How Musicians Are Evolving the Legacy of Resistance

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While he describes those discussions as “beautiful and meaningful,” an inability to help his interview subjects in a practical way frustrated Pinderhughes. So, he’s chosen to feature them on his next recording as guest artists. “I’ll probably do the production and composition first with other core collaborators,” he said, “then have one of [my interviewees] and Common [each put] a verse on the same song, together.” Pinderhughes hopes to record the project in 2020 and translate the album into an art installation the following year.

Creating those kinds of meaningful exchanges with his community at local and national levels inspires Pinderhughes as an artist-activist. And while he champions those who engage in resistance, he posits what’s missing in music activism during the age of connectivity are the connections themselves.

“If I’m being forthright,” he said, “and I try to bite my tongue, because I love and appreciate everybody, but I think one of the big differences between what I see happening with artists [today] versus earlier times is that there are a lot of artists that are presenting the markers of the things that are going on right now, without really understanding or dealing with what’s at stake.”

Pinderhughes has a bone to pick with musicians whom he observes to be absent from the front lines—artists who engage their audiences with socially aware titles and lyrics on the bandstand but refrain from engaging on-the-ground organizations working toward change. “Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte knew Martin Luther King. They were friends with him,” he said, referencing figures who risked their fame and stability in attempts to influence systemic changes. “[Certain artists today] don’t know anybody from United We Dream or Dream Defenders or Movement for Black Lives. We can’t say we know anything about the work that’s being done if we don’t know the people who are doing the work.”

Honoring the legacies of Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Pinderhughes attempts to hold his fellow artists’ feet, fingers and voices to the fire.

“Because the confrontation isn’t there,” he said, “a lot of audiences are able to run the double line where they can participate and say, ‘I’m supporting this artist, and as a result I’m connected to this movement,’ but without actually ever being challenged. And in fact, it’s actually doing the opposite of what people say it’s doing. So, that’s my thing—let’s connect. Let’s put each other in the same room and work together.”

ONE ARTIST WHO DOES USE MUSIC to position himself as an ambassador for meaningful connections is Yosvany Terry. But his activism has less to do with 21st-century technology than 21st-century legislation. Several years ago, the saxophonist and percussionist built a bridge from past to present, in part, as the result of a profound policy shift during the second half of President Barack Obama’s time in office.

In 2014, Obama became the first sitting United States president since 1928 to visit Cuba, where Terry was born and raised, and learned to play music. Soon after, the U.S. removed Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list, allowing for commercial flights from the States. During the next couple of years, Terry seized on the opportunity to bring his quintet—and later his Harvard University students—to Cuba for an immersive exchange that included facilitating workshops in different arts schools throughout the country. His goal was to provide both his bandmates and students an intimate and accurate understanding of Cuban people and their culture.

“Most of the time when people [visit] Cuba, they have to work with [guides],” Terry said. “Basically, they will have the experience that’s been curated for them. So, it was important for me to show the Cuba that I know, the Cuba that I believe [in] and the Cuba that I’m in contact with every time I travel.”

Terry recalls explaining to bandmate and drummer Obed Calvaire the gravity of what they came to accomplish as cultural ambassadors, playing their music for talented, serious-minded young musicians who’d never had the chance to interact with artists from the U.S. “This was a unique opportunity, because this is how music was passed from older generation to younger—from the horse’s mouth,” Terry said. “This is [primary] source information.”

Conversely, Terry suggested that Calvaire allowed sounds and rhythms he learned from students and elder musicians he met in Cuba to inspire his repertoire for SFJAZZ that year. “Musicians from both cultures had the opportunity to have an honest exchange, a sincere exchange, and learn from each other,” Terry said.

The saxophonist sees setbacks in U.S.-Cuba relations since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, but remains undeterred in his mission to facilitate a musical and cultural exchange between the two countries.

“The current administration is making things more difficult,” he said, “but we have to find ways to keep [the exchange] going.”

The online age has gifted today’s artists with almost endless opportunities for expression that predecessors couldn’t have predicted—or even imagined. How or if they’ll use those platforms comes down to each artist’s individual intention. To those who question the validity of music asserting a message of protest, Pinderhughes references an August article in the New York Times Magazine by Wesley Morris, “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?,” a part of the 1619 Project.

“Music in America—you can’t extricate any genre, any type of music from race, class and history,” Pinderhughes said. “It is physically and fundamentally impossible because of the origins of where it comes from, how it developed and the people that created it. It’s impossible.”

For Coss, clarifying her intention helps her speak her truth. “I have to remind myself I’m not responsible for other people,” she said. “All I can worry about is, ‘How do I want to act? What type of person do I want to be?’ No matter what I do, it’s going to be wrong for some people. But as long as it’s right for me, then I’m on the right path.” DB

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the photo of Thana Alexa was misattributed. Salvatore Corso is the photographer. DownBeat regrets the error.

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On Sale Now
April 2020
Gregory Porter
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