Political Music at the Apollo
It’s the question us politics writers have not stopped asking each other over the past year: when we talk about Donald Trump, even if it’s to point out something ridiculous about him, are we helping or hurting? The election cycle has proved the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, to the disbelief of many.
This month, Arturo O’Farrill joined the conversation, making his case for why we do have to keep talking about Trump if we want to defeat Trump.
O’Farrill performed a politically charged concert with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Choir at the Apollo Theater in New York City on May 21. The evening featured original compositions by O’Farrill about the American banking crisis, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, race, and this year’s dominant character, Donald Trump.
The clear highlight of the night was the premiere of “The Cornel West Concerto,” which was commissioned by the Apollo. Dr. West himself came onstage to give a speech along with the orchestra, bringing with him a winking stage presence and not a small amount of gravitas to the historic venue.
O’Farrill composed the piece by listening to the activist intellectual’s electrifying speeches. The music matched the ebbs and flows of West’s rhetorical patterns, tittering along with him as he spoke.
Cornel West on Al Green, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, Max Weber, Samuel Beckett, and Grandmaster Flash, in an interview with WNYC.
West marched onstage and pretended to conduct in exaggerated archetypal movements. The orchestra slyly followed his lead as the audience laughed. Throughout the performance, he interacted with musicians, celebrating with them individually when they did a solo.
West’s speech was in four sections, punctuated with the solos. The themes followed questions posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk about integrity, honesty, decency and virtue. He referred several times to reaching the “young people in the age of Ferguson” and providing an example for them.
As the music crescendoed, West broke into the black spiritual song “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” He changed the lyrics as he went on, transitioning back into spoken word, asking if you were there at the deaths of killed black men including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Emmett Till, moving up to present time with Michael Brown.
Despite the atrocities, West ended his speech triumphantly saying he still smiled because lo and behold—and he turned around and gestured at the orchestra.
It was a seamless combination of spoken word and music. The music propped West’s words, raising the power of his rhetoric to create a wave of emotion. If the exact message wasn’t entirely clear with West’s lovely twirling sentences, you still felt the sensation of the text. The standing ovation at the end was highly deserved.
The two pieces that flanked “The Cornel West Concerto” were equally political but entirely orchestral.
“A Wise Latina” and “Trump Untrump” directly referred to modern political events. Sotomayor confidently referred to herself as a “wise Latina,” and that phrase was brought up during her nomination hearings to become America’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
The characters of Trump and Sotomayor paired with the setting and Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra made the performances that much more poignant. Sotomayor can be seen as a hero for the Hispanic community, while Trump is a villain. These oppositions were made clear in the compositions.
O’Farrill introduced “A Wise Latina” saying that he was reclaiming the phrase. Because Sotomayor used it, she was asked if she had a bias and was forced to stand down and explain it. So now, O’Farrill wanted to take it back as a term of self-confidence.
The music echoed this sentiment with a triumphant groove. It was a rolling rhythm in a more classic Latin jazz style. It included the traditional jazz format with a series of solos between rhythms.
Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazzo Orchestra, “Alma Vacía” from The Offense of the Drum
In contrast, the Trump piece was somewhat more modern. It kept a staggering, stilted rhythm that faltered about. This was all part of the composition, of course. The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is a versatile, well-oiled machine.
O’Farrill introduced the Trump piece as “Trump, Fuck Trump” and said that New Yorkers have to keep fighting to tell the nation what we’ve known for quite some time: Trump is mediocrity incarnate.
At one point, a trumpeter held his instrument down to shout “China!” in a whiny slur. The audience laughed and the musicians smiled. In fact, the musicians smiled through most of the evening, clearly enjoying taking on these topical issues.
For yet another night, Trump dominated the conversation. But rather than give him a platform in a hallowed, historic hall from which to speak, O’Farrill went after him in practiced, considered strokes.
O’Farrill maintained the upper hand because of the excellence of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. But O’Farrill also managed to do something the media has repeatedly failed at.
O’Farrill showed Trump’s colors and rolled his eyes. He didn’t get angry and shout or confused and bumble like so many pundits have lately. He simply presented him as a faltering dummy and, along with the musicians, laughed.
It is that tactic—more so than reasoned arguments or pointed insults—that would frustrate Trump the most. How do you combat someone chuckling at you? The more you fight back, the more laughable you appear.
Perhaps politicians should take a page from O’Farrill’s score. ¶