Teddy Abrams And Jecorey Arthur Collaborate On Program About Racial Injustice Rapper-turned-politician Jecorey Arthur is teaming up with Teddy Abrams, the head of the Louisville's orchestra, for a musical collaboration tackling racial injustice.

'Music Is Music': A Rapper And A Conductor Cross Centuries In Louisville

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How do traditional arts organizations respond to turbulent times? Well, here's one answer. Louisville, Ky., has been a center of protest since Breonna Taylor was killed by police one year ago this month. And two prominent musicians in that city have an unusual collaboration. Jecorey Arthur is a rapper and music educator who, last year, became Louisville's youngest elected official as a city councilor. And Teddy Abrams conducts the Louisville Orchestra. He became music director seven years ago when he was in his mid-20s. Teddy Abrams and Jecorey Arthur are teaming up for a live-streamed concert tomorrow night, and they are here to talk with us about it.


TEDDY ABRAMS: Thanks so much for having us.

JECOREY ARTHUR: Peace. What's up? Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: So before you tell us what the audience at home will actually hear in this program, tell us what you were hoping to achieve with this performance. Like, what are you trying to accomplish here?

ABRAMS: So I think, like every person in the arts - and especially large arts institutions - we've all been, you know, asking ourselves for this last period what we can all do to address the issues of equity that are so obvious. And there has been a relationship between the Louisville Orchestra and Jecorey Arthur and me that I think is really special and natural. And it seemed like the perfect opportunity here - just about a year after the killing of Breonna Taylor - to do something that specifically used Jecorey's incredible talents across the board in many different ways to tell this story of Black music using the orchestra as the platform, but using the subject matter as a way of transcending the genre of orchestral music.

SHAPIRO: Jecorey, what are you trying to do with this program? I mean, like, what do you hope the audience specifically gets out of tomorrow night?

ARTHUR: Everything that Teddy said, but also realizing the through line of where we are today in terms of American music and how it is a reflection of Black music, a reflection of Negro spirituals that were sung on plantations by enslaved Black people, and how that music really led us from the spirituals themselves through blues, through R&B, rock and roll, hip-hop - these Negro melodies that are religious and bold and married. And they got us to where we are today.

SHAPIRO: And so what does that sound like in practice? I mean, when people tune in, like, what are the pieces that advance that mission?

ABRAMS: So it starts actually with a piece in the more European classical tradition. So the first part of the program is going to be me - for some reason - taking on a crazy task - but that's kind of what we do here in the Louisville Orchestra...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ABRAMS: ...Of playing and conducting the Ravel Piano Concerto, which...

SHAPIRO: You're playing the piano and also conducting the orchestra.

ABRAMS: That's the plan.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ABRAMS: And why we're doing this in the middle of all this craziness, it's just because, you know, staying busy and staying challenged has been my way of dealing with everything.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a bit of this Ravel concerto. The recording we have here is Krystian Zimerman with the Cleveland Orchestra, but it gives a sense of what you're going to be doing.


SHAPIRO: And so this is kind of traditional classical music that you would expect from an orchestra, and then it evolves in an interesting way. Jecorey, what else is on the program?

ARTHUR: We're also looking at a wide range of genres - the Negro spirituals, of course, such as "Go Down Moses," which is a spiritual that calls for freedom from slavery. We're looking at blues - W.C. Handy's music, Ella Fitzgerald, a little bit of Aretha Franklin. We're looking at all sorts of genres from the early emancipation of slavery all the way up to where we are now, which, of course, hip-hop being one of the more popular genres...



ARTHUR: ...We'll close with a hip-hop track called "The Show" by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick.


DOUG E FRESH AND THE GET FRESH CREW: (Rapping) Because these shoes always hurt my corns. I gotta say six minutes. I gotta say six minutes...

SHAPIRO: You've been collaborating for a long time. I mean, one of the pieces you did together was a 2017 rap opera about Muhammad Ali, who's from Louisville. We have a clip here where, Jecorey, you're on vocals. Teddy, you're on the piano.


ARTHUR: (Rapping) Yes, yes, yes. The face of truth is open. The eyes of truth are bright. The lips of truth are never closed. The head of truth, upright. The breast of truth stands forward. The gaze of truth is straight. Truth neither fear or doubt. Truth patiently waits.

SHAPIRO: Jecorey, what do you think your genres can teach each other from these kinds of collaborations?

ARTHUR: I think to a certain extent, when we talk about audiences, a part of what we do is to make people realize they're a part of the same audience. You know, when you look at Western music and you really strip it down note by note, we have the same rhythms, the same 12 notes that we pull from, a lot of the same instrumentation. We're really just trying to show people that music is music. And you can go from one genre to the next, such as Teddy does or such as I do, seamlessly and really show people that do the same and appreciating on the listening part. We also do the same when we enter classrooms, making sure that everyone feels like they're a part of the music-making and that their experience is reflected on that stage.

SHAPIRO: And Teddy, how do you approach this? I mean, how much of it is about just fighting the classical music slide towards an aging subscriber/supporter base that is not going to be around forever and is not going to feel relevant forever?

ABRAMS: Well, I think that you have to do it in a way that makes everybody feel proud and like they belong to what's happening at the orchestra. That if you program in such a way that it feels like you're forcing an ideology onto an audience, they will never buy into it. That idea of getting the audiences to be excited about it and be the driving force is my mission, so that it doesn't feel like this is something that I want to do and I'm telling them, now you have to listen to things in a way that it doesn't make you feel comfortable or like you have ownership over it.


SHAPIRO: You know, there's this old line - art is not a luxury, it's a necessity. And after a year like this, when Louisville saw so much turmoil and upheaval - the pandemic, the Breonna Taylor killing, the protests, the calls for accountability - tell me how you view that necessity. Like, what do you as artists need to do?

ABRAMS: I believe that actually our role has become even more important. Because as we rebuild - and Louisville has a lot of rebuilding, more rebuilding than most because of everything that's happened here - you want the artists to be leading those conversations. They're the ones that see clearly the connections between people and strive to break those barriers down. We're the ones that should be at the table talking about the future of our communities and our cities, not the thing that gets dealt with when everything else is funded and paid for and taken care of.

SHAPIRO: Well, Jecorey, I'd love to hear you address this because as someone who is both a musician and a city councilor, how do you think about the relationship between, on the one hand, artistic expression and activism and, on the other hand, political engagement and policy?

ARTHUR: Well, you got to realize that even Teddy and I talking to you, Teddy and I having a relationship, is a threat to the status quo. Focusing on making the world better musically, but also educationally and politically. And now, we're at a point where we're almost trading in those educational and those musical accolades for demands that are going to be long-term systemic change through politics. So when you unpack everything that Teddy and I are about, it's the same mission - improve this world, make this world better. But now, it's just not the school hall. It's not just the concert hall. It's also city hall.

SHAPIRO: That's rapper and City Councilman Jecorey Arthur and Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams. You can stream their concert from Louisville tomorrow night.

Thank you both so much for talking with us about it.

ARTHUR: Thank you.

ABRAMS: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us.


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