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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Nov 11, 2020

A Weekend of Triumph for Black Women – and Some Musical Highlights

This past weekend, after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had received more than 4.5 million more votes than Donald Trump and thus signaled the beginning of the end of the most destructive and divisive era in the entire history of U.S. politics, a special wave of joy attended Vice-President-elect Harris’s status as the first woman, the first woman of color, the first HBCU graduate, and the first daughter of immigrants to hold that second-highest elected seat in the country.

I was among those who clasped hands in joy as Vice-President-elect Harris proclaimed, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” But it is important to recognize that the Vice-President-elect’s victory is but one thread in what Dr. Melissa Givens terms “a rich tapestry of beauty”[1] that will one day hang in place of the threadbare dirty white canvas of racism, male chauvinism, and misogyny that has not just characterized the reign of horror that has been the last four years of U.S. politics, but also prevented Harris’s victory from happening any time before now in the 244 years of this country’s history. Here’s an @officialcocoadiaries meme that shows Stacey Abrams, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Kamala Harris to summarize that victory through the operative lens – the lens of women’s rights, civil rights, feminism, womanism, and inclusive humanism:

And the arts – especially music – are a part of that beautiful tapestry, that majestic and powerful lens. Witness three impressive programs from this past weekend featuring music by Black women composers:

  • The Sacramento State University School of Music’s 43rd Annual Festival of New Music offered a full week of programs celebrating women in music, and nearly all of the compositions performed over those seven days were by women-identifying composers. The website for the festival is a “rich tapestry” (Givens) in its own right, but of particular interest in here is the concert by Lara Downes that, beginning as it did at 3:00 p.m. PST on November 7, served as a serendipitous prelude to the Harris and Biden victory speeches that aired a few hours later.[2] Downes is internationally acclaimed as a solo and collaborative pianist as well as for her high-profile work on social-justice issues ranging from voter activism to education for underprivileged youth and civil rights generally; her new biweekly NPR radio show, AMPLIFY, engages “visionary Black musicians who are shaping the present and future” in “raw, revealing, and open-hearted conversations reflecting on how artists are responding and creating in this time of profound challenge and change.” Just this week it was announced that she has been awarded a major SPHINIX Organization grant for her Rising Sun project, which will “radically reframe the history of classical music by embracing the true diversity of its origins and expanding the inclusivity of its future” through world-premiere recordings of some two hundred works by Black composers. Downes’s program included two works by Florence Price – Clouds and Meditation[3] – that remained “in the shadows” until their publication and recording in the last twelve months, works by Mary Kouyoumdjian and Elena Ruehr, moving performances with Magos Herrera of music by Abbey Lincoln (1930–2010) and Marta Valdés (b. 1934), and the world premiere of Stephanie Ann Boyd’s (b. 1990) My Grandmother’s Garden. Readers of this page will find particularly notable that the program also included the public premiere of a soon-to-be published work for piano solo by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972): the Tangamerican – an “American tango” – that bears all the pathos and romantic beauty typical of the tango as a genre (now available separately on YouTube and soon to be published by Hildegard Publishing Company). The work and the performance as a whole are real joys, tributes to just a few of the threads in this remarkable tapestry.

  • Immediately after the Harris and Biden speeches, pianist Maeve Brophy gave a concert of piano-solo works by women. Currently a Resident Artist at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, Tennessee, Brophy has been active giving livestream concerts and making videos of solo piano music by women composers for her YouTube channel. With delicious irony (given that the performance was intentionally pushed back to follow the speeches and thus was a postlude of sorts), this program was dominated by preludes. It included two works in that genre by Marion Bauer (1882-1955) and five by Nannie Louise Wright (?1878-1858), plus an apparently spontaneously added “prelude” in the form of an arrangement of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child – a musical prayer offering support for the Biden/Harris team as they begin the work of undoing the myriad economic injustices of the last four years (and more). The program also included two other works by Wright and two others by Bauer, as well as brilliant biracial journalist and composer Philippa Schuyler’s (1931-67) too-rarely heard Fortune Favored the Bold Player and Jamaican American “Du Ciel”’s[4] wittily titled and composed Dance of the Chronically Tardy. The ever-imaginative Amy Beach was also represented with five works (my personal favorites: Exiles and Scottish Legend). As with the Sacramento festival mentioned above, this program is far too rich to do justice to in this short post; let me conclude this paragraph by encouraging you to watch it – reflecting on how and why it is that most of this music has been marginalized, and eager to take in more of it. Here’s a link to Brophy’s performance:

  • Finally, Sunday afternoon Dr. Melissa Givens (quoted earlier) gave a faculty recital titled Out of the Shadows and devoted to art songs by Black composers. This program was not devoted exclusively to women composers, but to Black composers male as well as female, and mostly to diasporic poets (with the addition of Fred Bowles and noted English lesbian poet Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall). The composers in this excellent recital included Jeremiah Joseph (b. 1987), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), and Rosephanye Powell (b. 1962), but the most impressive sets were penned by Florence Price (Hold Fast to Dreams [1945], The Heart of a Woman [1941], and Fantasy in Purple [1940]), Zenobia Powell Perry (1908–2004; the Threnody Song Cycle – a set too far too rarely done), and Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949; two of the Saracen Songs and the deliciously tender Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One [1935]). Givens’s program set out to “elevate, celebrate, and introduce you to composers of the diaspora of Blackness” – and it succeeded marvelously. Here is the livestream of Dr. Givens’s recital.

There’s much to take away from these three performances and others like them – but perhaps the most important one is most eloquently articulated in this Harris meme:

Until recently, the thing that has been most visibly been shattering glass ceilings in the United States has been the COVID-19 rates and death tolls, which as of this writing stand at 10,367,580 cases and 244,123 deaths in this country. (In a week or two, of course, we’ll wish that there were “only” 244,000+ lives lost to this pandemic given free reign by a Republican administration that knows little about those lives and cares less for them.)

But what Vice President-elect Harris, these performances, and others like them did this weekend made clear that women, men and women of color, first-generation descendants of immigrants, HBCU graduates, and others who have lived in the shadows cast by the worn-out canvas of sexism, White privilege, and hatred can – and will – be seen. They will have their voices (musical and other) heard. And they have shown – not least through their music -- that they have always been a vibrant and vital thread in the tapestry of our cultural and political life. They’ve shown that they will lead where none has been able to lead before. We, all of us, now have to choose whether we embrace the monochromatic past or follow them into a future that is its own “country of possibilities” – possibilities limited only by the outermost frontiers of human creative imagination itself.

This old White guy has his shoes on and is eager to follow these women as they lead us into the rising sun. Walk with us.


[1] Melissa Givens, soprano, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano, Out of the Shadows: Art Songs by Black Composers, Pomona College Faculty Artist Recital, November 8, 2020. [2] The complete FeNAM programs are available here. The program for Downes’s concert is on p. 11. [3] Both ed. John Michael Cooper (New York: G. Schirmer, 2020) [4] Real name: Shelise Du Cille Gagne.

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