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Resisting Racial Demagoguery

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Resisting Racial Demagoguery

Tulsa Opera stands up to composer Daniel Bernard Roumain—and its concert commemorating the city’s massacre shines in his absence. June 10, 2021
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain has made a good career leveraging his skin color. He writes pieces with titles like “i am a white person who ____ Black people.” He argues that orchestras should “focus on BLACK artists exclusively” (capitalization in the original). He has solicited funding for a work written “EXCLUSIVELY for BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] members of ANY orchestra.”

When a percussionist on Roumain’s Facebook page suggested that such a work would be divisive, Roumain told him to “speak less and try to listen and learn and understand more.” BIPOC musicians “FACE racism everyday” from their white orchestral colleagues, Roumain added. In fact, Roumain argues, white musicians’ contracts should be term-limited as reparations for “decades of benefitting from orchestral racism.”

Roumain’s racial-justice profile has earned him a seat on the boards of the League of American Orchestras and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, as well as a faculty position at Arizona State University. He has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall and is working on film, TV, and opera scores.

He likely seemed a natural choice, then, to write a piece to commemorate the centennial of a race riot in Tulsa. That explosion of violence, from May 31, 1921, to June 1, 1921, followed a still-undetermined incident between a 19-year-old black male and a 17-year-old white female. Tulsa officials tried to protect the male from a possible lynching; armed black residents circled the jail where the teen was being held as another line of defense. Gunfire broke out around the jail, killing 10 whites and two blacks. In retaliation, white rampagers looted and set fire to hundreds of homes and businesses in the black section of Tulsa called Greenwood. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to ashes, leaving thousands homeless. A 2001 report by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission confirmed 26 black and 13 white deaths from the riots; unofficial estimates put the death toll at several hundred. Many more were wounded.

Tulsa Opera planned a concert called Greenwood Overcomes as part of the city’s riot centennial events. Eight black opera singers, accompanied on the piano by Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Howard Watkins, would perform the works of 23 living black composers, as well as traditional songs and spirituals. Tulsa Opera commissioned four new works for the concert, the first commissions in its history.

Roumain received one of those commissions, and it was a peach: writing a short aria for mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Graves’s Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen in 1995 received rousing acclaim, drawing international attention to her full-bodied vocal tone and smoldering stage presence. She would be the biggest star of the Tulsa concert; any composer would jump to have her perform his work.

Roumain titled his aria for Graves: “They Still Want to Kill Us,” referring, he explained, to “the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” deaths that provide evidence of the “bloodlust sown deep within the American psyche.” Roumain’s titles are his calling card, into which he puts his greatest effort, he says—arguably an unusual emphasis for a composer; once he comes up with the name of a piece, the musical writing comes easily.

Roumain also wrote the aria’s lyrics, which begin with brief phrases about the rampage and end with:

They still want to kill us.
God Bless America
God Damn America.

Before Roumain composed the piece, Graves had sent him possible texts as an example of what might appeal to her. This was not it. Graves baulked at the aria as written. “I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics,” she explained in a written statement. “As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity.” But the aria’s concluding words did not “line up with my personal values,” she wrote. She could not “find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”

Tulsa Opera’s artistic director, composer Tobias Picker, suggested that Roumain rewrite the final line, perhaps to “God Help America.” According to Howard Watkins, Roumain showed no “evidence of being more flexible to the person he was creating the work for.” Roumain refused to make any changes and Graves declined further involvement with the piece. Picker reached out to other singers on the program; they were also reluctant to sing the work, Picker says. Tulsa Opera cancelled the Roumain piece and paid him his fee.

If Tulsa Opera was caught off guard by the content of “They Still Want to Kill Us,” it should not have been. Roumain has been invited to participate in another group composing project called “America/beautiful,” to be premiered on July 4. The purpose of “America/beautiful,” according to organizer Min Kwon, is to remind us that “there is still so much beauty in this country of ours.” Roumain’s contribution is called “America, NEVER beautiful.” He explains the title: “I don’t want to be complicit in the horrors of white America, so, as a composer, I will do all that I can to remind us all just how much America has not, is not, and may not ever really be beautiful. This country has created horrors for so many, that the title reflects how I feel, and the music is an expression of anger and rage and sorrow.”

Roumain’s response to the cancellation of “They Still Want to Kill Us” was also predictable: he went immediately to work playing the race card, finding a receptive audience in the classical music press. Welcome to “Life in Black America,” he tweeted. The cancellation of his aria was the “height of racist and discriminatory practice,” he told New York’s Vulture website. The decommissioning of “They Still Want to Kill Us” echoed the racist tragedy that the concert was meant to commemorate, he said. The Black Opera Alliance announced that it was “saddened and disturbed” by Tulsa Opera’s decision.

Roumain was particularly exercised that Picker was involved in trying to reach a compromise. Picker is white. No matter that Graves was the one who rejected the piece and that Howard Watkins was just as instrumental as Picker in the abortive negotiations. The entire incident, in Roumain’s view, reflected what happens when a white male runs a classical music organization. Roumain told Tulsa Public Radio that it “hurt” to have Picker suggest possible revisions. Picker’s whiteness is emblematic of the racism of an institution with “far too many white males in charge,” Roumain said. And Picker’s suggested revisions didn’t speak to “what happened on Jan. 6, what happened in Ferguson, what happened in Charlottesville . . . what happened in Atlanta.”

Roumain expanded on his theme in a statement to Opera Wire: “The Tulsa Opera has revealed why the operatic field continues to be seen as racist and divisive. When a Black composer must endure the intrusions of a white composer—within a work and a festival built around the death and artistry of Black people—but insists on his words and his way, what are we to think and do? I say we don’t bend, or break, or subject ourselves to their ideas. . . . I don’t think asking a white man to be the Artistic Director around an event honoring the murder of hundreds of Black men, women, and children—by a mob of white men—was the right choice. . . . When these types of poor administrative choices happen, they often times lead to these types of artistic and moral dilemmas.”

It was Graves who refused the final line and Roumain who “insist[ed] on his words and his way.” But in his racial monomania, Roumain effaces Graves’s agency and transfers it to a white man, even though Picker was just a go-between.

The concert organizers were astonished by Roumain’s racial gloss. The “desire to change the text was not a race issue,” Watkins told Opera Wire. It was “reverse racist, and a bit offensive actually” for Roumain to denounce Picker, he said, given that Picker’s opera company was seeking to uplift black composers.

Picker, moreover, is a far cry from the white reactionary of Roumain’s nightmares. Tulsa Opera hosted the American debut of a transgender Heldenbaritone—formerly male, now “female”—who in 2019 sang the title role in Tulsa’s Don Giovanni, creating a sexual hall of mirrors that would delight the most cutting-edge gender studies professor. Picker’s own opera about one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery will be premiered in 2023.

Roumain equates being asked to rewrite a line of text with having one’s home burned down by a mob. The comparison is not only hyperbolic but also unhistorical. For centuries, composers chafed under the operatic star system. Sopranos, castrati, and tenors often insisted on replacing arias that the harried composer had written expressly for their voice with an aria from an unrelated opera, likely by a different composer, that they believed would better showcase their talents. Broadway and film composers have likewise had to watch impotently as their favorite music ends up on the cutting room floor.

In this case, Denyce Graves was not even behaving like the prototypical diva; her reluctance to sing “They are Still Killing Us” grew out of a philosophical difference. She was asking for just one line of revision rather than for the sacking of the entire work.

Roumain quickly appealed for funding to premiere the aria in a different venue. A “consortium of loving Partners in Creation,” as he put it, came through, including Opera Philadelphia, Apollo Theater, the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Joe’s Pub, Stanford Live, and the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan. A video of the work was produced and released on May 25, 2021, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges, a leader in opera’s Black Lives Matter movement, sang the piece in Central Park, while sometimes puzzling images, such as a document on felon disenfranchisement in the 2014 midterm elections, flashed across the screen. Future performances are in the works. On June 14, the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi will offer “They Still Want to Kill Us,” a panel on systemic racism featuring Roumain and music theorist Philip Ewell. (For more on Ewell, see the forthcoming summer issue of City Journal.)

The video suggests an additional reason why Graves may have balked: “They Still Want to Kill Us” is lousy music. The piano accompaniment consists of insipid, New Age-y broken triads and cliché-ridden chord progressions. The melodic line is negligible; Roumain struggles to fit words to music, awkwardly cramming lines of text, such as: “In that elevator everything changed,” into inadequate musical space. A composer speculates that had the score risen to “some purpose that could dramatically support” the “God damn America” exhortation, there may not have been a problem. “Graves is canny enough to understand that she cannot say publicly that this just sucks,” the composer observes. “Although I do believe that she was not in sympathy with the tone and thrust of the text, she also knows well what good music is. This ain’t it.”

Greenwood Overcomes may have been the first time that Roumain has not gotten his way. In the summer of 2020, Roumain had been complaining on Facebook about the lack of racial proportionality in orchestras. A retired principal violist from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra offered to tutor minority musicians in audition techniques, if Roumain would secure introductions. The offer went nowhere, apparently because the violist, Alexander Mishnaevski, was not sufficiently sensitive to the black struggle in the eyes of Roumain and his Facebook followers.

Later that year, when Roumain announced his commission from the New Jersey Symphony for “i am a white person who ____ Black people,” Mishnaevski let rip with a Facebook post accusing Roumain of racial divisiveness and musical mediocrity. The post was so intemperate that one can only surmise that the Russian-born Mishnaevski, despite five decades in the U.S., remains naïve about America’s racial landmines.

This one, of course, blew up. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra expressed its outrage at the “racist comments” and immediately programmed “i am a white person who ____ Black people” for its next season. Mishnaevski would be banned from any future involvement with the orchestra. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra condemned the “vile comment,” which only underscores the need, it said, for all to “stand against racism and hatred, and the need for orchestras to amplify BIPOC voices.” The symphony reiterated its “commitment to addressing racism that exists in our field” and declared, “Black Lives Matter.” Roumain called for Mishnaevski’s pension to be revoked.

A photo on the New Jersey Orchestra’s website publicizing “i am a white person” shows smiling, elderly white people clustered around the composer, hanging on his every word. One imagines him explaining his status as a victim of their white privilege, an accusation they humbly accept.

The “i am a white person” flap amplified Roumain’s profile. But he may have avoided embarrassment in Tulsa. The Greenwood Overcomes concert contained musical riches. The piano writing was sinuous and suave. The ecstatic accompaniment in Adolphus Hailstork’s “My Heart to Thy Heart (1954) recalled Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, while the syncopations in Tania León’s “Mi amor es” (2016) brought Manuel Ponce to mind. Melanie DeMore’s “Sending You Light” (1993) achieved a consoling catharsis in the tradition of Schubert’s “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” albeit with far more elementary musical means. Graves delivered Demore’s song as if speaking straight into the listener’s heart. Jazz and Spanish idioms, filled with delicate harmonies, infused songs by David Bontemps, Quinn Mason, and Rosephanye Powell. The poetry, often lush and surreal, whether by Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Bennett, was smoothly set to the scores.

“They Still Want To Kill Us” would have been out of place at Greenwood Overcomes, its musical level overmatched and, though not disqualifying, its tone discordant. Surprisingly, love songs predominated on the program, followed up by anthems of hope and uplift. The only piece about the Greenwood massacre itself was an excerpt from a forthcoming opera by Anthony Davis, Fire Across the Tracks: Tulsa 1921, commissioned by the Tulsa Opera. “There are many trails of tears,” in a jazzy style occasionally bordering on atonalism, recounts the alleged aerial firebombing of Greenwood. The narrator’s father was enslaved by the Chickasaw, which may be why, according to the libretto, the father nevertheless “lived in peace.” The aria ends with electronic whisperings and clickings offstage, invoking the aerial firebombing. (That air raid, reported as fact in the media’s centennial coverage, is contested; the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission found little support for the claim.)

The enthusiastic audience for Greenwood Overcomes was predominantly white and middle-aged, judging by the concert video, just like Roumain’s audience at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This demographic, scorned by the Black Lives Matter movement, is more likely to turn out for black-themed programs than blacks themselves. Roumain seeks color-coded boundaries around artistic expression and historical commemoration. This neo-segregationism is not just a blow against imaginative possibility and human understanding; it is also commercially suicidal.

Roumain is trying to get in the last word, playing the victim to the end. “I love Tulsa Opera,” he told Vulture. “The question is, does Tulsa Opera still love me? And if they’re going to say that they can’t say the words ‘God damn America,’ well, what does ‘God bless America’ really mean for them?” Tulsa Opera undoubtedly still does “love” Roumain and will be happy to commission him again. The significance of the episode, however, is that the company is still standing, despite having refused to cave in to a racial hustle. In a world of increasingly craven arts organizations, that, too, is worth commemorating.

Daniel Bernard Roumain (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

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