Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges
Black classical artists commemorate the Tulsa Massacre
02:41 - Source: CNN

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It’s hard to see art in the smoldering aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when White Americans destroyed a wealthy Black community in 1921, killing dozens and leaving entire city blocks in ashes. It’s hard to see triumph in the innumerable chapters of racism, bondage and hatred that have darkened our American story for hundreds of years.

But composer Adolphus Hailstork doesn’t want us to look away. He doesn’t want us to cover our ears, no matter how piercing the truth may be.

There is art in this pain. And, if you listen, there is triumph, too.

In his latest work, “Tulsa 1921: Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust” with libretto by Herbert Woodward Martin, the story of those dark days is told by a young girl, picking through the destruction and lamenting the extinguished hopes of a thriving, industrious Black community.

O, pity this dust, she sings.

This work of man

Laid low in the abstract earth.

This emotional aria – an operatic piece – will premiere on June 19 during an online musical event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, organized by the Harlem Chamber Players, Harlem Stage and Harlem School of the Arts. Along with Hailstork’s work, the event features other works from Black composers, brought to life by diverse ensembles of musicians and artists.

Together, they give voice to a truth that has long been denied in the exclusive, often hostile world of classical music: Black stories are a necessary, immortal part of the American musical tradition.

Building cathedrals of sound

An unidentified man stands alone amid the ruins of what is described as his home in Tulsa, Okla., in the aftermath of the June, 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre.

Hailstork considers himself a student of two worlds. On one hand, he is a deeply accomplished denizen of the lofty European classical tradition (He once studied with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau – a detail that should send any enthusiast into fits). On the other, the Rochester, New York native feels a duty to commemorate the history of Black Americans through his music.

“The survival of African Americans in this country is a story of survival. It deserves to be honored in the arts. On stage. In music,” he says. “It’s a noble story and it needs to be told.”

His telling is not always pleasant. In “American Guernica,” composed in memory of the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, flutes and horns blare in an unrelenting churn. An almost biblical sorrow infuses Hailstork’s numerous meditations on slavery. Right now, he’s working on piece in honor of George Floyd, titled “A Knee on the Neck.”

Many of Hailstork’s works are shaped by pride, spirituality or a sense of historical import.

“And sometimes,” he says, “It’s fury.”

But even his most solemn works are balanced with a counterweight of hope. It’s there in “Pity These Ashes,” amid the tears of a child seeing the achievements of her Black neighbors burnt to the ground.

Do not allow ashes to be the end of my days.

Do not let this dust be the only memory of my work.

“While it is a lament on behalf of those who died,” he says, “It is also a proclamation, that as long as we live in this land, we will continue to strive.”

Dr. Adolphus Hailstork

Hailstork believes that America has never properly grieved the innumerable lives that were lost to slavery. This, he says, also marks the genesis of the greatest triumph in our history: That Black culture has survived generations of bondage and oppression, and is still standing.

“Europeans built cathedrals and wrote masses about those they revered,” he says. “Don’t Black people deserve to have cathedrals, of sound or stone, put up in their name also?

Becoming the vessel

“Pity These Ashes” is written for chamber orchestra and a single mezzo-soprano voice. At the piece’s premiere, that voice will belong to J’Nai Bridges, who has been called the “Beyoncé of Opera” by BET.

Bridges was introduced to opera and classical music by a high school choir teacher who recognized her innate gift and encouraged her to pursue it.

“What drew me was the storytelling, and becoming a vessel to dive into these amazing stories,” she says. “They reflect history, they reflect the most common and universal emotions: Tragedy, death, love, joy, heartbreak, jealousy, deceit. This music is for everyone.”

Like many others, Bridges has felt the friction that comes from being a Black classical artist in a space so dominated by whiteness. Longstanding systemic issues have shut people of color out of creative industries for generations, but that hostility reverberates in even the smallest of details: A venue’s makeup artist doesn’t have a dark enough shade of foundation; an oblivious patron makes a rude comment about race.

Opera star J'Nai Bridges

Luckily, Bridges says, she senses that change is afoot.

“I feel very inspired by the times we’re in,” she says. “People of all ethnicities are asking what they can do about racism in our art. And I’m also seeing opera houses and institutions around the country implement initiatives for equity.”

Last summer, after the death of George Floyd, the LA Opera asked Bridges to sing something. She told them she just couldn’t – not then. What she wanted to do was talk. So instead of a concert,