Art and Activism: A Dispatch from Baltimore

Over the past year, I’ve been collaborating with the poet Tameka Cage Conley on a piece called Rise, for two choirs and seven instrumentalists. The words and music bear witness to our country’s fraught civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. It comes as little surprise that “beyond” now includes my beloved hometown of Baltimore, with its long history of racial fault lines. Still, it was striking to me that on April 19, the very day that Rise was premiered in Washington, DC, a young black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore Police custody. The rest of the story is still unfolding in our city, as it has been for generations.

Rise aims to tell a story, or rather, several stories that articulate both the broad sweep of history and its repeating patterns. We begin on March 7, 1965, with a nonviolent march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis and his fellow marchers were met by state troopers, one of whom struck Lewis in the head with a billy club and fractured his skull. 25 years old at the time, Lewis did not expect to survive, much less become a 15-term Congressman serving under the first African-American president. Could he have imagined an eerily similar phalanx of militarized police in Baltimore 50 years later, responding to largely peaceful protests following the needless arrest and death of another 25 year-old black man?

The impetus behind Rise became increasingly personal with the birth of my collaborator’s beautiful son, Maze Tru Cage Conley. As Tameka wrote in a moving essay about our project:

"My son was two months old when Mike Brown was murdered in the street and left there for hours, a gracelessness that haunts and humiliates. Though I have been a professional literary artist for years, I could find no immediate words to express how I felt. There was, instead, profound speechlessness, despair, and an ache I felt I needed to claim, which swelled like a wide river when, months later, Brown’s killer was allowed to walk, free of conviction, as if by killing Brown he had done the right thing. As a mother, I felt there was a clear message to me and to my newborn son: you are not citizens, and your lives do not matter."

Artists arrive at different answers to the question of how best to engage with the world around us. For me, the process often begins with Baltimore, and takes many forms: writing love songs to the city; making music in the city, as a faculty member at a music school and artistic director of a concert seriesrecording my music to raise funds for young musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program. Empowering Baltimoreans from disenfranchised backgrounds to make their own music is critical. I have the biannual privilege of presenting original compositions by boys and girls in the Junior Bach Program; these students will have their latest works premiered at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University this Friday.

Rise invariably has deep roots in Baltimore, a city that embodies the disparity between what David Simon (creator of The Wire) calls the “two Americas.” Tameka and I are eager to bring our project here, now more than ever. In the meantime, I am planning to record and release the Invocation that opens the work, with proceeds going to Freddie Gray’s family. Echoing the patterns of history, the same music returns later in the piece, called for by Tameka’s words: “A horn tells us / a brother has fallen, again…” I now hear it as a lament, a prayer, and a call to action, for Baltimore’s past, present and future.