Robert Glasper on Juneteenth & Healing Through Music
Robert Glasper chats about his upcoming Juneteenth show in L.A. and how his music has been affected by the last few years.
This Juneteenth, the famed Hollywood Bowl music venue in Los Angeles will have the first-ever all-Black symphony orchestra in the venue’s storied 100-year history. The event, “JUNETEENTH: A Celebration of Freedom,” is musically directed by Adam Blackstone and Questlove. The artist roster is a multi-generational smorgasboard of musical talent and Black storytelling that spans the church pew to the club to the cookout.
Robert Glasper, multi-award winning composer and musician, will be one of those acts. Known for his solo work, multiple “super group” projects, Peabody-winning film scores, his contributions to To Pimp A Butterfly, and for truly bringing jazz into the twenty-first century — Glasper’s taking part in this day to celebrate and acknowledge Black freedom is not to be taken lightly. Throughout his career, but particularly in recent years, he has been steadily critiquing, brightening and excavating the Black American experience through song. As a Houstonian, hailing not far from where Juneteenth originated — when the Black folks in Galveston were told slavery was abolished long after President Abraham Lincoln made the decree — he’s been celebrating Juneteenth his whole life.
Okayplayer caught up with the maestro via Zoom to chat about the impact of the pandemic in his music making, the importance of being still, his picture of an ideal Black American future and a quick preview of what to expect for his contribution to this historic Hollywood Bowl show.
Looking at the triptych of Black Radio, you’ve always centered Blackness and Black beauty. But with Black Radio III, there’s an urgency and an immediacy to it. You’re not just shining a happy light anymore, you’re also kind of beating a stick. I see that in your other recent projects, too. I’m wondering if you can comment on that.
Robert Glasper: So much has happened from 2019 to now. I hadn’t done a Black Radio in eight years and I wasn’t going to do another one. But when the pandemic hit, I felt like people needed it. I needed it. The process of it would heal me and help me from going crazy because it would give me something to do. I had a lot of time to reflect, I had to sit down. I never sat down like that before in my life, I’m always moving. But with the pandemic, I was home watching that shit everyday on CNN and — after George Floyd — on the corner of my block in L.A. It hit me like never before because I had nothing to distract me like before. There was so much going on at that time and so, when I did Black Radio III, that’s all I was influenced by. That’s why you feel that sense of urgency.
Some of the projects I’ve been working on in that time period have influenced that work, too. I did The Photograph film score right before the pandemic. During the pandemic I scored this Dave Chappelle documentary that he was touring on. That influenced a lot. After me and Terrace did the Dinner Party album, there was some of that messaging on that as well. I almost feel like we needed Trump to be what he was. We needed the white people to see and some of their eyes were opened and people became more aware. So when more people really speak out, we can get somewhere.
The music still feels balanced, though. There is lightness to it.
Well, I didn’t want the whole thing to be about that. As artists, we have the responsibility to choose. If everything in the world is talking about one thing, I don’t necessarily want my album to talk about that, too. Sometimes people don’t want to hear that shit anymore. They want to hear something different, they need a breather. Music is a breather.
As an artist, you have to choose: do I want to be a breather or do I wanna speak more on what they’re talking about? I chose to let the first two tracks speak. So, as a listener, you also have a choice. You can start at track three if you like, and let the record flow if you don’t want to deal with that. Or you can hit track one.
You’ve spoken before about how jazz needs to be unconventional and provocative. Are there ways in which, as a jazz musician, you apply those same principles and tenets to your career and life at large?
I feel like being unapologetically who you are and having the “fuck it” frame of mind and presenting things as they are, a lot of that comes from the jazz cats who were around in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The shit was real back then. They were really making music to fight against something. I think the music got into the hands of people that didn’t have such to fight for so it lost that particular characteristic of being Black and “fuck it” and “here I am.” The people who took over jazz, didn’t have that. So they redirected the whole narrative of what jazz is supposed to be about.
The concept of being a jazz musician and playing and incorporating styles isn’t new. I’m just doing it in my time with my influence, that’s the true tradition of jazz. Jazz is supposed to change with time and influence . It wasn’t made to stay the same. Not many things are.
How do you go about choosing the team to do this work with? Can I know who is going to be with you during the Juneteenth show?
The Juneteenth show is constantly changing and the whole show is ambitious and amazing. I’m just a small part of that. I was originally going to do one thing but now it has morphed into my own thing. And in my segment I have my band: Chris “Daddy” Dave on drums, Burniss Travis on bass, and my DJ Jahi Sundance. I have Killer Mike with me, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Amir Sulaiman. We’re gonna do a poem with the orchestra. We’re going to tell a story. I’m really looking forward to it.
How has Juneteenth as a holiday evolved for you? Was young Robert celebrating Juneteenth?
In my mind, it was always a holiday. There were always festivals in Texas. But I guess now it’s newly settled in, penciled in, became a federal thing, right? I don’t think it changed for any Black folks. I think white folks were just like, “Oh, is there another holiday? Cool. What’s that?”
My family is very southern. So I been knowing. It was just cookouts and all that every year to celebrate, for sure.
What does an ideal Black American future look like for you?
I feel like it’s really a page out of Chris Rock’s book: we’re not equal until we’re allowed to suck. You know? We have to go so far and beyond in order to just match up with a mediocre person who’s not our color. That’s when I know we’re equal. The super-amazing folks are always going to succeed, but we should be able to succeed without always having to be super amazing. That would be the quintessential Black American future for me: when we can suck like everybody else.
So for mediocrity to be honored and accepted —
Not that I want people of my color to be mediocre! But just like… it takes so much for us to advance. And it doesn’t take as much for other people to advance.
You mentioned Black Radio III was a healing process for you. When did you realize that it was healing?
I watched this documentary called The Year Earth Changed. It was talking about how that first year of COVID changed the planet in such a good and amazing way. There were certain animals that were going extinct who aren’t anymore because humans weren’t fucking them up. In the Bay Area, there’s a specific bird that can only mate by bird calls to locate one another. The bridge going from San Francisco to Oakland was so loud all the time, the birds couldn’t hear each other. That specific bird is now flourishing because the bridge was no longer crowded.
It got me thinking about me. I’ve been on the road for 20 years. Like… straight. I was always moving, I didn’t know how to be still. I was able to really look into myself and find what actual peace is for me. What family is. I have a young daughter now and a lady and being able to be home with them everyday made me realize how to be home. I didn’t know how to be home, how to be a regular person at home and have a family. That was healing.
You got to be mediocre! You got to be an average Joe.
Yup! Going to CVS was like going to the club for us. We were like, “Yo, you wanna hit CVS again today?”
It gave me time to sit my ass down. I was able to reflect and absorb things that were happening in a really real way. Even death. I had a lot of friends and family pass away during my time. Even my therapist was telling me like, “Yo, you don’t process death correctly because you’re moving too much. You’re always on to the next thing.” Those things come back on your body later in the form of anxiety or other things. I’ve experienced that — that’s why I got the therapist in the first place. Sitting my ass down and having those things happen, I was able to process them in a different way. When you do that, it goes hand in hand with your art.
Nereya Otieno is a writer, thinker and ramen-eater currently based in Los Angeles.