My Thoughts on George Floyd’s Anniversary Commemorations…

(5/25/2021, by Joan Huang)

A year ago today, May 25th 2020, the scene of the George Floyd being crushed to death by the white policeman Derek Chauvin on his knees came to my eyes again. For the terrifying and wrenching tortures of 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Freud repeatedly pleaded desperately: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!! I can’t breathe!!!”, until Freud stopped breathing… It was so hard to watch! A whole year has passed, and George Freud’s case finally has a fair verdict: Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter on April 20, 2021 in front of the global watching wait-and-see case.

The most eye-catching scene of President Biden’s inauguration 4 months ago in front of White House was Amanda Gorman (a 22-year-old African American poet) ‘s reciting her poem The Hill We Climb . She was sending a cordial, clear, loud and profound message the entire country and the world.

The Hill We Climb

(By Amanda Gorman)

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

From this young woman’s powerful message, I see the. future of America.

After the death of George Floyd last year, I wrote a blog entitled The Story of the Talented African-American Conductor Anthony Parnther, published on the Chinese social media platform “WeChat”. It resonated with many Chinese readers. On this anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I feel the urge to share my emotions once again here.

My blog started like this: “Two weeks ago, I came across a passionate statement from the young 38-year-old African-American conductor and Bassoonist Anthony Parnther on Facebook and a video clip of performance Strange Fruit conducted by him.

Mr. Parnther began his natural statement in this way:

A couple things.

Like many of you, I haven’t slept in days. I’ve always felt a certain degree of powerlessness in this country, but the last four years have been especially rough. The last four weeks… four days… I don’t really have words.

I’m a well educated, well meaning, kind, reasonably successful and productive black man living in Los Angeles. I have never…never… gone a day in my life without a white woman clutching her purse when I walk by, without being closely monitored and followed in a department store, without having  families overtly lock their doors if I pass by their car. How many of these can I list for you?

When I lived in Hollywood Hills, I was stopped by the police 17…SEVENTEEN times in 3 years for driving to my own home. When I was in grad school, I was arrested for leaving a practice room at 12:30 am because they didn’t believe it was possible that ***I*** could possibly be a student at their school. They assumed I might be stealing something. When I taught in Tennessee, I was arrested in the middle of traffic for no plausible reason, deeply humiliating, as I was with my colleagues Nathan and Brian, who had to bail me out of jail. 

This is the absolute tip of the iceberg in regard to my day to day as a black man in this country. I have a books worth of experiences. This is why I get anxious when my friends drive over the speed limit with me in the car. This is why I drive slowly on the highway, it’s why I make sure to come to a *complete* stop at stop signs. Every single damn one. This is small part of why I am deeply paranoid at all times when out in public. This is why I sometimes sleep very little. This is a small speckle of what it is like to be me or to look like me at any given time. There is *literally* nothing I fear more than seeing blue and red lights behind me.

The America I live in and the America some of you live in are Two. Different. Places.

Exactly eight years to the day after 14-year old Emmett Till’s barbaric murder (which was the direct end effect of the lies of a white woman, a woman who still draws breath to this very day), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, proclaiming his “Dream” for the equitable United States we still struggle to achieve today.

Taken by Melba Levick a year ago in Venice Beach, California

Strange Fruit was given voice in 1939 by one of the most affecting singers in music history, Billy Holiday, and this startling musical statement dared shine a light on a subject of unimaginable, but all too common darkness in the human soul, then and now. The lynching and murder of blacks in the South. Have we changed? Yes. A little. We’re capturing it on camera. In Minnesota. New York City. Falcon Heights.Tulsa. Baton Rouge. North Charleston. Cleveland. Where next? Will it be you? Me?

I want to shout out to Jacob Lusk who is truly one of the great voices currently walking the earth. He has complete control of his instrument and the ability to express complex feelings with such clarity, depth of emotion, and lack of inhibition. His rendition of “Strange Fruit” has not been surpassed as far as I’m concerned. 

And no song is more relevant for the week we’ve had.

“I want to talk about a few things.

Like all of you, I have been awake at night these days. In this country, I have always felt a certain degree of powerlessness. Especially in the past four, four weeks, and four days, I really can’t express it in words. My feelings.

I am a black man living in Los Angeles, highly educated, full of sincerity and kindness, with considerable ability and certain achievements. But I never… never… lead a normal life: when I walk by a white woman, they will hold her wallet tightly: when I walk into a department store, the monitor will closely follow me ; When I pass by a car parked on the side of the road, people will consciously lock their doors. Would you still let me list a few examples?

When I lived in the Hollywood Hills, I was stopped by the police 17 … 17 times in 3 years on my drive home. When I was a graduate student at Yale University, because I practiced until 12:30 in the morning, I was arrested in the piano room because they didn’t believe that I was a student in their school. They thought I might be stealing something. When I was teaching at the University of Tennessee, I was with my colleagues Nathan and Bryan. I was arrested in a traffic jam for no reason, deeply humiliated, and Nathan and Bryan had to bail me out of prison.

As a black American, the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I can write a book to talk about these experiences. This is why if I sit in my friends’ cars as a passenger, they will feel anxious when driving over the speed limit. This is the reason why I am driving slowly on the highway. This is why I must make sure that I am not sloppy and “stop all” at the Stop Sign at the intersection. Because of these damn reasons, I am in public. In social situations, I almost got into a state of neuroticism. This is why I have long-term insomnia. These small solidified spots have caused my insecurity. To be honest, what I fear most is that from the back of my car, the blue and red lights of a police car alternately.

The United States where I live and the United States where you live are two very different places.

Eight days after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till (the tragedy caused by the false accusation of a white woman who is still alive), Martin Luther King Jr. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the doctor proclaimed his “dream”, but to this day it is still difficult for us to realize the fair American “dream”.

One of the most influential singers in music history, Billy Holiday, dubbed Strange Fruit in 1939. This moving and shocking music expresses a “From Darkness to Light” She bravely sends a signal to the human soul: it is unimaginable that she reveals the universal theme of darkness and the theme that also shines. But just now, have we changed a series of lynchings and murders of southern blacks? Yes, maybe a little bit, but not enough. We are capturing real and reliable information on the iPhone every moment. In Minnesota, New York City. Baton Rouge. North Charleston. Cleveland. Who is waiting next? Is it you or me?

I commend Jacob Lusk loudly. He is indeed one of the most beautiful voices in the world. He knows how to balance the band, and can accurately and clearly express with touching emotions. Call from the heart. For me, his interpretation of Strange Fruit is the best, no one can surpass him.

In the past week, no song has more historical significance than Strange Fruit.

Anthony’s remarks posted on Facebook with 15,000 followers, that was very influential!

Black Lives Matter! I had my first lesson 35 years ago. As a foreign student, I flew from Shanghai to the US’s second largest city Los Angeles. When I walked on the campus of UCLA, I had never seen that so many different ethnicities of students in a university. China was homogeneous, I had a cultural shock. Students of all skin colors could gather in a same classroom with joy and laughter. And we ate in a same cafeteria side by side. In our “Analysis of 20th Century Opera” class, the students were from different countries and racial backgrounds, my professor asked us to take out our own musical instruments and create the collective project “From the Micro World to the Macro world”. It was an eye-opening experience it benefited each students a lot. Almost within a week, I immediately eliminated racial barriers and made friends with my white, black and latino friends. After so many years, I am purely “color-blind”, and friends in my social circle do not wear “tinted glasses”. Four years ago, I composed a nonet entitled Coalescence to express my understanding of the United States as a multi-ethnic country. US is a polyglot country, I’ve benefited from other cultural heritages through my own various experiences in this “Melting Pot”. The five movements in “Fusion” are: 1. Peking Opera (Asian); 2. Jungle Songs (African); 3. Greensleeves (European) ; 4. Cockroach Blue (Latino); 5. Dancing with sheep (Australian).

Here is the sound track of the 4th movement of my Coalescence (recorded by New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, conducted by Frank Epstein): “The slow movement is a melancholy Passacaglia based on the popular Mexican folk song La Cucaracha.  However, I set it in minor keys instead of the original major key, until it develops into the middle section, when it becomes more hopeful where I switched it to a major key along with tempo changes.  Then it becomes dark again towards the end. 

My friendship with Anthony was purely coincidental. I sent a PDF score to him several years ago. One day, my alma mater UCLA Phiharmonia’s conductor notified me that Anthony (as a guest conductor) would like to premier my Tujia Dance, I was really happy to have a chance to work with this talented African-American conductor.

Joan Huang: Coalescence, Movement IV

I am quoting from Wikipedia:

Anthony Parnther is an American conductor, bassoonist, and educator.[1][2]

In 2019 he was appointed music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra in San Bernardino, California. He is also the music director of the Southeast Symphony in Los Angeles, California, a position he has held since 2010.

He is a prolific conductor of scoring sessions for motion picture, television, album, and video game scores with the Hollywood Studio Symphony.

During the movement of “Black Lives Matter” last year, I made this two-minute short film to introduce this talented African American musician to my Chinese readers.

As a composer, I naturally have made many musicians from all over the world. The following is our good friend Raynor Carroll, who was the principal percussionist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for several decades and the percussion professor of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

The following video is about Raynor Carroll during the “Black History Month” as an African-American musician.

As a Chinese immigrant , I feel that now is the time to build bridges between Asians Americans and African Americans and other ethnic groups. The mistrust that has lingered between us for too long should be eliminated. If all ethnic groups are united together, the “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Asians Hate” movements would become more meaningful, because our ultimate goal is the same, that is: “Everyone is equal before the Constitution! “

For the past year or so, Asian Americans have suffered greatly from the physical attacks and mental abuses. Asians have become scapegoats. They were killed, beaten, humiliated, and spitted.

“President Biden signed the “Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act” on May 20th. He stated that the United States [leaves no room for hatred.]The bill passed by both houses of Congress proves that the United States is gradually united. Be proud of the United States; the new law will guide law enforcement agencies at all levels to better identify hate crimes, remove language and cultural barriers of all ethnic groups, and protect all ethnic groups, including Asians.

Biden said that the United States must unite. In the past year or so, facing the double blow of the epidemic and hatred, too many Asian families live in fear and worry. Even if the new Covid vaccination is completed, travel will still be subject to unprovoked attacks. Worried, students are worried about the new Covid virus, and at the same time they have to guard against campus bullying and physical and psychological harm.

Biden stated that the partisan consensus obtained by the [Covid Hate Crimes Act] has not been seen in Washington for a long time. This is extremely important to Washington and the United States as a whole. It also makes him proud of the United States. The United States “will not leave any room for hatred.” (give hate no safe harbor); Prior to this, local law enforcement agencies lacked the ability to distinguish hate crimes and did not have sufficient clear guidance on handling cases. In addition, many people were delayed in reporting or seeking law enforcement due to cultural differences and language barriers, which lost the opportunities for institutional assistance.

Biden stated that the ” Covid Hate Crimes Act” will remove these barriers, requiring the Department of Justice to appoint commissioners to accelerate the review of hate crimes related to the epidemic, and instruct the Department of Health and Human Services to cooperate with local governments. Community organizations cooperate in combating hate crimes, assisting state and local law enforcement agencies in providing multilingual online reporting systems, raising public awareness of hate crimes and knowing how to defend against them. In addition, the bill also requires localities to strengthen the training of law enforcement personnel to understand how to recognize hatred Crime, improve the efficiency of censoring hate crimes.

Biden said that in the face of hatred, it is important to speak up. Silence is complicity. Now that the “Covid Hate Crimes Act” has become a reality, we need to continue and unite to promote the implementation of the Act. Hope and love are contagious.

(The above is taken from Chinese Language Newspaper “World Journal”, May 20, 2021)

Here I would also like to introduce another family of black musicians. I’m a big fan of Kanneh-Masons family:

What makes the Kanneh-Mason siblings so remarkable? Is it the fact that all seven of them seem equally obsessed with music? They are, by order of age, Isata (24), Braimah (23), Sheku (22), Konya (20), Jeneba (18), Aminata (15) and Mariatu (11), and all play either piano, violin or cello or a combination. Or is it the fact that their parents Stuart and Kadiatu – neither of them musicians but both musical – didn’t go down the more obvious hot-housing route with specialist music schools but instead opted for state education in Nottingham at a school that truly integrated music into the curriculum? Or is it the fact that they are equally at home playing Bob Marley, Mozart or medleys from the musicals?

One of the most striking things about the family is the way that music is music – they are as comfortable in their trio arrangement of the African-American spiritual Deep River as performing the classical greats. They grew up listening to all varieties of music – reggae, rap, rock, country & western, as well as classical. That was undoubtedly the secret to their semi-final success in Britain’s Got Talent in 2015, where, after their medley of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Clean Bandit, even the famously prickly Simon Cowell waxed lyrical, commenting that the six of them (Mariatu was too young to participate at the time) were ‘probably the most talented family in the world’. Fellow-judge Amanda Holden hit the nail on the head when she summed up their performance with the observation: ‘So many younger people might think this music is stuffy and you give it personality and character and fun: I think you could probably introduce it to a whole new audience of people who have never really appreciated that kind of music before.’

How right she was, and in the five years since then the siblings have made their mark both individually and as a family. In 2016 cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was the first-ever black musician to win the coveted BBC Young Musician, a competition that has been running since 1978. But he’s not the only one in the family to have made his mark there, with pianist sisters Isata and Jeneba reaching the keyboard finals in 2014 and 2018 respectively. The family have also performed at the BAFTAs and in 2018 Sheku reached an audience of two billion worldwide when he played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Sheku and Isata have both made best-selling recordings and in 2020 all seven released an album built around Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals with new poems by Michael Morpurgo, of War Horse fame, read by Morpurgo and Olivia Colman, together with irresistible illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark. In May, the family were awarded the Global Award for Best Classical Artist 2021.

But before we get carried away by the fairy-tale aspect of the Kanneh-Masons, let’s not forget that this has come about through a mix of talent, hard work and a certain amount of sacrifice too, as Kadiatu relates in her recently published book House of Music. She doesn’t like the word ‘talent’ very much though. ‘I think all children actually have genius … and it’s all about championing that. What we saw in Isata, our eldest, was incredible facility and we decided to channel it in music, and absolutely encourage it.’ She explains: ‘Genius is something you really, really want to do, which is probably more important than something called “talent”. It’s loving something, wanting to do it, having the thirst to do it, and then channelling that hard work. It’s not something you are born with, because if you do nothing about it, it goes nowhere.

So clearly she’s of the nurture rather than nature way of thinking. What impresses, whether watching the siblings perform together or as individuals, is a down-to-earth quality that is immensely engaging, which comes across very vibrantly in Alan Yentob’s documentary about the Kanneh-Masons as part of BBC1’s Imagine series created over Zoom during lockdown.

This period was clearly as intense an experience for the Kanneh-Masons as for any other family in the country (though with better music!). The siblings proceeded to stream concerts, as well as sharing, as restrictions eased, impromptu outdoor socially distanced busking sessions. As Isata explained to Alan Yentob: ‘We’ve been kept sane by playing music together.’ And it proved a time of opportunity as well as limitation, with pianists Isata and Jeneba learning all the Chopin studies between them. The arrangement from Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, with which today’s concert ends, was also created during that time. It was a musical they watched a lot when growing up and, Konya says, ‘we were thinking about new medleys that all of us could play so we didn’t have to play Monti’s Czardas for ever, so this one came to mind.’ Perhaps the last word should go to Braimah: ‘Music teaches you so much – listening, hard work, perseverance – whether you want to pursue music as a career or just for fun’. You can’t say fairer than that. (updated May 2021)

(The above is quoted from their website)

I’m ending my blog with one of the contest clips from the Kanneh-Masons siblings performed in the “Britain’s Got Talent” show in 2015.

Again, Black Lives Matter! Stop Asians Hate! ❤️❤️❤️💪💪💪🤝🤝🤝

Published by Joan Huang

I'm a freelance composer living in bucolic Altadena, the suburb of Los Angeles. Besides music making, I love cooking, drinking wines with friends, gardening, hiking and traveling.

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