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Composer Leila Adu Fights Racial Violence With Music

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Can you imagine a day when senseless violence does not plague our society? In light of recent events, that’s no easy task. In response to racial violence against African Americans, composer Leila Adu has turned to music.

Adu, a New Zealander of Ghanaian descent, is based in New York. She recently had her works performed at the 2016 Ojai Festival, one of the premiere festivals for new music in the United States. She’s also composed works for leading ensembles including SŌ Percussion and the Brentano String Quartet.

Negative Space, one of Adu’s recent compositions, is a particularly poignant reflection on the troubling racial divides that persist in the United States and throughout the world. The piece was originally composed following the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American who was shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. When a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter, people around the world cried out against the American justice system.

Adu set her cries to music.

In Negative Space, Adu explores many complex problems that are as old as the United States itself, as well as musings on her own identity. She recorded the piece first in a demo version in 2013 for voice and piano just months before Zimmerman was acquitted. In this version, the piano accompaniment plods along in a way that is almost reminiscent of Erik Satie’s “furniture music,” while Adu dolefully delivers the lyrics.

 

In the years since Martin was killed, the number of African American men and women who have been killed in a manner similar to Martin has not decreased. Adu knew it was time to revisit Negative Space, and orchestrated the piece for voice and thirteen-piece chamber ensemble earlier this year (video at the top of the page).

Though the essential musical and lyrical material remains basically unchanged in the two versions, Adu’s newly orchestrated version is an even more powerful expression of anger, grief, and confusion. Her use of woodwinds, reeds, and brass recall the plaintive, pastoral sounds of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The sweet countermelodies she composed in the violin make Negative Space almost sound like a tender lullaby.

But the text belies the seemingly simple, almost naive soundscape she creates with the chamber ensemble, giving the piece a tragically wistful quality.


 

Negative SpaceLeila Adu

I exist in a negative space
I am clearly not white and neither am I a guy
I am not an object or nature or your soul
I’m just a girl waiting to go home

Born on a fluffy cloud
never had to think about what it was like to be left out of the history books
Explorers and sugar-men, nothing but plumped up crooks
You can play at being strange but strange ain’t stamped on your head
Send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag

I’m no militant, I’m a peaceful kinda girl
I don’t aim to stake out my claim
I just wanna do my thing about the place
But I exist in a negative space

Born on a fluffy cloud
never had to think about what it was like to be left out of the history books
Explorers and sugar-men, nothing but plumped up crooks
You can play at being strange but strange ain’t stamped on your head
Send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag
They can do drugs, get arrested, next day wind up a college grad

 


By the time Negative Space has ended, we are forced to reflect on ourselves and the world around us.

Adu said that the work is “about showing the interconnectedness of all humans. Realizing, accepting and actively seeking out our similarities whilst loving our special uniqueness. Perhaps part of it is inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is the most important book about race that I have ever read.”

Though music can’t stop bullets or bring back the dead, it can at least provide us with a positive space to explore the negative.

 

  • Mo86

    ” In response to racial violence against African Americans in recent years, composer Leila Adu has turned to music.”

    To what “racial violence against African Americans in recent years” is this referring? Aside from this horrible event, all I know of is the Zimmerman-Martin case, which was self defense, and then criminals being justifiably killed by police officers. Is there another case I am unaware of?

    Surely you are not equating people in a church meeting with violent criminals, just because of their skin color?

    • People like Colin Flaherty, Paul Kersey, et al, whipping up white racists into a frenzy with their imaginary knockout games.