Last week, as protests against police killings of Black people began to erupt across the United States, the New York Philharmonic’s first and only Black principal player took a stand of his own. In a stark black-and-white video posted to his social media platforms, clarinetist Anthony McGill turned “America the Beautiful” into an incisive song of mourning, sinking to his knees after letting the second-to-last note trail off unresolved, an unanswered question.
This “normal” isn’t new. For Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Now’s the time to protest. This time let’s take #TakeTwoKnees in the struggle for justice and decency. Film yourself taking two knees. Let’s put a spotlight on this evil. #TakeTwoKnees #icareaboutblacklives #howaboutnow pic.twitter.com/errKPoyjsP— Anthony McGill (@mcgillab) May 28, 2020
Since the video was posted, many musicians from around the world have answered McGill’s call. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee kneeled for his take on the spiritual “There’s a Man Going 'Round Taking Names”; Harlem Quartet founder Melissa White showed up with “Lift Every Voice and Sing"; in Boston, violist Sarah Darling contributed an excerpt from Caroline Shaw’s “In manus tuas.” It’s not limited to musicians — Juilliard School dance director Alicia Graf Mack choreographed a poignant solo to McGill’s recording and danced in silhouette, backlit by two windows.
“I did not know so many people would make these beautiful tributes," McGill said over the phone from his Bronx home. “The last week has been pretty emotional for me. I’ve seen almost all of the videos, and I watch and I listen to them over and over again.”
Q. How had you been feeling in the days leading up to the recording of the video?
A. It’s been pretty terrible. I’d gotten over the initial fear and sadness over the start of this [coronavirus] crisis, and had started to feel like I was getting everything together, and all of a sudden it was like one hit after another. Sleeping was difficult. I felt like I had no voice, right? But I decided to say something about it.
Q. Tell me about how you picked what to play, and the changes that you made to it.
A. At first I didn’t want to play my clarinet at all for this. Then, as I was talking with my wife about the concept of actually coming out and making a statement on social media, she said “how about ‘America, the Beautiful?’" I said, “That’s it right there.” I knew right away that’s the kind of powerful statement I wanted to make.
The minor key happened as I was playing it. I was like “that’s exactly what I want to say.” It sounds like it’s a really happy, major, sunny piece, and that’s what’s beautiful about America, the country we all love, and yet there’s always been this shadow that has never been resolved, year after year.
Q. When you said “film yourself taking two knees,” who did you put out the challenge to? Did you think people were going to start playing their own music along with it?
A. I wanted to keep it as open as possible, and I still do. The fact that the initial [take a knee] protest was during football games was very much a part of this. I think the original message of what [Colin Kaepernick] was protesting was totally missed by so many people, just by the fact that the NFL disallowed that from happening. But they’re not even playing games or concerts, and people are still dying out there. We should all be on our knees right now trying to stop this nonsense. I wanted people to just film themselves getting down on two knees and saying let’s fight racial injustice. Let’s try to solve this problem, and actually focus our attention on the problem. Everyone has to admit it’s a problem in order to fix it.
Some of us feel so silent as musicians, because we spend our whole lives not saying anything — I’m actually speaking about myself. I spent my whole life behaving myself, playing music. ‘Let your music speak for itself’ — that’s what we learn from the time we’re children. And it has spoken for itself, but I wanted it to speak for someone else. And I think this is what I’m hoping for, that our music can speak for others, the voiceless.
Q. Living in the classical music world, were you ever hesitant to speak out about issues of racism or inequality?
A. I don’t think I was pressured. I just think there’s a silent kind of respect of conservatism within the classical music world, where you’re supposed to focus so singularly on your mission to play the best music possible in the most beautiful, perfect way, that everything else is noise.
Q. I’ve seen white musicians throw around that Leonard Bernstein quote so many times, like during the first huge wave of Black Lives Matter — “this will be our reply to violence, to make music more beautifully than ever before.” Something like that.
A. That’s a really great concept — that during our concerts of Beethoven and Mozart and all the greats, that we will be playing more ferociously — but we in the classical music field, we need to put some words and actions behind the ferociously beautiful music-making we’re trying to do every day. This is the first time I’ve done it in this way publicly, with my heart just hanging out there.
I understand the silent culture of classical music regarding politics and staying away from hot issues. [But] we need to be relevant in our communities, and it’s moments like this that actually prove the mettle of what we really stand for. It’s like when people use empty slogans all the time after mass shootings; it becomes blank if it’s not backed up with real emotion and action. But what I’ve seen this weekend, for instance — I’ve seen, for the first time, classical music organizations actually say the words out loud that we all know, and hopefully believe and strive for.
Q. What can these organizations do after they make those statements, to keep that momentum going?
A. Finding out the four or five top things that are actionable that they can do today, or tomorrow, or within the next year. Because no one’s performing. It’s not like the bandwidth is being used to schedule concerts right now. This bandwidth should be going toward finding people in the community, diverse people that have opinions. You can hire consultants. You can talk to people of color, LGBTQ people, in your orchestra. You could open up all the gates of silent voices in your organization, and say “What are the things that we can do that will make an actual difference in someone’s life?” Then list those things publicly, and hold your people accountable for those things if you really believe in them.
If you really believe that Black lives matter, or that LGBTQ lives matter, or whoever matters, then you will do something to show that. You won’t just play music more beautifully, and present the same concerts in the same way you’ve done for hundreds of years.
I think this is daring and scary for a lot of people. This sort of thing is almost radical in our field, and I think it’s about time that it wasn’t. We’re nonprofit. We’re supposed to be about charity, beauty, and love — and music is great, but if we really care about communicating with our community, then we have to understand how to back up our words with vital action, to show people that we do care.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.