The Beauty of the Protest

In August 2014, 18-year-old Mike Brown -- an innocent, unarmed Black man -- was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and left lying dead in the street for over four hours. Amidst the wave of protests that followed, one took place at a St. Louis Symphony concert; protesters situated in the audience chanted “Black Lives Matter.” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross noted that “much of the audience, and some musicians in the orchestra, responded with applause.”

There are those who view the concert hall as a politics-free zone. But musical protest endures in the work of many composers, with the support of arts organizations committed to activism and social change. My wife, Lavena, and I are proud to be part of this latter community. In 2016, I wrote a piece of music for her to play and sing, called The Beauty of the Protest. It was inspired by photographer Devin Allen’s images of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, a movement sparked by the death of another innocent young Black man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of police.

Lavena is a cellist. Her first love is playing in small ensembles, or as a soloist. But she is a freelancer, which means that she also plays with orchestras from time to time. This isn’t her favorite kind of gig, in part because orchestras can be uncomfortably hierarchical ecosystems. Once, at an orchestra rehearsal, a personnel manager was dispatched by the concertmaster (second-in-command to the conductor) to tell Lavena to remove her hat. This sort of thing can make for an unhappy work environment, one that isn’t worth the paycheck it yields.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, orchestras with which Lavena is especially happy to play, and she had a gig with one of those ensembles this weekend. The only catch: this orchestra begins every one of its concerts with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This was not news to Lavena, but it registered differently this time around.

The national anthem is currently at the heart of a major protest movement, sparked in 2016 by then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick sat, then kneeled during the song, to protest the murders of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and countless other Black Americans by police. Kaepernick has effectively been blackballed by the league for his actions. The anthem’s words, written in Baltimore by Francis Scott Key in 1814, embody the never-fulfilled promise of freedom for all citizens. The third verse contains the line, “no refuge could save the hireling and slave / from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

The painful implications of the anthem are especially vivid in the NFL, where some 70% of the players are Black, and nearly all 32 team owners are white men. The number of Black musicians in a symphony orchestra is often vanishingly small, reinforcing the insularity of classical-music spaces. While the anthem is hardly a symphonic staple, it is unsurprising that it has yet to become a flashpoint for protest in the concert hall. (Curiously, the Baltimore Symphony began and ended a free, outdoor concert during the 2015 Uprising with the piece.)

The prospect of playing the anthem with the orchestra in question had arisen for Lavena at a gig a few weeks earlier, during which other white musicians made nervous jokes in rehearsal about whether they ought to kneel. As it turned out, only the brass section played the anthem at that concert. This weekend, the whole orchestra was expected to play. On her drive to the gig, Lavena passed a billboard that said, “Maple Donuts Takes a Stand and not a Knee.” It was absurd, but the message was clear: whether it’s the NFL, an orchestra, or a donut shop, Black lives are never as important as whatever an American institution is selling that day.

At the Saturday evening concert, Lavena took a knee during the anthem. Nobody said anything to her that night, nor did she hear anything the next morning, before the Sunday afternoon concert. 15 minutes before the performance, she was approached by the orchestra’s director of operations and a union representative. They were friendly, saying that they agreed with her action and the principles behind it. They explained, citing documentation, that they couldn’t necessarily protect her if the orchestra’s leadership wasn’t OK with what she was doing. Minutes later, after she had started warming up onstage, she was told that she wouldn’t be playing the concert, a decision made by the conductor.

The orchestra’s representatives indicated to Lavena that the issue was not her protest, which they supported, but the fact that she didn’t play, as she had been hired to do. They invoked the NFL protests, noting that those players weren’t abdicating any of their in-game responsibilities. In legal terms, perhaps this is a sound argument. Morally, it isn’t, and I suspect the orchestra’s staff is well aware of that. They agreed with Lavena. They felt badly about sending her home. She will still be paid for the whole weekend. But the outcome sent a message as clear as the one on the billboard: musicians have to check their principles at the stage door, or they may be dismissed.

I’m proud to have as my partner in life and music someone who is unwilling to accept the hypocrisy of playing music about racial injustice one week and “The Star-Spangled Banner” the next. I’m less sanguine about the prospects for arts institutions that are limited by the same constraints of will and imagination as the politicians that their members bemoan offstage. Last week, the Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said of protesting football players, “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” His subsequent apology notwithstanding, at least we know where he stands. To condemn statements like McNair’s while operating even loosely in their spirit is where the real danger lies.