When the story of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police began making news last week, Anthony McGill felt something roiling up inside him. The clarinetist, a veteran of the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras who now holds the principal clarinet chair at the New York Philharmonic — making him the first African American to hold a principal position in that 178-year-old ensemble — began to write down some thoughts. Then he grabbed his instrument.
On May 27, McGill posted a solo performance of "America the Beautiful" to Facebook. Tweaked achingly to a minor key, his rendition hovers in the air with a combination of beauty and sorrow. At the end of the short black-and-white video, he tucks his clarinet behind his back and sinks to his knees. In the accompanying statement, he challenges fellow musicians and Americans to shine a light on racism in their own way using the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees — which he says is a tribute to Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protests of police violence.
"The issue got clouded and disregarded and dismissed by so many people, because it was in the middle of a football game," McGill says. "And so I started writing about how people aren't allowed to protest. They're never allowed to protest quietly or loudly, and they're never allowed to protest peacefully either, because people always say you shouldn't be protesting. So part of what I talked about in my statement was this problem: When is it okay to protest? How about now?"
From his home in Riverdale, the Bronx, McGill spoke to NPR about creating the post, the responses it has inspired (including videos by the Met's principal trumpeter Billy Hunter and opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee), and why he believes even small gestures of protest can have a real effect.
This conversation, which was candid and not without its emotional moments, has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Huizenga: I'm curious to know why you chose "America the Beautiful" to play, and how you had the idea to perform it the way you did.
Anthony McGill: I was sitting outside eating some breakfast. My wife came by and I told her what I was thinking about doing, writing this statement piece. I said, "You know, if I'm going to really do this, I feel like I need to play my instrument, because it's part of my voice." She said, "How about 'America the Beautiful'? And I said, "That's right. That's it."
As I was playing the piece, and trying to remember how to play it, I might have played a wrong note or something. I realized I could turn it into a minor key, just by playing a couple different notes — and that that's what I needed to go along with what I had written.
So those "wrong" notes were right, in a way.
I realized that's exactly what I mean to say, that if we are truly to be real about who we are in this country as Americans, then this shouldn't be wrong: You know, protesting shouldn't be wrong. We should be able to say and look ourselves in the mirror and use our voices as musicians and artists, whatever our strengths are. We should be using those to express what's wrong so we can help make it right.
Like a lot of people, I sang that song in school as a kid. It's a patriotic song. What does that song mean to you today?
This is what people mistake about protest in general: Some people who protest really do love their countries a lot. I grew up singing that song. I know the words to the song. It's a beautiful, beautiful song. But sometimes we get a little off. Sometimes it's not all in a major key. And we shouldn't pretend like life and the world is always major because we want it to be. Sometimes life is minor. It goes off its true melody. It goes off of that simple, beautiful melody that we all expect it to be. Most of my life, I appreciate how beautiful this country is from sea to shining sea. I don't think I'd be able to have the opportunity I have in this country anywhere, possibly, in the world. That's how I feel about America. America has given me more opportunity and more gifts than any place I could ever imagine living. And yet, the melody can go off, and we need to acknowledge that we can hear it. We can't pretend like it hasn't turned to something darker.
In your Facebook post you write, "What the news this week and most weeks of my life demonstrates, however, is that black lives didn't matter in our glorified past and still don't matter that much today." That's a pretty bleak statement. But it's why people are out there in the streets protesting.
It's demonstrated by the reaction people have, which is initially what was very shocking to me about Black Lives Matter — that lots of people immediately struck that down, as though people weren't allowed to say something that should be taken as a fact. They said, "What do you mean? All lives matter." [The assumption] that immediately, when you protest something, you're saying that everyone else is terrible — I think that's a sickness. And I think it has to do with the way we think about black lives generally. To a lot of people, especially in the black community, it seems like they don't matter when lives can be snuffed out with impunity, and this is all people are saying. That shouldn't be radical. That shouldn't be thought of as a political statement. It actually speaks to humanity, and I think people conflate politics with people. We're talking about people here. We're talking about your fellow humans.
Many people have been quoting a passage from one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches: "As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention."
Yeah, that's powerful. I don't think Martin Luther King was excusing anything because his concept is nonviolence. This is what I believe in, too. But we always look at the perpetrator — we never look at the problem. And what he's talking about, is getting to the heart of the problem.
Have you participated in any of the current protests yourself, apart from what you've done on Facebook?
I haven't — I've been locked down at home. I'm still under the assumption that we have a COVID virus crisis. So I haven't really left home.
Don't answer this if you don't want to, but have you ever had an uncomfortable confrontation with the police?
Yes. I wasn't, how should I say, ever abused physically. But when I was in Cincinnati, I got pulled over late one night with some friends in the car, and told that I didn't yield the right of way to a cop. And, you know, I was called the usual "boy" — something like, "This ain't California, boy." He sat there for, like, 30 or 40 minutes with his lights flashing in the back, just sitting there while we just sat there. Then he came up and gave me a citation, and then just walked away.
I understand that I had to behave myself in a certain way around cops because of fear — because of literal fear. And that's something else a lot of folks don't understand. But that's a thing, because of repeated instances of what we see on TV, throughout our whole lives, and what we hear about from our parents and our grandparents.
Does any part of you feel hopeful at the moment? It seems like we keep going through this again and again.
I do have hope. As somebody mentioned, it's not that these things didn't happen [before], they're just being filmed now. I think that maybe this is a moment where, like when the videos came out with the dogs and fire hoses back during the original civil rights movement, people maybe woke up and saw that this is actually real. When you can't see it, people don't believe it. You know, if a tree falls in the woods, it didn't fall. But maybe if we capture that tree on tape enough times — I hate to say it, because you'd think once would be enough — we'll start to see we need to do something about this and go into the forest and figure this out.
I was listening to an interview with Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer who the movie Just Mercy is about. They asked him if he had hope, and he said, "I'm always hopeful, because the only way we can make change in the world is when we believe things that we have not seen. Hopefulness has to be the approach we take. So I am hopeful just because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Once you become hopeless, you become a prisoner of the conditions that have created so much conflict."
Yes, yes. Whew! .... [long pause] Let me just take a minute.
It's OK, we can both take a minute.
I read Bryan Stevenson's book this year. And I read The Sun Does Shine, by [Anthony] Ray Hinton, who Stevenson got off of death row. And I think it changed my life. This man had been on death row for, I don't know, 30 years? And somehow he found hope when Bryan Stevenson walked into that prison, that hell on earth. So if those folks can have hope, then we should keep our heads up. Because people like him are doing the real work.
I'm a lowly musician who feels like he has no voice sometimes. So what I'm thinking about is, what can I offer? I think we can offer where our power comes from, and our power does come from our voice. That's kind of what I'm trying to do with this #TakeTwoKnees thing. Every time I watch one of those [response] videos, I start crying like a baby. Because I'm so moved by them, and it does matter. Changing people's hearts actually does matter.
Sometimes music can say things that words can't. It was really moving to me when Billy Hunter, the trumpeter for the Met orchestra, responded to your post by playing part of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and leaving out the notes for some of the key final words.
"The land of the ... and the home of the ... ." Yeah, it's really powerful.
At the end of your statement you write: "This time, let's try and take two knees in the struggle for justice and decency. No guidelines. Your message, your voice, your mission, your focus. Just two knees for what you believe in. Pass it along. Let's try this again and put the spotlight on this evil." There have been a lot of responses. You say you're just a lowly musician, but you've obviously inspired a lot of people to pay attention.
I never imagined that this would affect so many people, but I think a lot of us are feeling the same way. A lot of my fellow musicians are feeling the same way and are trying to express it. And that's why I tried to leave it open. If you want to just take two knees and sit there silently, that's what my wish would be as well.
And to be honest, what I got out of reading your suggestion at the end of your post — what it told me to do — was to call you up and talk to you.
Thank you — I am really moved and touched by us having this conversation, frankly.
I think it's important to understand that we all have our voice, our way. We think we're helpless and that things are hopeless, but there are ways we can actually pass on positivity and righteousness and beauty and good. Because if we don't say something or use our own power, our own voice, our own standing up or kneeling down or talking to our friends and our family in awkward situations, then this stuff just keeps going on, year after year, century after century. So what I'm saying is that we could do a simple gesture or a large gesture, but in a way, it's all protest. And we just have to understand that it's possible. That we can protest, and it can be okay.