by Chamidae Ford
Each episode showcases an artist performing a song of their choosing, followed by a question and answer portion. Led by Creative Director Joe Williams, Black Splendor marks an opportunity to show Black musicians beyond their expected roles.
“I’ve been collaborating with musicians in this area for some time now, and I realized there was no organization who had really committed to celebrating Black art music in a substantial way,” Williams said. “It’s kind of the occasional festivities, maybe in a certain short month and a year or what have you, but beyond tokenization, there has really not been a committed act of celebrating Black art music in this region.”
Each featured artist has been selected by Williams based on their dedication, not just to music but to the community as well.
“All of the artists featured on Black Splendor have demonstrated commitment to their communities,” Williams said. “Everyone is really invested in supporting and uplifting each other. It’s not just people who are interested in playing gigs. So everyone I decide to work with will be for the culture in some way.”
Robert Murphy, a violinist whose episode will release on June 9, is also an orchestra teacher who is deeply involved with teaching and inspiring young musicians. For his episode he will be playing “African Dances, Op. 58” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
“[Taylor is an] African composer who is based in England. So these African dances, what they do is they play with different rhythms from different traditions from African drumming and music. And so there’s different layerings of different sounds,” Murphy said. “I will be playing just the second movement, which is very lyrical and it has kind of an unsteady beat that happens within the piano that is not quite [typical of] compositions that you would hear [in a] non-African Diaspora composer’s music.”
And while Black Splendor is a chance to honor Black artists, it also provides the artists with a place to build community.
“Being a part of Black Splendor is like a breath of fresh air,” Murphy said. “Typically in classical music you are in an all-white space. So when you get in a space with people that you can resonate with, that you have these certain experiences that you can’t explain to people who have not been through those experiences. Then that experience moves through the music, right? It’s like the blood — the lifeblood that you pour into when you perform — it’s just a lot different.”
For Ellaina Lewis, a soprano who stars in the second episode, Black Splendor represents the absence of fear.
“When I think of Black Splendor, the first thing to pop in my head is when Nina Simone talked about freedom and the absence of fear,” Lewis said. “When I am with the artists from ‘Black Splendor’ … one will say something with a little tinge of fear in it like, ‘Oh, I want to do this amazing artistic endeavor, but —.’ And so then another one of us will say, did you just hear yourself diminish this amazing potential because I can’t really let that go. And I think it’s just when we support each other, when we celebrate each other, I think that fear is something that cannot survive. And I think that the art that can come from that is something that we’ve seen. We’ve seen it throughout history. We’ve seen it [during the] Harlem Renaissance, et cetera, but it’s something that sparks incredible creativity.”
Her chosen song, “I Believe” by Dave Ragland, is an ode to this idea.
“The text was written by a victim of the Holocaust on a wall. And it talks about faith and the feeling of not being able to see necessarily the shining of the sun but believing that it’s still there,” Lewis said. “In choosing that song, it wasn’t really a stretch considering what we’ve all been going through with the violence against our people, as well as this pandemic how it’s affected everyone. And then as artists, just a complete change in how we’re able to express and communicate and connect with audiences. So I felt like the song was perfect in its message and perfect in sort of my internal resonance with that kind of faith and belief system that even though it is a dark time, I know that light is there.”
Black Splendor represents Black musicians finding joy and building connections, changing the narrative that says Black art must be rooted in Black trauma.
“To be Black in America is to be part of a continuum of tremendous struggle and victory,” Williams said. “[Following the death of] George Floyd, we’re seeing so much more mainstream attention on Black art, but I’m finding that this is overly weighed on Black trauma and I’m just trying to balance it out here. We can behold a lot of beautiful accomplishments in our traditions that don’t involve us centering white supremacy. We actually have an entire existence and lineage of people who had whole lives that didn’t revolve around that. And let’s not forget history does not begin with slavery. So that’s kind of my whole approach and just really making this a joyous celebration. 2021, we have to set the precedent while folks are listening.”
You can watch the Black Splendor series on Lakewold Gardens YouTube page.
Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.
📸 Featured Image: Adam Eccleston. Photo courtesy of Lakewold Gardens.
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