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A New Song Cycle Contemplates Blackness

Shervin Lainez
Courtesy of the artist

The experiences of Black men in America today are making their way onto the classical concert stage, thanks to internationally acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee enlisted the help of two other prominent African-American artists, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes.

The three hope that the work, called Cycles of My Being, will open some eyes. Brownlee is touring the song cycle across the U.S. in the coming weeks, including a performance at New York's Carnegie Hall.

Brownlee is one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today. For his night at Carnegie's Zankel Hall, he was already scheduled to sing a piece that's as classic European as you can get — Schumann's Dichterliebe — when he started thinking about what else he could do.

"It was during the time it seemed that every day you turn on TV, you saw something — this was already past Trayvon Martin," the singer says. "But Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. So many different people, it just seemed like every day, you saw something."

So he decided it was time to create something current for the other half of the performance, a piece that could be more of a mirror to his own insights as a Black man in America.

"We're reduced to being something on sight," he observes, and begins recounting an interaction he had with a police officer. "I was pulled over in Los Angeles before. And this cop, he spoke to me in a certain way that I felt was meant to provoke. And my response was, 'I want to get home. I have two kids and a wife. I want to live to fight another day.'"

"He didn't know that I've gotten a chance to meet presidents of the United States, the vice president, Supreme Court justices, kings and queens," Brownlee continues, "and speak four languages and have advanced degrees and that I've seen 45 countries in the world. He didn't know that; he didn't care. He saw me and he thought that I wasn't that person."

Brownlee worked with Hayes, a National Book Award winner, to co-write some of the cycle's text. "What happens," Hayes muses, "when Black men who are artists have a conversation about our upbringing, about what it is to walk down the street and people assume the opposite of what you are? I chase that kind of conversation in my day-to-day life, but I could have never imagined having that with Larry."

Hayes is being modest. He's a MacArthur "genius" grant winner. So is Tyshawn Sorey, who composed the music.

Sorey is well aware that he and his collaborators each work in areas that have traditionally been the realm of white artists. That sometimes means he gets disrespected from both ends.

"I think how Black composers who have for decades, and even for some centuries, been marginalized in terms of not having their work performed very often," Sorey says. "Not only does it not get performed, but in some circles the music isn't Black enough. Some people may think it's too cerebral. I'm not really interested in playing any of these kinds of racial games, and I never have been."

The three collaborators had never worked together before. But Terrance Hayes says they wanted to tackle some big ideas.

"If you say I have written a poem or a song about what it is to be a Black man, you would have to say that's kind of impossible. It means something different every day," Hayes says. "Sometimes, Blackness is this, sometimes Blackness is that. There is ultimately a very beautiful story: that you can make it here, that you are still alive despite past and future threats on your relationship to the world, your capacity to be beautiful, your right to be angry."

One unanswered — maybe even unanswerable — question comes right at the beginning of the piece.

"America," Brownlee sings, "I hear you hiss and stare. Do you love the air in me as I love the air in you?"

With material like that to work with, Tyshawn Sorey says it was important to make his compositions transparent.

"Generally, my music tends to have a lot of subtlety in it," Sorey says. "But this particular piece, everything in there is very crystal clear. I wanted the vocals to come out in a way that really makes the listener have to listen to the lyrics. I wanted the music and the lyrics to have the same weight."

Brownlee says that he hopes listeners will come away from these concerts able to hear each other, outside the concert hall, with a little more empathy.

" I know that this country has some growing up to do, and we've been growing up for many, many, many, years," the singer says. "I feel I want what the constitution says — I don't want more than anyone else. I just want to contribute to society. I want to be a good humanitarian, a good neighbor, a good person, and I just want that we can be respected and regarded as someone who counts in this country."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.