Alonzo Demetrius Is Fueled By Activism

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Alonzo Demetrius earned two degrees from Berklee College of Music.

(Photo: Katyayani Krishnan)

Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius’ thirst for social justice is evident on his leader debut, Live From The Prison Nation. “Movements transform people from individuals to a collective”: Those words from journalist and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal are incorporated into “Mumia’s Guidance,” an ambitious, nine-minute track on the album. The disc reflects many lessons Demetrius learned while earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston. But they went much deeper than licks and chords.

In the wake of the deaths of Black citizens Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland (who each died while in police custody during 2015), Demetrius attended a number of protests in Boston, which provided pivotal experiences. “The initial concept for the album was around police brutality, but as I was doing my research, I dove into Angela Davis’ work on the prison-industrial complex,” he said. “It became apparent to me that I needed to have her as a feature, even if it’s just to give some context.” The album’s powerful opener, “Expectations,” includes a recording of Davis.

The album’s title itself was inspired by the signature signoff Abu-Jamal—a podcaster who’s been imprisoned for four decades: “From the prison nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Demetrius chose to sample a recording of Abu-Jamal because he said it expresses “the power that communities have when they come together to make really lasting change.”

Demetrius wanted the album to inspire action. He crafted teaching tools to accompany the music, working with his mother, Latrice Torres, who has years of experience developing adult-education workshops and curricula. The pair created the Music To Action page on his website, which has discussion resources associated with four of the six songs on the album. Additionally, Demetrius offers facilitated workshops to spark discussions about prison reform.

The trumpeter and his quintet, dubbed The Ego, recorded Live From Prison Nation in 2019 at Berklee. One of Demetrius’ key mentors, drummer and Berklee educator Ralph Peterson, released the album on his independent label, Onyx Productions.

“[Peterson] took me under his wing and really empowered me with the idea that what I have to say, my musicality, is important,” Demetrius noted. In explaining why he wanted to release the album through Onyx, he cited Peterson’s connection to drummer/bandleader Art Blakey and “the legacy of uplifting and providing a platform for younger, up-and-coming musicians.”

In a separate interview, Peterson explained that he was impressed by Demetrius’ “social justice message as much as his musical message.” He added, “The fact that Alonzo’s music has today’s edge on it is exactly what I wanted for the label.”

Prison Nation is one of only two titles in the Onyx catalog that are not credited to Peterson or one of the bands he leads. (The other is singer Lainie Cooke’s 2015 release, The Music Is The Magic, which, unlike Demetrius’ album, features Peterson on drums.)

He explained that he views artists as “the conscience of society,” adding that making political statements can be a risky move. But Peterson surmised that Demetrius has “the strength of character to take risks.”

The trumpeter acknowledged the risks associated with releasing explicitly political music. But he believes that music is inherently political: “It has to be, especially when it’s coming from the perspective of somebody who’s been marginalized.” However, he finds that “there is a large gap in framing the social and political context of the musicians that we’re studying in school. It’s notes, it’s theory, it’s licks, but what was going on in the world when this music was being made?”

Demetrius said that during his musical training, he wondered why some educators seemed intent on teaching him to simply “replicate, replicate, replicate,” resulting in “being judged on how well I’m doing somebody else’s music, and how well I’m speaking with somebody else’s voice.

“There was a whole lot more to [legacy artists] than just notes on paper. And I feel ignoring that is stripping all of the culture away from it. It’s really removing the Blackness from it.”

He added, “You can’t replicate humanity.”

The teachers he strongly gravitated to at Berklee, like saxophonist Tia Fuller, offered the context he craved, along with a teaching style that resonated with him: “At no point did she ever say, ‘That lick you played was wrong.’ It was, ‘That was cool, the lines were good. You just didn’t hit the ‘third dimension.’”

Eventually, he asked her what the third dimension was. “It became almost a lesson in spirituality and being true to yourself,” he recalled. Describing Fuller as a “ridiculously powerful, ridiculously successful, Black, strong woman,” he praised her for instilling in him the idea that achieving mastery is about more than simply playing the right notes. He realized that he needed to play from his own perspective. He needed to be “playing life.”

Listening to Prison Nation, it’s evident that he has taken that lesson to heart. DB



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