In late July, opera singer Davóne Tines crafted a video for the annual Rockport Chamber Music Festival, an online-only event in the year 2020. The video showed Tines illuminated under a single spotlight singing a solo by the late Julius Eastman, a gay Black composer whose works are finding new audiences in the 21st century. Every 30 or so seconds, text appeared on the screen to explain Eastman’s story, style, and musical expertise.
“It spoke to the moment,” said Tines, who has performed at Tanglewood and Lincoln Center. “And it was an extension of my body of work at large.”
But the project never reached the screens of New England music-lovers through Rockport Music. Instead, it sits as a YouTube video, accessible to anyone with the link.
In an e-mail to patrons in August and in a statement to the Globe, Rockport Music said the performance was canceled due to “artistic differences.”
Those differences concerned the provocative nature of Eastman’s work, specifically his composition titles. In an effort to bring uncomfortable topics into rarefied concert halls, the composer would name his pieces using homophobic and racial slurs, including the N-word.
Tines, who is also Black, displayed these titles around the video’s seven-minute mark, with bold lettering and not a single asterisk.
“It wasn’t about the shock value of the titles,” he said. “It’s about teaching people about identity, and why Eastman chose to be so bold about his race and sexuality. It’s about hyper-contextualization.”
That’s where Rockport Music took issue. After previewing the 13-minute video, Rockport leadership feared the titles could be viewed out of context, possibly creating a backlash. A statement said that “if taken out of context, [it] could be seen as insensitive and inflammatory.”
The chamber festival’s artistic director, Barry Shiffman, e-mailed Tines on Aug. 5 to explain the organization’s reasoning. “While it is absolutely clear that the screen shots with the provocative titles are to describe Eastman’s own choice of title, and it is also clear how you have contextualized these titles, the concern is that the video will not be seen in its entirety, [and] will be misunderstood,” he wrote. “As such, Rockport will not show the video as is.”
Shiffman added that he was “deeply moved by the video, as was [his] team.”
The organization requested that Tines alter the video in some way, possibly by changing the placement of the titles or adding symbols to obscure the full spelling of offensive words. Tines declined.
A graduate of Harvard and Juilliard who grew up in rural Virginia, the vocalist has spent much of his life contorting his actions and language for exclusionary white spaces, he said. Pulling the project showed he was no longer willing to do so. Instead, he would publicly stand for and with creators who fought for racial justice and equity.
“In the beginning, my immediate thought was ’Maybe I should censor it,’” he said. “I hated myself for thinking that. Then I figured, ’Don’t talk to me about what I should present to the public and how to distribute my work.’”
Mary Jane Leach, a composer and the co-editor of the 2015 book “Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music,” supported Tines’s decision to pull the piece.
“Censoring the titles is censoring Eastman,” she said. “Plain and simple.”
The episode is especially painful for Tines, who deeply identifies with Eastman, a man who lived on the fringes of polite society and classical music culture. Despite his widely-regarded genius, the composer experienced mental illness and homelessness.
In light of the controversy, Tines regrets that fewer people will know who Eastman was.
“Even though there’s all these think pieces about Eastman, most people don’t know him,” Tines said. “And he’s often left off music curriculums. Why didn’t I learn about him at Harvard? Why didn’t I hear about him at Juilliard in my contemporary music classes? I wanted to share him with the world as much as I could.”
In the end, Tines said the situation should not be reduced to a “cancel culture” moment. Rockport Music has presented the singer’s advocacy-based projects in the past, including one last year on police brutality. The institution and its leaders care, Tines said, even if they fell short in this instance.
The dispute has sparked a constructive conversation about race and inclusion, Tines added. As of this week, the singer was already in talks with his Rockport Music contacts. Both parties share the goal of addressing where the organization went wrong and driving change for the future, Tines said.
“I don’t want to cancel a venue.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_