6% of the total works programmed were written by non-white composers and only 8% were written by female composers. After hearing her first live orchestral performance of a work by a female composer at the age of 30, Elizabeth de Brito began seeking out and exploring other female composers and discovered a wealth of works by a seemingly endless string of women. Today Elizabeth is the producer and founder of The Daffodil Perspective: the first ever bi-weekly gender-balanced classical music show, dedicating equal airtime to music written by male and female composers. None of the mainstage orchestras in the aforementioned survey achieved total gender parity in their season's programming, and a majority of them allocated less than 8% of their season’s music to works written by underrepresented composers, but de Brito believes there are enough exceptional classical works out there to craft programming that is more reflective of our society.
BIBA: Tell me about your experience with classical music.
EdB: I grew up in the UK and started studying piano and clarinet when I was little. I played through all the grades, was in lots of musicals, Junior Guildhall, lots of stuff like that. I enjoyed it but I kind of felt out of place and I stopped when I was 18. I just returned a couple years ago to classical music.
BIBA: What was your inspiration for creating the first classical radio program with 50/50 gender parity?
EdB: When I was at school, I heard nothing but statements of superiority about male composers and I never really questioned it. Then when I was in my 20’s I started questioning more, and I got really annoyed how it seemed like I only saw male artists, male songwriters, and male composers. Then a few years ago I attended the Women of the World annual showcase and they had an all female orchestra playing, and I heard my first ever female composer at the age of 30. It was Elisabeth Lutyens and her piece Overture En Voyage, and I was just completely blown away!
I had no idea that any female composers existed, so I was simultaneously infuriated that there was all this great music out there that I didn’t know about, but also really excited about it! I went down this huge rabbit hole and discovered all these amazing composers. I thought, I have got to do something about this. So I decided: Let’s do a show! I had done community radio previously and it’s always been a passion of mine. I thought there had to be enough talented female composers out there to do a show, and sure enough every week I research a different composer for the segment Herstory: Rewritten and it just leads me to more.
I’m programming male composers as well. I saw a couple of shows that had just female composers and I knew that that was not what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to include them in context and kind of to be able to tell their stories in a more holistic way, so as to connect all the history. Making sure there was specifically gender balance, specifically a completely equal number of composers would be the best way to promote it and the best way to say this is really easy to do. We’re saying that you can have a balance all the time.
BIBA: How do you think your identity has shaped your experience in music? How has it shaped the way you program music?
EdB: It’s affected me a lot. I was a mixed race girl growing up in a kind of predominantly white, middle class, affluent, suburban England, and I was the only mixed race girl in my school playing classical music. And even when I attended music courses and when I was in the National Youth Wind Ensemble of Great Britain, which is quite prestigious, again I was the only mixed race person out of 200 and one of the only state school (public school) children as well. Most of the people I was meeting were private school-educated, privileged and wealthy, and I never felt like I belonged. I never felt like this was my world. I never felt like this was something I could do, which was one of the reasons why I stopped doing classical music. I experienced a lot of racism and sexism and snobbery.
I was talking to a really wealthy older white lady a couple years ago and told her that I had felt uncomfortable throughout my school years because I was state school educated and my parents were really ordinary. I had no pocket money, no allowance. This white lady told me she couldn’t understand why I felt uncomfortable, and I think people who have a privilege don’t understand what it’s like for people outside of that privilege, and they don’t understand what it’s like to not be seen as well. I think that’s a really big thing because they see themselves everywhere in art and in the media. They don’t understand what it’s like to not be seen. That was a big thing for me. I want people to actually feel seen listening to my show.
I want women to be inspired to think, “Wow, look! There are so many brilliant people, brilliant women in classical music. I could be a composer, or a conductor if I wanted”. And the same with BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) individuals just like me. I want them to be able to see themselves in terms of programming music. I want it to be reflective of our society, not just a very specific narrow version, and I don’t want other people to grow up with that feeling of being uncomfortable because music is music and you shouldn't feel uncomfortable.
BIBA: You said recently that each episode since the start has dedicated 8-16% of the music played to works written by Black and minority ethnic composers, but that going forward that amount would remain steadily at 16%. What made you decide that?
EdB: My inclusion of BAME composers was a consideration when I started the show. I said I was going to program Florence Price from the beginning. But it wasn’t until halfway through that doing so had become really important to me. I am mixed race. There are so many brilliant composers that are marginalized as well. From June 2019 onward I started playing at least one composer on every show, but then I thought, this is tokenistic and I’m not happy with this. Yes it was still every show, which is way better than most programming anywhere, but for me it still felt it was more important for their voices to be heard and to make space for them.
So the first reason I decided to play at least 2+ BAME composers per episode was because one felt tokenistic. The second reason I increased the amount is because I’m doing a gender balanced show and if I want to make this show reflective of society, and I’m in the UK where 15% of people are BAME, then if I played at least 2 composers a week, it would be at least representative of society. Sometimes I play more than two. This week (note: from an episode in February 2020) I played 4: Samuel Colleridge Taylor, Florence Price, William Grant Still and Hannah Kendall.
BIBA: Your most played composer on The Daffodil Perspective is none other than Florence Price. Castle of our Skins has performed several of her works over the years. What draws you most to her and her music?
EdB: I really do love Florence Price. I’m a bit obsessed with her actually, but there is a reason. I think I’m drawn so strongly to her because I see myself in her music. She was mixed race like me, and her music is like that too. For me it’s like listening to my actual life experiences in musical form. She was the first female composer that I really identified with. Listening to her Symphony in E minor for the 1st time felt like I was finally whole. It was this genuine "lightning bolt" kind of feeling; like I was finally present in the world.
I wrote a blog post for the International Florence Price Fest about how she inspired me, and one of the things that I said was growing up as a mixed raced person, you always feel like you have two sides and they’re all in dissonance. You’re surrounded by white people and you’re English, but then you’ve got another half of you, so it’s all really quite complicated. But I listen to her and it’s like I’m not in it. I’m whole. It’s like she’s saying to me, “I know you, I feel your pain. I know you’re strength and I know what you’re going through and what you’re capable of and everything that’s going on.”
And apart from her music just being incredible, everything about her story is just amazing, and the more I find out about her, the more completely in awe of her I am. She was just so utterly amazing with the amount she had to overcome: the sexism, the racism, the Jim Crow laws, the abusive husband. You know she didn’t write her Symphony in E minor until she was 47? And then she just wrote a string of incredible stuff after that. Every time I listen to one more of her pieces, I just fall deeper in love.
You can learn more about The Daffodil Perspective through their website: CLICK HERE!
You can catch a performance of Florence Price's String Quartet in A minor by Castle of our Skins by CLICKING HERE!
Hello, BIBA fans! This BIBA Monday blog is a feature of our inaugural Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence, Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa! A musical powerhouse with a wealth of experience in performing, composing, and scholarship, Tanyaradzwa is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and scholar whose work bridges Zimbabwe’s past and present in order to inform a self-crafted future. Her performance style connects the seemingly disparate worlds of Western classical music and Zimbabwean classical music in a trans-continental hybridity. She is part of the 2020 National Sawdust New Works Commission cohort, and has been recently profiled in I Care If You Listen and the Boston Globe. Check out her BIBA feature below!
BIBA : How would you describe your overall practice?
TT : My practice is a healing practice. My work is about coming back to the self and the journeys we take to rediscover our wholeness. For me, that journey is rooted in Chivanhu healing practices and ancestral guidance. This modality undergirds all aspects of my creative practice, from process to performance.
BIBA : As a scholar, what do you focus on and how has this journey developed?
TT : The creation of self-liberated zones is the focus of my scholarship, i.e. Chimurenga chePfungwa. This mandate takes on many forms, namely, the centering of African epistemologies, modalities, forms and voices in my work. This journey has evolved over time, and is continuing to evolve. At this moment, my focus is Love, and how the existential journey to find yourself is actually a journey to Love and accept yourself.
BIBA : What is your relationship with your voice and how does that relate to your culture?
TT : I come from a voice practice that celebrates each individual’s inherent creativity. On my mother’s side of the family, my great-grandfather was an evangelist, and my great-grandmother would translate his sermons into 11 languages. My grandmother and her siblings were the choir, singing all the hymns.
My father’s side of the family didn’t convert to Christianity. They are rooted in Chivanhu practice and it was during our family ceremonies that I connected to mbira music. Mbira dzaVadzimu is the instrument we use in ceremonies to connect with our ancestors. These ceremonies combine body, voice, spirit and all members of the community.
All these influences are embodied in my voice practice.
BIBA : Who are some influential people in your life (past, present, or future) and why?
TT : I have a robust support system that is always there for me. Love is the greatest influence in my life, and it shows itself in many ways:
Through my great ancestors who walk with me: Charwe, Dumakude, Pfute, Mbvonyoza, Sekuru Philip, Gogo Soneni, Gogo Lynah, Sekuru John Melusi, Matemai George, Mabel, Auntie Tino, Sekuru Godwin, Uncle Eddie, Itayi and many more known and unknown...
Through my teachers, many teachers, and mentors: Mr. Musindo, Mr. Chikaka, Sr. Loyola. Ron Maltais, Uncle Carlton, Everett McCorvey, Dr. Angelique Clay, Somi and many more...
Through my friends, family and lovers: Ademisola, Aria, Carly, Ijeoma, Saru, Munashe, Tadisa, Tawanda, my mother and my father, and many more…
Through my enemies who are actually divine mirrors, put here to make me the strongest warrior I can be: They have no names.
All these names influence my work, and their Love sustains me and shines Light upon me. This Light helps me to see myself clearly and to channel the creativity that resides within.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime: unlimited time, funds, resources, and whatever else you need. What piece would you compose?
TT : I would write my story, because my life is the greatest work of art I will ever encounter.
Welcome to the second BIBA Blog that highlights and reviews operas by Black composers, which are full of such richness and breadth! These posts examine the many ways that composers from the African diaspora have used music and drama to tell urgent and necessary stories of love, history, family, and social justice, as well as operas that celebrate or comment upon various aspects of life, the past, and more, with tones ranging from serious to light. In an art form where racism is both deeply and historically ingrained, blackface and yellowface somehow remain hotly debated, and contemporary artists of color are reclaiming the narrative online, the beauty and power of operas by Black composers are part of a necessary operatic revolution.
ANTHONY DAVIS: LEAR ON THE 2nd FLOOR
The Composer: Anthony Davis
With a career spanning more than thirty years and encompassing multiple genres, eight operas (thus far), and one Pulitzer Prize, Anthony Davis is a living force in classical music, dubbed the “dean of African-American opera composers” by the New York Times. His career first took off in the early 1980s, when Mr. Davis became known as a virtuoso jazz pianist and bandleader (after turning down a 1971 offer to play for the Grateful Dead). But it was his first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered in 1986 at New York City Opera, which introduced audiences to Mr. Davis’ eclectic, sophisticated musical style and his focus on politically and socially relevant subjects.
Since X, Mr. Davis has written operas based on historical and current events, including the Patty Hearst kidnapping (Tania, 1992), the landmark 1839 ship uprising of enslaved Africans and their subsequent trial (Amistad, 1997), and the spiritual connection between a contemporary Indigineous family and the historical Chief Standing Bear (Wakonda’s Dream, 2007). His works often center the experiences and perspectives of people of color and tackle political subjects, calling art “a healthy way to deal with issues and events that are deeply troubling and still resonate today.” His most recent opera, The Central Park Five (2019), explores the systemic racism and injustice at the heart of this sensationalized case -- five teenage boys accused, convicted and later exonerated of the 1989 rape and assault of a white female jogger in New York City. The opera was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Mr. Davis is a longtime professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, and is married to soprano Cynthia Aaronson-Davis.
The Opera: Lear on the 2nd Floor
Anthony Davis, composer | Allan Havis, librettist | Premiered in 2013
The Basic Plot
A contemporary “riff” on Shakespeare, Lear on the 2nd Floor is the story of Nora, an expert in neurodegenerative diseases who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Nora, like Shakespeare’s Lear, has complicated relationships with each of her three adult daughters: Jenna, who performs in adult films and is estranged from her mother; Tara, a self-righteous and greedy accountant who recently married the family lawyer; and Lyla, a pregnant and idealistic substitute teacher whose marriage has recently ended. Nora’s mind deteriorates quickly, and she begins seeing and interacting with her deceased husband, Mortimer. Her daughters’ fight over control of her estate escalates, ultimately landing all of them in court for a bitter battle over legal guardianship. Tara wins, placing Nora into an institution (the “2nd floor” of the opera’s title) as her mind slips away completely.
The UCSD Production: Impressions and Thoughts
In contrast to Davis’s frequent use of historical events or figures as opera subjects, Lear on the 2nd Floor focuses tightly on a fictional family in turmoil as a way for the opera to investigate meaningful questions about memory, legacy, and the ties that bind. It is a complex work, filled with Nora’s bleak confusion and deteriorating relationships as well as moments of wit and irony. For me, it was really Davis’s score that brings this to life and makes it real -- the music is a sophisticated, and sometimes challenging, blend of dissonance, percussion, jazz, and occasional moments of lyricism. Let’s dive into a few moments to experience how this works.
In Act I, shortly after Nora’s diagnosis, Lyla finds her wandering in a cemetery, without her shoes. Their dialogue is bittersweet; Nora’s confusion is evident and she doesn’t remember her daughter at first, but as Lyla confides her ambivalence about her pregnancy and facing it alone, the two manage to connect emotionally in a surprising, lyrical duet. They sing of motherhood, of age, of time and of pain, sometimes in unison, other times in harmony, as the main melody dances along brightly. Lyla, who is based on Shakespeare’s character of Cordelia in King Lear, is patient and loving with her mother, following the twists and turns of her mind and doing her best to take care of Nora in a difficult situation. This clip begins at 14:55, keep watching until about 19:20 for this scene.
Now, contrast that with this section later in Act I. Nora’s condition has deteriorated even more, her mind embodied onstage by a soprano who makes gibberish, wordless vocalizations and screams while the orchestra plays ominously. It’s dark, frightening, and just for a moment, perhaps, makes the audience actually feel the terror of losing one’s mind. This musical moment transitions to Nora herself, who is wandering the street after a confrontation with Jenna. Her aria, like the storm scene of King Lear, gives us a window into her jumbled thoughts as she mixes the past with the present, remembers her daughters and contemplates death. This clip starts at 44:03, keep watching until 50:10.
These are only two examples, but they help to demonstrate the opera’s breadth and style -- the way it can shift from music that is bittersweet and even catchy, to sections that are dissonant, unfamiliar, and challenging.
Nora’s story is not an easy one, especially for the many of us who have seen loved ones taken by Alzheimer’s or dementia and the incredible toll it can take on families. I couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother as I watched, who slipped away early in my childhood and spent her final decade in a gentle, confused fog. She was childlike; she loved coffee ice cream, always perking up for a bowl even when she could no longer feed herself. Davis’s Nora is more like Lear -- a towering, successful figure, a parent with impossible standards, a person betrayed by her own mind and left alone. But there’s also a gentleness in Davis’s ending for her, as Nora and Mortimer imagine driving down an open highway with the radio blaring, reggae echoing in the orchestra. Perhaps, after all, there’s freedom in letting go.
The entire opera is available on YouTube through the University of California Television, which is an incredible opportunity to hear the essential work of Anthony Davis, one of the most influential opera composers of our time, for free online. Check it out below and let us know what you think of the opera too.
Additional readings and references:
Lacey Upton is an educator who specializes in the arts, out-of-school time settings, and community engagement. She began her career in opera at the Metropolitan Opera Guild in NYC and spent five years at Boston Lyric Opera as the Director of Community Engagement. She recently earned her Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and currently works in youth development with middle and high school students.
Photo credit: Esso Studios
by Shannon Sea
I was mesmerized when I first heard Angel Bat Dawid’s “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black.” A friend of mine played it for me, on her iPhone. I didn’t quite grasp the lyrics at first, but I found the melody to be distinctly beautiful and haunting.
Bat Dawid’s mezzo-soprano voice carries the melody. Her airy timbre and the cascading melodic contour creates an atmosphere that is deeply melancholic. And Bat Dawid’s use of contrapuntal techniques accentuates the potency of the words: “… to be captive in this, to be captive in this, to be captive in this dark skin.”
When I returned home that evening, I listened to “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black” again. This time, with headphone monitors. I engaged in what I call mindful listening. I was fully present and listened to all the subtleties within the piece. This is when I fully understood the lyrics. Bat Dawid sings, “What shall I tell my children who are Black, of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin.” I investigated the piece more and discovered that it was inspired by Margaret T. Burroughs’s 1963 namesake poem.
I then watched a video of Burroughs recite“What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black” and was astonished that I had only learned of that poem now. The poem is riveting, and is a raw glimpse into the emotional challenges many Black parents face.
The first stanza reads:
What shall I tell my children who are Black
Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin
What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb,
Of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn
They are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.
Villains are black with black hearts.
A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs.
Bad news comes bordered in black, black is evil
And evil is black and devils' food is black…
The poem continues with four more voluminous stanzas. I invite you to read the rest of it via the links below.
My discovery of Burroughs’s poem through Bat Dawid’s piece made me think about how contemporary music can help us rediscover forgotten Black art. Over the past two years, I’ve been mulling the thought of turning into song Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s 1921 lesbian-themed poem, “You! Inez!” I haven’t yet found the right melody for it, but I haven’t given up.
Angel Bat Dawid - “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhvAD8TFrIM
Margaret T. Burroughs - Burroughs reading “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://youtu.be/fEwU86r-nTo
Margaret T. Burroughs - “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/146263/what-shall-i-tell-my-children-who-are-black-reflections-of-an-african-american-mother
Alice Dunbar-Nelson - “You! Inez!”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52760/you-inez
by Tara Betts
In 2017, I started to do a deep dive into writings by a pianist and journalist whose tragic demise led me into a fascination with her life. I was introduced to Philippa Duke Schuyler by Gabrielle David, the publisher at 2Leaf Press who spoke with me about reprinting critical editions of out of print titles by Black women. I was thinking in the mindset of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series edited by Henry Louis Gates, but a bit more contemporary. There are many lost voices that could be more valued from the early twentieth century that have immediate context for the 21st century. Philippa Duke Schuyler, daughter of Josephine Codgell and George Schuyler, is no exception to that context. After discussing it with Gabrielle, we decided to pursue reprinting Philippa Duke Schuyler’s Adventures in Black and White (link to buy book and e-book).
It’s been 53 years after her untimely death where she drowned during a helicopter accident in Vietnam on May 7, 1967. Much of what I would like to say about her story is what I wrote in a new introduction for a reprint of this 1960 travelogue/memoir. Since then, The Green Book, a highly fictive account of Don Shirley’s travels won the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture. Shirley experienced some of the same levels of discrimination as Schuyler. I am still amazed at how few people still know that Green Books existed, even though many of them are archived and some are even digitized online.
I find myself wondering what Schuyler would have thought if she had lived into her 70s and experienced what it might have been like to have Alicia Keys make a movie about her in America. It could have been a Hidden Figures-like moment for a Black woman composer, and I say that as a resident of Chicago, where Florence B. Price, the first Black woman composer to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra happened in 1933 at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Neither of these women have been in films either. I am still positing these observations because Schuyler went on record many times saying that she had performed for leaders all over the world, but no American president had ever asked her to perform for them.
Although she struggled with her parents’ perceptions of her racial identity as well as what it meant to be adored as a child prodigy who was now a Black adult, and somehow less interesting, and maybe more dangerous, I wonder how that shifted her focus to going overseas and writing. She had been writing poems and compositions and playing the piano since she was a toddler, but writing books allowed her to speak on her own terms and fashion her own identity. As a result, I think she had difficulty establishing an audience that would have been more receptive to her work later. She never had albums of her work released.
If you want to learn more about Schuyler, you can find a few recordings of her compositions on YouTube. There are archives at the New York Public Library and Syracuse University, largely due to her mother’s meticulous documentation. Some of her sheet music is in the impressive Helen Walker-Hill Collection at the University of Colorado, and of course, there is the comprehensive biography Composition in Black and White by Kathryn Talalay. There are a few articles and book chapters, but for me, it was valuable to share Schuyler’s own words about traveling as a performer and exploring the larger world at a time when many women were confined by their circumstances. And I keep thinking that there is a need to tell these stories on bigger screens, in larger venues, and making them a part of the larger fabric of history.
Tara Betts is the author of two full-length poetry collections Break the Habit, which was published in October 2016 with Trio House Press, and her debut collection Arc & Hue on the Willow Books imprint of Aquarius Press. In 2010, Essence Magazine named her as one of their "40 Favorite Poets". Betts was born in Kankakee, IL and is the oldest of three siblings. Her first job was at the Kankakee Public Library. Betts received her B.A. in Communication at Loyola University, Chicago. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College in 2007. Betts worked with several non-profit organizations in Chicago, IL including Gallery 37 and Young Chicago Authors. She received her Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing at Binghamton University in 2014. To purchase Adventures in Black and White with edits and a critical introduction by Tara Betts, please CLICK HERE!
This special BIBA Blog post is a simple, yet heart-felt and earnest THANK YOU post. Our EIGHTH season has officially started, and - while the end of season seven was not what we desired or expected - we are excited to present to you, our incredible fans, a season with a mixture of digital content, collaborations, live events in the spring, incredible repertoire spanning decades, and a celebration of excellent music and genius artistry. As the conversation about equity and attempting to correct past injustices in classical music continues, we are proud to continue our work in this arena, a labor that has been thriving for seven years now. We are also humbled that so many of you have stepped up to support our work. We cannot survive without your support, and we also cannot grow without acknowledging our growing community.
Castle of our Skins would also like to extend a special shout-out to organizations and individuals who have held fundraising events to support our work! These include:
- The Sheffield Chamber Players
- Mike Avitabile
- Joshua Hahn
- Ensemble Vim
- James May
- the Tufts University Music Department
- Society of Composers Inc. (SCI)
- and Jonathan Van Ness!
We also want to thank the Black Art Futures Fund and New Music USA for their support, organizations who have matched donations from individuals (such as Merck, MassMutual, and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation Discretionary Grant), and the MANY individuals who have sent in donations this year. We look forward to more organizations and individuals who will hold fundraising events (such as the World Piano Teachers Association - Missouri Chapter, lead by Kyu Butler, and a new concert series in Mexico lead by Armando Ortiz)!
Welcome to the first BIBA Blog that highlights and reviews operas by Black composers, which are full of such richness and breadth! These posts examine the many ways that composers from the African diaspora have used music and drama to tell urgent and necessary stories of love, history, family, and social justice, as well as operas that celebrate or comment upon various aspects of life, the past, and more, with tones ranging from serious to light . In an art form where racism is both deeply and historically ingrained, blackface and yellowface somehow remain hotly debated, and contemporary artists of color are reclaiming the narrative online, the beauty and power of operas by Black composers are part of a necessary operatic revolution.
WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, by Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR)
We Shall Not Be Moved came together through the collaboration of three powerhouse artists -- composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director/choreographer/dramaturg Bill T. Jones, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia. Since we want to save space to talk about the opera itself, these bios are brief, but we encourage you to learn more about each of them -- additional links are included below!
The Composer: Daniel Bernard Roumain
Daniel Bernard Roumain, often referred to by his initials DBR, is a composer, violinist, and educator, whose artistic works defy categorization. DBR is well-known for blending classical, hip hop, R&B, gospel, and electronic music styles in his compositions, as well as for his wide-ranging collaborations with artists such as Philip Glass, DJ Spooky, and Lady Gaga. His Haitian-American heritage and identity as a Black man also strongly influence his artistic work, themes, and aesthetic. DBR is currently on the faculty of Arizona State University and serves in a number of leadership positions in the classical music field, including board positions with the League of American Orchestras, Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Creative Capital, and the advisory committee of the Sphinx Organization.
The Librettist: Marc Bamuthi Joseph
A spoken word poet, dancer, director, playwright, and educator, Marc Bamuthi Joseph brings issues of social justice and community building to the forefront through his artistic output, as well as his administrative and consultancy work around the country. Born in New York City to immigrants from Haiti, Mr. Joseph made his Broadway debut at the age of 10, and has become a transformative contemporary leader in the arts, education, social impact, and creative expression fields. He is a 2017 TED Global Fellow, an inaugural recipient of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, and an honoree of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship, and currently serves as Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He has collaborated with DBR three times for the projects Blackbird, Fly (2016), We Shall Not Be Moved (2017), and The Just and the Blind (2019).
The Director: Bill T. Jones
Bill T. Jones is a leading contemporary American choreographer and director whose career in theater, dance, opera and more spans decades. One of the most lauded artists of our time, Mr. Jones’s many honors and awards include the National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, Tony Awards, the Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant Fellowship. He is a co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and the Artistic Director of New York Live Arts. In addition to the dozens of influential works that he has choreographed and co-choreographed for his own dance company and many others, Mr. Jones is also known for his work on the musicals The Seven, Spring Awakening, and Fela!.
History & Context: The MOVE organization
It’s difficult to fully appreciate We Shall Not Be Moved without at least a basic understanding of the bombing of the MOVE organization -- and hopefully, you’ll be moved to further deepen your understanding of the events, people, and structural racism that led the Philadelphia police to bomb its own citizens in 1985.
MOVE is a Black liberation group (still in existence today) that was founded in 1972 by John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, a West Philadelphia native and Korean War veteran. Its members lived in communal settings and embraced anti-government, anti-technology, Black power, and animal rights ideals. They spoke out about police brutality and environmentalism, fusing influences from the Black Panther Party and 1960s hippie culture. MOVE staged public demonstrations at zoos, stores, and rallies, and while many supported their principles, their methods and lifestyle were decried by others, including some fellow Black residents in Philadelphia.
In 1978, a tense confrontation with police following an eviction order resulted in the death of one police officer and several other injuries. Nine members of MOVE were convicted and given life sentences. The organization relocated in 1981 to 6221 Osage Avenue, in a middle-class, largely African-American neighborhood. Neighbors made public complaints for years about trash around MOVE’s row house and loud political messages delivered via bullhorn. Finally, Mayor Wilson Goode, the city’s first African-American mayor, gave the order to empty the house and arrest four of the occupants on various weapons, parole, and terrorism charges. Nearby residents were evacuated and on the morning of Monday, May 13, 1985, police moved in on the MOVE home, where eight adults and five children were housed.
The standoff between the police and MOVE escalated throughout the day. Water and electricity were shut off to the building. There was an armed standoff, then a shootout. That evening, the city of Philadelphia dropped a satchel bomb of Tovex and C-4 explosives on the home, killing eleven people, including five children as well as John Africa, MOVE’s founder. A fire began to spread to adjacent houses. Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, who had given the bombing order, held back the fire department, and by the end of the night, 61 homes had burned to the ground, leaving 250 residents homeless.
The staggering racism, distrust and cavalier police brutality that led to the bombing of MOVE reverberated throughout the city for decades to come. No one was ever charged or held publicly accountable for the attack, and the city of Philadelphia has still not formally apologized, despite recent activism to increase public awareness and to push for restorative justice.
The destroyed homes were shoddily rebuilt, and residents moved back to the neighborhood in 1986. But by the early 2000s, the city bought out most of the crumbling buildings and left them vacant, ghostly reminders of a violent past and the unjust present. This is where we find ourselves in the opera We Shall Not Be Moved.
We Shall Not Be Moved: The Basic Plot
Please refer to Opera Philadelphia’s fantastic full synopsis for plot details -- this is just a taste to help orient you for our discussion!
On the streets of Philadelphia, five teenagers -- John Henry, John Blue, John Little, John Mack and Un/Sung -- are on the run after a violent altercation. This chosen family finds refuge in an abandoned building, which is the home of the MOVE organization and site of the 1985 bombing. They begin receiving messages from the spirits of MOVE, referred to as the OGs, who comfort and sustain them. Glenda, a police officer who was born in North Philly and now patrols West Philly, finds them and suspects them of truancy and loitering. She moves to pick them up, but their confrontation explodes and Glenda shoots John Henry, wounding him. The other teens manage to take her gun, holding her hostage.
As John Henry’s condition worsens, the teens try to determine their next move. Finally, they tell Glenda the full story of why they are on the run, hoping to bargain for her silence with their own. Glenda, however, realizes that the other teenager whom John Blue shot and killed during the earlier fight was her brother, Manny, and refuses to comply.
Increasingly desperate, the teens debate further violence. Un/Sung steps up and offers to take on the task, ordering the others to leave. Un/Sung takes possession of the gun and faces off with Glenda a final time, their confrontation escalating in a blackout. When the lights come back, Glenda recounts her simplified version of the events that ensued, though what is seen onstage is more complex.
Opera Philadelphia: Digital Festival O performance
Available online through August 31, 2020
There may not be an opera more urgent for our country’s current movement against racism, police brutality, and white supremacy than We Shall Not Be Moved. Inspired in equal parts by the historical reality of state violence against Black bodies and by the present lived experience of Philly youth confronting inequity and injustice present in their own lives, this opera is a deeply emotional story that challenges us, as viewers, to imagine a place where, in the words of Un/Sung, “More than one kind of thing can be true. That’s America too.”
All of the characters in We Shall Not Be Moved are complex and sympathetic figures in different ways. Un/Sung, who expresses herself primarily in spoken word, often serves as the narrator of the opera; her brilliance and fierce loyalty to her brothers shines through her words, wise beyond her years, frustrated and stymied by failing schools, poverty, and a world that sees her as worthless. John Mack is driven by his faith and goodness, John Little is a white boy who identifies with his Black chosen family, John Henry displays both toughness and vulnerability even as he lies bleeding, and John Blue is a transgender boy (voiced by a countertenor, though it would be fantastic to see and hear a trans singer in that role -- casting directors, please take note!), the “brother most likely to steal your things and cut you for good measure,” according to the Opera Phil student study guide.
In the following clip, Un/Sung talks about the deep bond of this chosen family, then all of them share their stories and histories, displaying the cast’s incredible skills spanning spoken word, gospel, R&B, and of course, classical music styles. Watch through 16:55.
Glenda, likewise, is a layered portrait of a Latina who seems to identify more with her fellow brothers in blue than with her estranged family. She believes in the work that she does, its value and dignity, and is a sympathetic person who also faced difficult circumstances, yet managed to build herself a successful life -- but at what cost? Watch from 18:25 to 21:50 to learn more about Glenda, the “ghetto flower picked and planted by the law.”
The opera is moving and provocative throughout, but the final confrontation between Un/Sung and Glenda is truly where these themes, questions, challenges and protests come together in an explosive climax. These two women -- although one is still a teenager, not yet fully grown -- are embodiments of divergent choices in a system that is stacked against them. One chose the path of conformity by joining the police force, “a well-funded gang” as Un/Sung angrily says, believing that the system of law and order would give her a foothold to a better life. The other is trying to create a life for herself and her brothers outside of this paradigm, a "Harriet Tubman"-like figure seeking an Underground Railroad that will lead to a freedom that they still can’t quite fully imagine. Critiques of police brutality, bias, the meaning of freedom -- it’s all here in We Shall Not Be Moved, echoing our national conversation and adding to the growing crescendo of protests and activism, thanks to the dedication and work of Black Lives Matter and anti-racist allies.
I want to leave you with this incredible scene from Act II, as John Blue, John Little and John Mack share the self-affirmation that they have learned from their spiritual guides, the OGs. Joyous, lyrical, insistent and transcendent, this is a spiritual for our time: “Love is the only word sweeter than Black.”
Additional readings and references:
Lacey Upton is an educator who specializes in the arts, out-of-school time settings, and community engagement. She began her career in opera at the Metropolitan Opera Guild in NYC and spent five years at Boston Lyric Opera as the Director of Community Engagement. She recently earned her Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and currently works in youth development with middle and high school students.
Photo credit: Esso Studios
Hello BIBA fans! This is part two of a series of posts supporting Black businesses. As stated in the last post, numerous factors have contributed to gross inequality in wealth distribution to BIPOC US citizens. From the 2017 Boston Globe Spotlight Series on race, the reality that “the median net worth for non-immigrant Black households in the Greater Boston region is $8” shocked all of its readers. Are you in Boston? A frequent traveler to or visitor of Boston? Wanting to check out some of Boston’s cultural offerings? Then check out some of the fantastic organizations doing incredible work in the Boston area, and support them with a donation, a share, social media engagement, attendance at one of their events, and in any other way you can. This week's post focuses on musicians and musical organizations (other than Castle of our Skins, of course)!
Musicians and Music Organizations
Community Music Center of Boston: founded in 1910, CMCB serves over 5,500 individuals every week, and works with nearly 35 Boston public schools, community centers, nursing homes, and hospitals. Their students range from five months old to 88 years old, and their current executive director is acclaimed bassoonist Lecolion Washington. Learn more HERE and donate HERE!
KickBack Boston: this annual get-together-and-vibe-to-amazing-music party celebrated its 4 year anniversary in December last year. No updates about this year's event yet, but you can check out their website HERE and follow them on Instagram and Facebook!
Project STEP: this program opened its doors in 1982. While it is not Black-owned, its mission is to train young musicians of color, and eventually prepare them for professional jobs as musicians. It boasts that every Project STEP graduate - 100% - has gone on to a college or a conservatory. They have a campaign now which you can donate to HERE, and visit their website HERE!
BAMS Fest: Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest breaks down racial barriers to arts, music, and culture through signature events, strategic partnerships, and an annual festival. It centers Afro-diasporic voices perspectives, and artistry. Learn more HERE and donate HERE!
New England Conservatory's Black Student Union: the NEC BSU is a place where BILPOC musicians can network and act within a safe space. Follow on Facebook and Instagram!
While there are many Black musicians in Boston to support, and creating a list here will be extremely difficult, you can learn about some of the musicians and other artists that Castle of our Skins has supported on our artists list here!
And we would love to mention:
Jonathan Bailey Holland - composer
Kevin Madison - pianist/composer
Julius Williams - composer/conductor
William Banfield - composer/performer/scholar
Joy Cline Phinney - pianist
Robyn Smith - trombonist
Forbes Graham - composer (be sure to check out his Beyond/Apex podcast and donate here!)
Hello BIBA fans! This is part two of a series of posts supporting Black businesses. As stated in the last post, numerous factors have contributed to gross inequality in wealth distribution to BIPOC US citizens. From the 2017 Boston Globe Spotlight Series on race, the reality that “the median net worth for non-immigrant Black households in the Greater Boston region is $8” shocked all of its readers. Are you in Boston? A frequent traveler to or visitor of Boston? Wanting to check out some of Boston’s cultural offerings? Then check out some of the fantastic organizations doing incredible work in the Boston area, and support them with a donation, a share, social media engagement, attendance at one of their events, and in any other way you can. This week's post focuses on visual artists, and also includes some writers and more dancers!
HipStory: this unique digital media production company incorporates visual arts, music, film, storytelling, and much more. Learn more on their website HERE and dontate HERE!
Z Gallery: since 2009, this unique space has been supporting urban culture, highlighting graffiti in Boston neighborhoods, and providing a space to sell fine art. Check their website, and donate!
S.O.M. Vibes Studio: this space offers a visual art experience that combines art and music in a curated space to improve your State Of Mind (SOM). Check our their website HERE!
WishUponMe Art: this visual artists creates custom stippling art works, mostly portraits, from photos. More unique pieces are also offered. Learn more and contact on the artist's facebook page HERE!
The National Center of Afro-American Artists: NCAAA is a private, non-profit institution that has been dedicated to preserving international Black visual arts since 1968. The museum holds a unique, fascinating collection worth exploring. Learn more on their website here and donate here!
Roxbury International Film Festival: the RIFF won Best of Boston 2019! This 10-day festival is the largest in New England that celebrates people of color. Learn more here and donate here!
D. Desirée Photography: this freelance photographer in Boston offers a wide variety of services. Learn more and contact her on her facebook page HERE!
A selection of local visual artists
- L'Merchie Frazier : learn more HERE!
- Daniel Callahan : learn more HERE!
- Problak : learn more HERE!
- Cedric Douglas : learn more HERE!
- Mel Isidor : learn more HERE!
- Ayana Mack : learn more HERE!
A selection of writers
- Nakia Hill : learn more HERE!
- Charles Coe : learn more HERE!
- U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo : learn more HERE!
- Destiny Polk : learn more HERE!
- DiDi Delgado : learn more HERE! and donate to her incredible #DoneForDiDi initiative HERE!
... and some more dancers!
- Art of Black Dance & Music : learn more HERE!
- Afrobeats Dance Boston : learn more HERE!
- Jo-Mé Dance : learn more HERE and HERE!
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties! Feel free to drop a comment or suggestions for posts!