With cell phones and social media we Baltimoreans could record and preserve history as it unfolded in our city during those turbulent April weeks of 2015. Facebook comments on the Maryland Historical Society’s page skewed negative: “I hope these photos will help the police arrest looters” to “Give me a break!” or “legitimizing the mob.” A slightly more reflective commenter ventured: “What are the differences between uprisings, protests, looting, and riots?” So far, nobody has replied to his comment.
Luckily, we have artists, composers, and poets to help tackle these questions without rhetoric’s heavy hand or politics’ hard lines. Through music and poetry, empathy rises where even images may fail. Community bonds can be forged through live performance.
On April 19, 2016, composer Judah Adashi gave the Baltimore premiere of his piece Rise in a free concert at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church. His cantata collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley bears witness to the civil rights journey in America starting from the span of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 to our own struggles.
Rise premiered in D.C. exactly a year earlier, on the same day Freddie Gray died in police custody. The Baltimore performance not only marked the one-year anniversary, it also served as a conduit for the community to keep the dialogue open. Brittani McNeill moderated a panel of local artists: Aaron Maybin, Sonja Sohn, Tariq Touré, and D. Watkins. The topic? Art and Activism.
Sonja Sohn, whom most know from her role as Detective Kima Greggs in The Wire, also wants equal attention for her initiative called ReWired for Change. This Baltimore School for the Art’s graduate says, “I believe I was born for a purpose.” When pressed by Ms. McNeill, she said, “I don’t believe there’s a difference between art and activism.” Sohn clarified that artists “entertain and educate. They are leaders and light the world.”
Fellow panelist, footballer-turned-visual-artist, Aaron Maybin, agrees. “All of us have a personal responsibility to leave the world in a better place than we found it.” McNeill asked, “Why’d you walk away, Aaron?” He questioned the idolizing of athletes. He doesn’t want to be admired for what he did in the playing field on Sunday. He wanted to be “All in or not at all.”
This is clear from his advice to the audience, “Whoever you chose to be belligerently for, maintain your integrity.” Consider his example, that as an artist, Pepsi asked him to participate in a show. While the exposure would have been great, the cost was endorsing sugar, which, he noted is “poisoning our children.”
Maybin summed up the artist’s new level of responsibility well. “Social media shot steroids into activism.” And all the artists on the Rise2016 panel are eager to shoulder the burden and its opportunity.
Adashi acknowledged the power of social media by starting the evening with a new piece The Beauty of Protest. Photographer Devin Allen’s black and white images on Instagram were the primary source of his inspiration.
Lavena Johanson took up her solo cello. Behind her, above the altar, the cross was lit red. Her fuzzy rock vibe echoed across the white marble in electric surges of bow strike. She vocalized – “we will fight….we will fight… “for Freddie Gray.”
This was an invoking to “be here, be present” — a sentiment echoed in words by Mt. Vernon Place’s pastor, Laura Kigeweba. She urged listeners “to experience transformation.” Consider the Methodist church’s having her as its first African American (and female) pastor sharing the very same square as the statue of Roger B. Taney — who ruled that blacks were not citizens of the United States. That’s a living dialogue of history in our city. You don’t remove history. You celebrate what changes.
So too lives the dialogue between poet and composer. Tameka Cage Conley expressed her thanks to Judah as her “partner, collaborator, friend and family.”
And what a diverse community Judah’s music drew to the church, jammed to the rafters. A family dressed for a concert, the girl in pigtails mussed from a hockey game, school groups from all over the city, a dude in a ball cap wearing a “Jewish life @ Duke” tee shirt, thirty-something couples, grandees whom you’d find in box seats at the symphony hall. To them, the poetess spoke. Her son, Maze True Cage Conley covered his face with his hands when held up to all this attention. Adashi called Maze the “embodiment” of the project’s necessity. Sons. All our sons. Of Freddie she said: “His spirit is here.”
In true spirit of collaboration, Judah’s composition equally shared the stage with the poetess and her words. Conley spoke her stanzas alternately between its sung movements. This deepened our relationship with the text, allowing us to re-hear a newly heard phrase embroidered by Afro Blue’s poignant vocalizations. They were backed by two choirs: Howard University and Peabody Community Chorus. Occasional Symphony served as the ensemble, led by conductor Joshua Hong.
The first notes that rang out were brass player Chris Shiley’s on flugelhorn set against piano. Why flugelhorn? It represents the flavor of the city as heard sometimes by Judah Adashi on Pratt Street. Street performer, Japheth Clark, who commutes via the No. 19 bus from Parkville to serenade the crowds on flugelhorn is part of the fabric out of which we all weave our lives and work.
Those community connections matter most to Adashi. He doesn’t just write music in some vacuum in Peabody Conservatory’s halls. He isn’t theory alone, but practice that embraces the greater neighborhoods near where he works and lives. He directs Junior Bach enabling kids to get the music out of their heads, onto paper and performed as a means of empowerment in education. The program, started by Kevin Clark, now celebrates its tenth year. Middle school students from St. Ignatius Loyola Academy and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women enjoy side-by-side time with Peabody students playing the music they create.
That’s the kind of act that will triumph over the “billy clubs” about which the choirs sang. Similarly so the giving away of 500 free books at Red Emma’s on North Avenue by D. Watkins. Is this what was meant in Tariq Touré’s poem for the evening by the memorable line, “infants dressed in the placenta of revolution?”
Rise is no poignant palliative. We’re left with Conley’s provocative lines echoing in our chests: “I want rectitude like a loose woman wants a diamond ring.” Afro Blue’s soloists deliver the outrage, the pleas: “Mister, don’t shoot, Please protect and serve my life too,” and, “we cannot breathe.” Adashi doesn’t leave out the necessary grace of the divine as the final movement “MericanAnthem” mingles the traditional form of worship, alternating every word with “holy”: Joy, holy. Cry, holy. Pray, holy.” Each member of Afro Blue lifts up a name: “Eric, Medgar, Malcolm, Tamir… Freddie.”
See more and hear more of RiseBmore2016 on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram under #RiseBmore2016.