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April 10, 2021, 05:35:28 am
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Author Topic: Tulsa massacre opera drops Black composer over lyrics  (Read 95 times)
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« on: March 22, 2021, 11:43:52 am »

'God damn America': Tulsa massacre opera drops Black composer over lyrics

A Black composer has said he has been “decommissioned” from a work set to be performed in Oklahoma to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre in which hundreds of Black people were killed by a white mob and a prosperous Black neighborhood burned to the ground.

Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain said Tulsa Opera refused to amend the lyrics he had created for a new aria that was to be part of a piece to be performed in Greenwood Overcomes set to take place in May.

“I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last two lines are, ‘God Bless America; God Damn America!’ They asked me to omit ‘Damn’. I refused. They fired me. Life in Black America,” Roumain alleged via Twitter.

Broadway World reported the title of the work Roumain submitted was They Still Want to Kill Us.

An estimated 300 Black people were killed over two days in Tulsa, after the mob, backed by local authorities and police, rampaged through the Greenwood neighborhood – a bustling and vibrant area once known as the “Black Wall Street”. They destroyed some 35 city blocks and displaced thousands of people and effectively razed the area to the ground.

The massacre has received increased attention recently in light of its forthcoming anniversary, television productions such as HBO’s Watchmen that tackled the historic event and a controversial campaign rally scheduled in Tulsa last year on Juneteenth, a date that remembers the ending of slavery in the US, by Donald Trump. The former president moved the rally after widespread protests.

In a follow-up interview with OperaWire, Roumain said Tulsa Opera’s artistic director, Tobias Picker, emailed him suggesting that “God Bless America” be repeated twice or “God Help America” be used as an alternative instead of the original lyrics. Roumain said that Picker thought these changes would be “more poignant than the original and also makes your point in a more elegant way”. Roumain was paid in full for his work.

The Greenwood Overcomes co-curator Howard Watkins said Roumain was decommissioned after he sent an email that indicated he was unwilling to compromise on the matter. “The framework of the event was that the composer would be writing a piece for a specific singer. In this case, Daniel was to write a piece for Denyce Graves,” Watkins told OperaWire.

“She was uncomfortable with more than just the word ‘damn’. It was the cursing of this country. If you know Denyce Graves’ work and what she’s known for, she performed at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s funeral and other national events. This is reflective of her personal values and something like that was never going to work for her. Daniel didn’t show any evidence of being more flexible to the person he was creating the work for and that was the reason for the dismissal.”

Graves, a prominent Black opera singer, told OperaWire that, while she is a supporter of Black Lives Matter and creativity, she did not feel as though the lyrics as written reflected her personal values.

In a statement issued by Tulsa Opera, Graves said: “As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values. I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”

But Roumain said in the interview with OperaWire he believes his dismissal, as well as the fact that a white artistic director is overseeing the production about a race massacre, signaled a systemic issue within the opera sector.

“The Tulsa Opera has revealed why the operatic field continues to be seen as racist and divisive. When a Black composer must endure the intrusions of a white composer – within a work and a festival built around the death and artistry of Black people – but insists on his words and his way, what are we to think and do?” he said.

He added that he believed a person of color should have been appointed to be the artistic director, given the nature of the work that is exploring one of the worst racial massacres in American history.

He added: “There are so many exceptional Bipoc people in our field who could have handled this type of emotional program with more dignity and respect. When these types of poor administrative choices happen, they often times lead to these types of artistic and moral dilemmas.”


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