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June 30, 2020Jason Emerson - Managing Editor, International Musician
Clarinetist Anthony McGill of Local 802 (New York City) on May 29 posted a challenge to his social media pages to put a spotlight on racism—and it has gone viral throughout the orchestral community.
McGill’s challenge was the result of his feelings over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the subsequent protests that have erupted across the country in support of black lives. McGill is currently the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, and the first African American to hold a principal position in the 178-year-old ensemble.
The YouTube video, recorded in black and white, shows McGill in his living room performing “America the Beautiful”. He changes the song, however, by switching to a minor key and ending the composition before the final note, leaving it unresolved. He then slowly lowers himself down on both knees and puts his hands—still holding his clarinet—behind his back.
“This is a Black man going down to his knees and putting his arms and his instrument behind his back, saying, ‘Take me, arrest me.’ And in a way, as I was doing it, it felt like surrender,” he told Texas Public Radio. “We surrender to the hope that everyone will come together on this issue and try to fix it and try to make things better. We kneel because we have tried so hard that it’s hard to stand.”
The kneeling was in fact inspired by quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s one-knee protests against police violence in 2016. That protest became muted and clouded because it happened during a sporting event, McGill wrote, but now is the time to rekindle the flame.
“Now’s the time to protest,” McGill wrote in the video caption. “Can we say #ALMBLM2 (All lives matter and black lives matter as well)? Or #HowAboutNow? Or maybe the best thing to share is #ICareAboutBlackLives.”
He also encourages all of his viewers to join him. “Pick one of these potent hashtags, or all of them. And this time let’s try and #TakeTwoKnees in the struggle for justice and decency. No guidelines. Your message, your voice, your mission, your focus. Just #TakeTwoKnees for what you believe in. Pass it along. Let’s try this again and put a spotlight on this evil.”
Classical musicians of all races, colors, and creeds across the US have taken up McGill’s challenge by recording themselves playing a song then getting down on two knees, often with heads bowed. Among the numerous AFM members who have joined with this and posted to their own social media pages, include:
• Weston Sprott, trombonist, Local 802.
• Katherine Fong, violinist, Local 802.
• Katherine Needleman, oboist, Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD).
• Owen Lee, bassist, Local 1 (Cincinnati, OH).
• Danny Matsukawa, bassoonist, Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA).
• Michael Casimir and Andrew Francois, violists, Local 2-197 (St. Louis, MO).
• Titus Underwood, oboist, Local 257 (Nashville, TN).
McGill told NPR in an interview: “I’m a lowly musician who feels like he has no voice sometimes. So what I’m thinking about is, what can I offer? I think we can offer where our power comes from, and our power does come from our voice. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with this #TakeTwoKnees thing. Every time I watch one of those [response] videos, I start crying like a baby. Because I’m so moved by them, and it does matter. Changing people’s hearts actually does matter.”
To view these videos or to add one of your own, use #TakeTwoKnees on social media.
Titus Underwood, principal oboist in the Nashville Symphony, not only took up the #TakeTwoKnees challenge from his friend McGill, he also has created his own digital project called “Lift Every Voice.” That video, posted June 4, showcases nearly one dozen African American symphonic musicians from across the US performing a piece arranged by composer Fred Onovwerosuoke based on the tune for “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by J. Rosamond Johnson—the century-old song known as America’s Black National Anthem.
As the performance progresses, photos depicting the people and events of the 1960s Civil Rights movement as well as those from the protests and events of the last few years appear on screen amid the videos of the musicians playing.
The project began two months ago as a way to inspire young black musicians who don’t often see representation of themselves in orchestral music. However, after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the civil rights protests around the country, the project—which included union musicians from locals 5, 7, 23, 47, 72-147, 148-462, 257, 406, 586, and 802—was changed as a way to honor the struggle in general as well as black classical musicians. So far, the video has been viewed more than 550,000 times on all of Underwood’s social media platforms.
“It’s a vision and a message more so than just black players playing the Black National Anthem,” said Underwood, who also executive produced the video. “This music is telling more than just us playing. There’s a story to be told.”
And the story is really two-fold: one for all people and one for union musicians. For the general populace, Underwood sees multiple steps to the recognition and ultimate solution to inequality. First, see and recognize the injustice that occurs in the country, and then take a moment of self-reflection to ask, How have I been a part of this? What can I do better? And the third part is to truly understand American history: what happened, why, and how it led us to where we are now. For that, Underwood always recommends books that people read: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.
For musicians, understanding American history also encompasses understanding how history affects their art form. This includes asking questions such as whether the composers and the canon played and even the ensembles represent the entire spectrum of humanity. “I am part of an American orchestra but what does an American orchestra really look like? And what can it look like? And what can we do as far as union players?” Underwood asks. Change can come in the way Collective Bargaining Agreements are written, he says. They can facilitate change by including corrective measures and ensuring equitable representation, such as by ensuring more black ensemble members and more black programming.
“What I really want to convey is that it’s okay for people to live in a different space, and it’s okay to feel discomfort and sit in it and learn, and then move forward with actual action items. It’s very much a part of human nature to feel uncomfortable . . . but this is the time to really reflect,” he says. “The world has literally stopped in the arts. This is the first time we have actually been granted the time to search, and then when we come back we can have a true, fresh perspective on what we should do and keep that fire there and move that to strategic planning to things that we can have that will last for many years—not just a fad, not just a chapter, but we’re doing systemic change within our field and we can really be leaders with that.”