GRAMMY Award-winning pianist, producer, and composer Robert Glasper wears yet another hat as the creative and musical director for The Apollo Theater Presents AFROPUNK’s Unapologetically Black The African-American Songbook Remixed. AFROPUNK’s highly-anticipated Uptown takeover hits the stage on Saturday, February 25th at the legendary Apollo Theater.
The two-show performance is a timely ode to the African-American songbook that arrives during a racially and politically fraught season for people across the United States. Lending his talents to AFROPUNK’s “international cultural movement” for the very first time, Glasper transitions from three years of work on the acclaimed Miles Ahead film score to orchestrating a major celebration of unapologetic blackness. Playing alongside special guests Bilal, Toshi Reagon, Jill Scott, Tunde Adebimpe (TV On the Radio), Staceyann Chin with Igmar Thomas’ Revive Big Band backing the show. Glasper leans on a diverse group of artists and looks to the blues at the foundation of the tradition to translate the importance of fierce individuality and activism as pillars of the black experience in America.
Karas Lamb: How did the AFROPUNK partnership come together? How did you get involved?
Robert Glasper: They reached out to me and said they were doing AFROPUNK takes over Harlem. I’ve never done anything with AFROPUNK before. We had discussed doing something this past August but then they said they were doing something bigger and better in February, so we held off until now. This is my first time being affiliated with them and doing an actual show. They told me what it was about…being unapologetically black, and I was like “fucking awesome.”
KL: The show is billed as a ‘Celebration of Black Protest’ How did the concept develop?
RG: That was more on their end. When they came to me they already had the concept put together. They just wanted me to head things up on the music side. Because of Black Radio and other projects, they know I’m good at dealing with different kinds of artists and making something cohesive out of that. Making something sound like a story, even when there are lots of people involved.
So, that’s kind of what they wanted from me – to put it together. We went back and forth discussing the music and what kind of protest music we wanted to have, which artists to reach out to, etc. There was a lot of thought put into it. So yeah, the concept was already put together when they reached out. I’ve been helping to bring that to life musically.
KL: How did you feel about the concept initially and what it could represent artistically, politically? etc.
RG: I felt it was awesome. I just spent the last three years of my life working on projects related to the Miles Davis film Miles Ahead. We just won a GRAMMY for the film score. Miles Davis is one of the most – when I think of unapologetically black, he is up there in my top five of people that really did not give a fuck about outside opinions and truly stood for something. He wore his blackness on his sleeve and didn’t conform to anything. I took that from my experience working on the Miles project, so coming off of that into this was a perfect transition.
I’m already in the right frame of mind. And it’s amazing because this goes back to the tradition established by our African-American predecessors who were great artists that did not conform for anybody. They dictated what was hot and what was dope and people copied that because they knew they were the shit and people were paying attention to that.
It’s very important for us now to know we’re the shit and that people are copying us. That we have the power to bring brilliant, artistic shapes and sounds into the world. We just have to own it and know that we can do it.
We don’t have to conform to dumb shit because that’s what is hot. That’s actually not what’s hot. That’s what people are tricked into believing is hot. We have so many great minds and it is very important that we let people know that it is okay to let your ideas and your gift shine. You don’t have to do what the next man or woman does.
RM: What does each of the artists on the bill bring to the show?
RG: One thing we didn’t want to do in organizing the event was to just show one side of black brilliance. Most people tend to think that all black music is, is hip-hop and r&b. That’s all we are. The truth is we’ve actually birthed many, many genres of music. We all thought it was important to showcase a diversity of sounds within that history.
Tunde Adebimpe has a different sound than Bilal does. Toshi has a whole different thing than Jill does. But there is a cohesiveness at the foundation — the blues, which is the foundation of everything.
That foundation exists within all of the artists involved, which is what I hear and love. You can absolutely hear where they have all been cut from the same cloth, but each of them has blossomed into something totally different. I think that that was the main thing that we wanted to showcase.
KL: Given the current political climate, do you think now is a particularly important time to use your platform/content to make statements?
RG: Artists are kind of the journalists of their respective time periods. You go through history and you are able to read what was going on because they had people that were writing those things down and preserving the information. But the masses pretty much looked to the arts to see what was going on and get a feel for things.
As artists, it is our duty to document what is going on in our time periods and in our lives. Not that any single song has ever stopped someone from being a racist or changed the course of history, but just to document the times we are in and the things that are happening is our duty. That is something that only makes us stronger when we are going through difficult times.
Song has been around a long time. Song is what made it possible for our enslaved ancestors to get through — that’s where the hymnals come in. Negro spirituals come in. Music is power and medicine. I think all of those things combined are why I — and most other people — do it.
KL: Are there any songs that you tend to return to in your own life for those reasons?
RG: There’s is one that I’ve always loved. That my mother loved and her mother loved. It’s a song in the realm of spirituals and hymns called “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” The song goes, “I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy, but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.” In 2007 I recorded that song in a medley of hymns I put on that album, but I’ve always loved that song. That’s something I’ve always hummed to myself or slipped in at shows. People don’t always know it, but that is just one I return to because of what it means to me. Even songs that are more modern speak to me. I feel like it is important to look to those pieces as well, because if we don’t champion our new music then I’m not giving my son any history. I’m not leading in my own time. Even Donnie McClurkin’s song “We Fall Down” is another great affirmation.
KL: What conversation do you hope to start or even continue with the show? Is there an action you’re looking to incite?
RG: I just hope it ignites a fire in other people to want to do more of the same in whatever they do. Whatever their art form or passion is. To try to direct it into something that is forward moving. For people to remember the history of our culture — where we came from. For people to not forget that we are here because we stand on someone else’s shoulders. Someone else got us here.
As artists and people, we have to do the same. There are a lot of people – in the arts especially – that are into saying things like “I’m looking out for me – I’m not a role model.” That kind of stuff. It is offensive, because the reality is that you’re literally in the position you’re in right now because of somebody else. How dare you say that and Harry Belafonte is still alive? You’re blessed to be in that position. You don’t have a choice. Especially if you have children, how can you say something like that? Whether you know it or not, we all have a responsibility for our people. You have to be some sort of a role model. You don’t have to do everything right but understand what’s going on and…in your own way, educate others about the adversity we face (as black people).
Make art reflective of it. Make some music that inspires people to overcome some things. I’m not so good with words, which is why I play the piano. But I try to do what I can with the tools that I have because sometimes music is more effective and penetrates in ways that words cannot. Sometimes you do need words because the music alone isn’t enough. That is why I’ve made it a point to also have people speak about it. I’ve had Michael Eric Dyson and Harry Belafonte on my albums. I’ve had Lupe Fiasco speaking on some shit. I’ve had my son and his friends speaking the names of people that have been wrongfully killed by the police. If I don’t say it musically, I’ll have somebody say it somehow.
KL: Thoughts ahead of the show?
RG: I want people to come out, enjoy themselves, and have an open mind. I won’t tell people what to expect, but I am excited about what we’re doing and how everything is turning out. I hand picked the band and the artists. Everyone involved is A-1 at what they do. It’s not going to be anything short of great.