Tag: #blacklivesmatter

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.


Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

  • It seemed clear that Haas’s 2014 piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

    George Lewis, composer & musicologist
  • I decided it's not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • Anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you're bringing a needed message to this public.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.


References

https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.

Bringing Artistic Communities Together for Black Lives 

A collage of photographs of people involved in the virtual fundraising concert for Black Lives Matter on Friday July 31, 2020.

By Felix Reyes & Roya Marsh

When everyone saw the disgusting, undeniable murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police, we both took immediate action and joined the protests out in the streets. While the Black community has been dealing with these acts of injustice for generations, seeing the awful video of Floyd being murdered made us personally realize just how numb and conditioned we as a society have become to seeing these types of crimes happen on a daily basis by cops. For many around the country and around the world, witnessing Floyd’s tragic death was the breaking point when people finally stood up and began saying “enough is enough.” What follows here are our individual accounts of how we came to work together to organize an online benefit concert for Black Lives Matter this Friday, July 31 at 7-10pm EDT.

Roya Marsh: It is impossible to ignore cries for help as a Black butch woman and educator. I look at my students and wonder what world will be left for them and quickly I’m reminded that they are living right now. Blk Joy began, for me, as a poem–a concept that I had conceived in therapy and wanted to translate into written and spoken words. I had never imagined the impact it would have on my life and others, but had hoped that it would serve as a constant reminder of the joy Black people possess and deserve. I’ve been protesting the murders of Black people for over a decade and am constantly exploring new ways to effect change. This virtual fundraiser is just one way that we can perpetuate joy while simultaneously raising funds to support those that are constantly on the front lines.

Felix Reyes: During those first few weeks of protests, I reached out to Roya to see how she was doing in coping with all of this. At that point in late May we hadn’t seen each other in over two years, where she came out to my Lincoln Center debut concert in May 2018. Since we’ve reconnected it’s been great to really grow close with her these past couple of weeks. Coming from the classical/chamber music world I already knew of certain artists like Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington, but I’d never actually had black musical friends to talk to on a regular basis. Now having been involved in these protests, educating myself, and reflecting on the current structure of musical institutions, both at the collegiate and professional level, it’s become very clear how disproportionate representation in programming and opportunities are between artists of color and their counterparts. From being able to afford private lessons growing up, to going to private music school/pre-college programs, we consider these things to be critical periods of time where students fully develop themselves as musicians, yet most Black and Brown families cannot afford the luxury of providing these educational opportunities for their children.

In hindsight I think this raises a broader concern about the flaws in our institutions to provide adequate access to proper music education in communities of color, which then leads to a severe lack of diversity in different musical perspectives, thus leading to fewer black musicians going to/pursuing careers in music. To be able to have various representations in outlooks, views, and culture I feel should be considered essential in our field, in order to push music to progressively evolve with the times, be relevant, and best represent the voices of all artists that currently contribute to that musical landscape. There are so few Black classical/chamber musicians in our field, and so Roya immediately was the first person that came to mind when these protests started, and since then we’ve been working as a team to build this fundraiser together.

  • This virtual fundraiser is just one way that we can perpetuate joy while simultaneously raising funds to support those that are constantly on the front lines.

    Roya March, poet and performer
  • To be able to have various representations in outlooks, views, and culture I feel should be considered essential in our field.

    Felix Reyes, percussionist
  • This event is meant to amplify all the black voices involved, as so Pathos Trio’s role in all of this would be to simply facilitate the broadcast.

    Felix Reyes, percussionist
  • The hope isn’t just to raise awareness, but to enact change and demand visibility and respect for our Black lives.

    Roya March, poet and performer

Roya Marsh: When conceptualizing what artists would be amazing additions to this event I knew exactly who to reach out to. There’s an incredible amount of talent in New York City and I am honored to call many of these artists my friends. Mahogany L. Browne, Whitney Greenaway, Jennifer Falú, Elliot Bless, and Elena Pinderhughes are all fantastic artists that use their platforms to promote the fight for Black lives on a consistent basis. Their work takes place both on the ground and behind the scenes, so it will be amazing to showcase their talents for our audience!

Felix Reyes: When I started getting involved with these protests I began to follow organizations like Warriors In The Garden, Freedom March NYC, Strategy For Black Lives, and BLM Greater NY. From the beginning I’ve been able to see firsthand all of the amazing work these young groups of activists have been doing in swaying the narrative and leading the charge here in New York City on Black Lives Matter (BLM), while also pushing for legislative change. I knew that once Roya and I started playing around with the idea of this fundraiser event that we had to reach out to each of these organizations, in order to have them be involved in some kind of way.

We both feel that especially in this moment there’s a real need for an event like this, where if we could bring in these organizations to talk to the various communities within the arts world, groups of people, that we could create a real special experience that can provide a space to educate people about current initiatives, legislation, and other important events coming up relating to BLM. As artists now more than ever it’s essential for us to use our platforms to elevate those who need to be heard, and in understanding that this was the precipice to the idea for this fundraiser.

Roya Marsh: As an educator, I transitioned to a virtual workspace back in March and have been exploring new and improved ways to interact with the world online. The world is learning that activism looks different for everyone. There are tons of ways to assist in the movement and financial help is a major component. Blk Joy has been an excellent vehicle for giving in this time; we were able to fundraise and give a scholarship to a young Black scholar for her first year of undergrad. Although there is a distance that exists between us, the poetry community has committed to holding space and so many wondrous events have been birthed to assure the work continues. The artists can perform from the safety of their homes and still be doing the necessary work of using their platforms to stand firm in solidarity with the movements for Black lives. We’ll get to pop in and out of folks’ respective spaces while the viewing world can be comfortably seated on their couches!

Felix Reyes: It’s hard to believe that we’ve been able to organize such a huge event like this in a matter of 3 weeks. It was only in mid June where we both had talked about the idea of this fundraiser, and now that we’re actually putting it on it’s been a bit overwhelming all of the work that’s needed to go into an event like this.

It wasn’t too long after that I had also received news from New Music USA that Pathos Trio, an ensemble I manage and co-founded, was going to be awarded a New Music USA project grant. For us the timing couldn’t have been better, and so once we found out this great news I began brainstorming the logistics of how we could utilize our new platform with New Music USA and immediately approached Vanessa Reed (New Music USA’s President and CEO) with the idea for the event. She immediately loved it and jumped on board in having New Music USA support and help promote this event to their fullest capability. I had then reached out to Alan Hankers and Marcelina Suchocka (the rest of Pathos Trio) with the idea for the fundraiser, and they agreed to let myself and Roya use our trio’s platform to co-host this event and provide additional technical support if needed. I made it clear with both Alan and Marcelina that this event is meant to amplify all the black voices involved, and so Pathos Trio’s role in all of this would be to simply facilitate the broadcast of their messages and education about BLM to as many people as we possibly can.

Roya, coming from the world of poetry, also started to think about other spoken word poets who she personally knew that could potentially say poetry for the event. In finalizing her thoughts she reached out to some of her closest allies: Mahogany L. Browne, Jennifer Falu, Whitney Greenaway, and Elliot Bliss, all of whom are award winning speakers, writers and some have been featured on NBC, PBS News, BET, and more for their amazing poetry work.

Thinking about musicians of color who have been actively vocal on the issue of BLM, Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Darian Donovan Thomas, and Kendall Williams all immediately came to mind. Whether it’s performing electronic music centered around ACAB, to performing flute duos on Freedom Schools of the 1960s, or performing steel pan tunes related to black struggle, each of these amazing artists have had something to say. We wanted to give them, along with these other great speakers and organizations, the dedicated space for them to do just that – express themselves and educate those watching about what they can do to help within the broader BLM movement.

Roya Marsh: The hope isn’t just to raise awareness, but to enact change and demand visibility and respect for our Black lives. It isn’t enough to just repeat a phrase over and over as we have seen the numbers of lives lost grow exponentially. We must commit to doing all that we can to promote the survival and prosperity of ALL Black lives. After our event, proceeds will be donated to groups of activists that continue to risk their lives and their safety to assure that the ills of white supremacy, including racism, state sanctioned violence and murder against Black lives comes to a halt.

For those of you reading we hope you can join us on Friday, 7/31 from 7pm-10pm EST on either Pathos Trio’s/New Music USA’s Facebook page, or on New Music USA’s YouTube channel to catch this amazing live-stream event and consider making a donation towards our campaign to raise $10,000 for these amazing activist organizations!

Facebook Event Page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/209625513684273/

Donation Page:
https://www.blkjoy.com/blmevent

Sonic Uprising: Songs for Freddie Gray

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom

It was Saturday, April 25, 2015. The intersection of Light Street and Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore was filled with protestors and cars were trapped in a gridlock, unable to move through the throngs of marchers. Drivers honked wildly, but not the angry, frustrated honking that normally comes from cars stuck in traffic. It was a ceremonious group-honking coming relentlessly from at least ten different cars. A solitary protestor walked between lanes chanting, “All night, all day, we will honk for Freddie Gray!” The cars honked in solidarity with the thousands of protestors on foot, and for a nerdy composer like me, it was a symphony of microtonal polyrhythms. I got out my phone to take low-quality audio field recordings.

It’s been four months now since the peak of the Baltimore Uprising, city-wide protests sparked by the death of the 25-year-old African-American man Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. As a white member of the arts community in Baltimore, I’ve felt a heavy combination of the pressure to do something paired with a total loss as far as what I should do ever since. If there is one thing I have learned in the past weeks, it’s that the first thing to do is listen. Sit down, quiet your mouth and your mind, and just listen.

I’ve been listening. I’ve heard folks talking about how they or their sons could just as easily have been Freddie Gray. I’ve heard an artist question why the African-American arts community in Baltimore isn’t more welcomed into an annual city-funded arts event. I’ve heard Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announce the charges against the six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, ruled at that moment officially as a homicide, in an impassioned speech that served as a turning point in the unrest. I’ve also heard a lot of creative work generated in reaction to the Uprising. Music has a unique way of giving voice to feelings, and it’s no surprise that Baltimore’s local musicians responded quickly and intensely.

One potent example came from jazz pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist, in collaboration with R&B singer-songwriter Brooks Long. Titled “Blues for Freddie Gray,” this piece of music ends with the lyric, “We’ve been waiting for so long,” set against the swirling horns that Gilchrist has assembled for the signature strange, full, and beautiful sound of his band, the New Volcanoes. Whenever I catch the group, which plays semi-regularly at the Windup Space in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District, I’m reminded of the denser parts of one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Life in a Glass House.” The difference is, Radiohead sets that mood for about 25 seconds, while Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes routinely let it go on for upwards of 25 minutes. In “Blues for Freddie Gray,” the horns sound like that feeling we all had in Baltimore right after the really intense part of the Uprising, the Monday of Gray’s funeral, when protests turned violent and Mayor Stephanie Rawlins Blake called in the National Guard and imposed a city-wide (and a lot of people say, unconstitutional) curfew. The best word I can think of to describe the feeling is overwrought. But better than a word is the sound of the music. Long’s lyrics here are powerful, but general. You can hear this same phenomenon in so many protest songs. From Bob Dylan’s “The answer my friend/ Is blowing in the wind” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck you/ I won’t do what you tell me” to the African-American spiritual “We shall not be moved,” the non-specificity of the lyrics allows room for people to attach their own particular interpretation to the songs, and to feel a deep sense of solace, at least for the few minutes the song lasts.

I was amazed by how quickly the hip hop community responded to the crisis by posting recordings online. It’s as if they were sitting at home at night—because they couldn’t be out after 10 p.m.—making immediate and potent music about what was happening in the city. Before the six-night curfew had lifted, Damond Blue dropped “Oh Baltimore,” produced by D Banks. The song opens with a BBC news clip about the Uprising and continues with searing verses about the struggle of being a young African-American man in Baltimore, combined with quotes from Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” from 1977 (and covered famously by Nina Simone the next year). Blue uses quotes from the song, rather than actual samples.

On May 20, rappers Young Moose and Martina Lynch released “No SunShine,” a song and video about the Uprising. The video opens with a lengthy sample of Bill Wither’s famous ballad “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971) with footage of protestor Larry Lomax wearing a “Fuck the Police” shirt while being maced in the face at point blank range and pulled by his hair to the ground. This is followed by video of Kollin Truss being punched by Baltimore police officer Vincent Cosom at a bus stop back in June of 2014 and then it cuts abruptly to footage of the violent protests of 2015, cut with shots of Young Moose and Martina Lynch rapping within a crowd. Much of the rapping takes place in front of street artist Nether’s giant mural of Freddie Gray’s face, painted onto a wall at the site of Gray’s arrest in West Baltimore. The most heartbreaking part of the video is the young kids standing with the rappers, holding up their fists in solidarity. Martina Lynch packs an incredible amount of information into 35 seconds of rapping about the situation, with an especially poignant line “the police don’t know me, but they wanna take out my whole team.”

It is notable that both rap songs include quotes from songs from the 1970s. Just like the traffic cone 18-year-old Allan Bullock picked up to smash a police car window on the day the protests turned into riots, the musicians grabbed pre-existing material in order to react as quickly as possible to what was happening in their city. Bullock became famous for doing the right thing and turning himself in, under his parents’ guidance, only to be held on $500,000 bail—higher than any of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest.

Lafayette Gilchrist, Brooks Long, Damond Blue, Young Moose, Martina Lynch: Are their voices being heard outside of Baltimore? I wonder if anyone reading this essay who is not from Baltimore has ever heard any of their work. But I’ll bet you’ve heard the work of Beach House, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Animal Collective, or Lower Dens, or at least have heard their names. The so-called “Baltimore sound” is being created almost solely by white artists. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for these voices. Lower Den’s singer Jana Hunter just wrote a thought-provoking, shit-stirring op-ed for Pitchfork titled “White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene.” But just as saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter” is offensive because it minimizes the racism built in to our current system, we need to try to figure out how to make changes in order to hear more African-American voices in the arts. Hunter was clearly thinking along these lines when she used her essay to also create a platform for rapper Abdu Ali to speak directly to Pitchfork’s readership. However, it begs the question: why didn’t Ali write the article himself? Why didn’t Pitchfork reach out to him for an op-ed?

After reflecting on Hunter’s essay and countless others echoing similar sentiments in the past three months, it seems to me that the same systemic problems that sparked the Baltimore Uprising in the first place have hindered the possibility for African-American voices to communicate about these issues across geography. Creative work in a time and place of crisis is essential to a community coping with tragedy and can become a necessary and powerful agent of change. If we truly believe that black lives matter, it’s essential that we commit to hearing what their voices have to say.

Rest in peace, Freddie Gray.

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom