It started with a simple, direct message emailed from Boston-based hip-hop artist Moe Pope to the Boston Symphony Orchestra: Your community programs aren’t reaching the entire community, and you can do better.
Pope doesn’t doubt that the BSO’s extant outreach programs were well-intentioned, such as outreach to schools and broadcasts from Tanglewood on Boston Common. But Pope, a leader of acclaimed hip-hop band STL GLD, saw a lot of room for improvement — particularly in including Black and brown Bostonians.
The BSO and the band started meeting, and after about two years of discussions and planning, STL GLD was on the books to curate a show at Symphony Hall this May, an open house-style event that would include a number of acts, including local artists and BSO players. Details were being locked down when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a stop to all live performances. But that hasn’t stopped the project entirely: Now, STL GLD and the BSO have taken their collaboration virtual with a series of video podcasts, with the live show pushed back to whenever Symphony Hall opens again. (Episodes of “Us: Sessions,” available for free at stlgld.bso.org, will be released through Nov. 13.)
“I think that people forget that you can try new things,” Pope said in an interview over Zoom. “Different people that you can try to inspire in order to get a new generation of classical lovers and musicians.”
In the first video, which premiered Oct. 29, STL GLD teams up with BSO string players in an arrangement of the band’s song “With Me,” a cut from 2019′s “The New Normal.” Subsequent videos feature group discussions on music and more hosted by STL GLD member Tim Hall; that means hip-hop artist and educator Cliff Notez and violist Danny Kim swapping musical influences, and lyrical artist Najee Janey and piccolo player Cynthia Meyers chatting about creativity and pushing personal boundaries — among many others.
“For me, it’s about different people from different worlds having a conversation,” said Pope. “So they’re having someone from the BSO listen to Dr. Dre or A Tribe Called Quest maybe for the first time, and have us listen to Bach, and trying to understand how these two worlds can live together . . . where that love of music and art came from.”
When Pope was growing up in Roxbury, just a few Orange Line stops away from Symphony Hall, his family often brought him there and to other cultural destinations. However, he knew that most of the kids of color around him weren’t sharing the same experiences — and as an adult, he found that his friends in Boston’s thriving hip-hop scene “never even felt comfortable enough to walk into the building.”
As STL GLD sees it, it’s high time that changed. “Community outreach is only community outreach if you reach out to the entire community, not just a part of it,” said Janos Fulop, a.k.a. The Arcitype, a producer and member of STL GLD.
In a phone interview, BSO youth and family concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins said that while he had heard of Pope, he had never met him prior to this collaboration — and when they met at Symphony Hall pre-pandemic, they found they shared a common goal.
“One of our hopes is to really broaden the musical vocabulary of our audience,” Wilkins said. “I think we said, when we were together . . . we want people to tune in who listen primarily to hip-hop who are shocked that they’re collaborating with the BSO, and we want people who primarily listen to the BSO who are shocked that we’re collaborating with hip-hop artists.”
When the live event does finally happen, it’s not intended to be a one-and-done deal, Wilkins said. “One of the coolest parts for me was that the BSO players were completely stoked about doing it. One of the bassists, Larry Wolf, jumped in with both feet and helped with some arrangements.”
Fulop was delighted and a little surprised to be met with such enthusiasm. “I was a little concerned — like, do these people really even want to do this? It was encouraging to see these musicians that were joining the meetings and being like, ‘I’m here because I want this to happen.’ ”
When STL GLD does take the Symphony Hall stage, it’ll bring local artists along, inviting hometown artistry to a stage that more often hosts stars of the international classical world.
As Pope sees it, such expansive programming is a necessity for classical institutions that want to thrive in the modern era. “Y’all need us probably a bit more than we need you at this point.”