A New Song Cycle Contemplates Blackness : Deceptive Cadence A collaboration between three prominent artistic voices — singer Lawrence Brownlee, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes — examines what it means to be a black man in America today.
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A New Song Cycle Contemplates Blackness

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A New Song Cycle Contemplates Blackness

A New Song Cycle Contemplates Blackness

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The experiences of black men in America are making their way onto the opera house stage thanks to internationally acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee. He enlisted the help of two other African-American artists to create "Cycles Of My Being," which gets its West Coast premiere tomorrow night and then tours the country. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has more.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Lawrence Brownlee is one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today.

(SOUNDBITE OF OEPRA, "LA GAZZA LADRA")

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: (Singing in Italian).

TSIOULCAS: Brownley was already scheduled to sing a program that's just about as classic European as you can get when he started thinking about what else he could do.

BROWNLEE: It was during the time that it seemed that every day you turned on TV you saw something about - this was already past Trayvon Martin, but Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and so many different people. It just seemed like every day you saw something.

TSIOULCAS: So he decided it was time to create something current for the other half of the performance.

BROWNLEE: We're reduced to being something on sight. You know, I was pulled over in Los Angeles before. And this cop, he didn't know anything about me. You know, he didn't know that I've gotten a chance to meet the president of the United States and Supreme Court justices and kings and queens and speak four languages. He didn't know that. He didn't care because he saw me and he thought that I wasn't that person. And my whole thing was like - my response was, I want to get home. I have two kids and a wife. I want to live to fight another day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INHALE, EXHALE")

BROWNLEE: (Singing) Black eyes and blackouts. Blackjacks and nightmares.

TSIOULCAS: Brownlee co-wrote some of the lyrics for the song cycle with National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes.

TERRANCE HAYES: What happens when, like, black men who are artists have a conversation about our upbringing, about what it is to walk down the street and have people assume you're the opposite of what you are or an alien. I chase that kind of conversation in my day-to-day life. But I could have never imagined, like, having that with Larry.

TSIOULCAS: Hayes is being modest. He's a MacArthur genius grant winner. And so is Tyshawn Sorey, who composed the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY'S "MOVEMENT I (INTRODUCTION)")

TSIOULCAS: Sorey's well aware that he and his collaborators each work in areas that have traditionally been the realm of white artists. And that sometimes means he gets disrespected from both ends.

TYSHAWN SOREY: And I think how black composers who have for decades and even for some centuries have been marginalized in terms of not having their work performed. And also, not only does it not get performed very often, but in some circles the music isn't black enough. Some people may think it's too cerebral. So I'm not really interested in playing any of these racial games, and I never have been.

TSIOULCAS: Three collaborators had never worked together before. But Terrance Hayes says they wanted to tackle some big ideas.

HAYES: If you say, I have written a poem or a song about what it is to be a black man, like, you would have to say that's kind of impossible because that means something different every day. Like, sometimes blackness is this. Sometimes blackness is that. So the thing that we share of course is that there is ultimately a very beautiful story that you can make it here. That you are still alive despite past and future threats on your relationship to the world, your capacity to be beautiful, your right to be angry.

TSIOULCAS: One unanswered, maybe even unanswerable question comes right at the beginning of the piece.

HAYES: America, I hear you hiss and stare. Do you love the air in me as I love the air in you?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INHALE, EXHALE")

BROWNLEE: (Singing) America, I hear you hiss and stare.

TSIOULCAS: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee says he hopes listeners will come away from these concerts able to hear each other outside the concert hall with a little more empathy.

BROWNLEE: I know this country has some growing up to do. And I don't want to live in another country. This is my country. I'm proud of it. But, you know, I want what the Constitution says. I don't want more than anyone else. I just want to contribute to society. I want to be a good humanitarian, a good neighbor, a good person. And I just want that we can be respected and regarded as someone who counts in this country.

TSIOULCAS: Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INHALE, EXHALE")

BROWNLEE: (Singing) Do you love the air in me as I...

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