New Opera Teaches Classical Music Class in Ongoing Civil Rights Struggle | WFAE 90.7


When people ask Tamar-kali where she’s from, it can be a frustrating conversation.

“They want me to be able to compartmentalise it in this really neat package,” she says, “like, ‘Oh, well, I’m Jamaican’ or ‘Oh, I’m Nigerian.’ And it’s like, “No, boo, my people were literally kidnapped and enslaved and brought to America, and I’m the descendant of enslaved Africans and natives”, you know. It’s like if people just don’t like the truth – and we’re seeing that play out so aggressively right now.”

She used to channel her own aggression into rock music.

/ Felix van Groeningen


Felix van Groeningen

Composer Tamar-kali.

But before Tamar-kali became a singer, rocker and now famous film composer, she was going to be a teacher. Growing up in Brooklyn, she studied education at nearby Adelphi University. Music quickly rattled her, but she remains an educator at heart, especially on the difficult subjects our country is still grappling with.

“I realized a short time ago,” she says, “whether I want to engage in this way or not, that for some people, I’m going to be a frame of reference for my people, for who I am. – whether it’s women, whether it’s queer people, whether it’s black people – and I can either just lollygag and do it by default or I can do it with intention. do it with intention.

His latest intention is a digital opera short titled “We Hold These Truths”. The 12-minute work for voice, spoken word and small orchestra was commissioned by LA Opera as part of their Digital Shorts series. Tamar-kali took the opportunity to give a music lesson on the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and to do so she chose poems by three black intellectuals. The first is “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which she put on a demented waltz.

“It pushes against the grain in some places, in terms of the intonation, the friction, the dissonant things that happen,” she explains, “which I guess represent a manifestation of what it is that to wear the mask.”

Over the past few years, Tamar-kali has composed music for films like Mudbound and Shirley.

This order gave him a chance to flip the script and ask a director to set a movie to his music.

“I knew she was thinking about the non-novelty of this moment, she was thinking about the ahistorical way America is acting, like every moment of racial awareness for justice was new,” said dream hampton, the Emmy nominated director of Surviving R. Kelly and an old friend of the composer. “She wanted to remind America, remind anyone who might engage this piece, that we’re on a continuum and there have been sweeping moves.”

Initially, Tamar-kali was just tiredness — tired of explaining the long and nuanced history of the philosophical struggle for civil rights in this country to people who don’t share her knowledge on the subject.

“There’s definitely a guideline at this time, historically,” she says, “and there’s tons of receipts if you ever want to look at them. I called it [opera] “The receipts” at the door, because I so often hear people talk about equity issues, and I’m like, “How can you talk about these issues when you literally have no frame of reference? “So I just wanted to provide receipts for those who might be interested.”

hampton’s short is an abstract companion to the opera. It opens with sweeping shots of two young black girls exploring a grove overlooking an unnamed coastline. She was inspired by reading the garden next to the African Grove Theater – “they called it the ‘pleasure garden, where niggers could have a talk and an ice cream’. I never got that description out out of my head.”

A still of "We hold these truths."

/ Erik Paul Howard


LA Opera

An image from “We Hold These Truths”.

In the second part of the opera, a solo violin yearns for patriotism under the words of “I, Too” by Langston Hughes. The violin continues to play, while tenor Ashley Faatoalia sings lyrics that Tamar-kali wrote herself: “Oh Elijah / oh my soul”.

It was his response to the murder of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man, by Colorado police officers in 2019.

“It destroyed me,” she says. “You could be the most innocent, loving person in the world, playing the violin for stray cats, being a masseuse just trying to reach a higher level of consciousness and love – and they’ll kill you. I don’t didn’t know what I could do it, but I could write something.

The final third of this time-traveling triptych is a set from Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.”

“It’s a torch song, like straight up,” she said. “The thing about Claude McKay is that he expresses so succinctly his love for himself as a man and his commitment to his dignity.”

Tamar-kali intentionally bridges the worlds of film and music and enthusiastically enters the space of opera – something she has wanted to do for years. She is currently Artist-in-Residence at OPERA America, developing a large-scale body of work that she has had in mind since her early twenties. At the time, “the only route to opera was through conservatory or university,” she says. “There were no training programs or workshops or anything of that nature, to scout for talent outside of those halls.”

This is partly why she first turned to the punk rock scene, where she could shake off her “post-colonial, post-Catholic angst”.

But even then, her lyrics grappled with colonization and genocide and other topics that she now incorporates into her more mainstream work. “People might be having a good time and, you know, moshin’ or dancing,” she says, “but it’s always been there.”

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