Watch: Composer Carlos Simon on how he turns tragedies into beautiful music

TheGrio's Natasha S. Alford talks to the composer about translating social justice causes into compositions.

Grammy-nominated composer Carlos Simon was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the son of a preacher. He’s the composer in residence at the Kennedy Center and a professor of fine arts at Georgetown University. His music is often inspired by the headlines of the day.

TheGrio’s Natasha S. Alford talks to Simon about how a tragedy like the murder of George Floyd is turned into beautiful music.

The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Carlos Simon
Carlos Simon works in the studio. (Photo Credit:Toko Shiiki)

Natasha S. Alford [00:00:11] That is a performance of Carlos Simon’s “Portrait of a Queen” performed at the Kennedy Center. The Grammy-nominated composer is still with us. Carlos, again, great to have you on the show today. “Portrait of a Queen” is like many of your compositions, it’s strongly inspired by social justice activism. And you’ve written pieces celebrating the life of George Floyd, another inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Tell us more about how social justice actually informs a composition and how does that affect you as an artist to actually see so much of the pain that’s being experienced within our community and sort of put on our community? How are you translating that into music?

Carlos Simon [00:00:57] Yeah, well, I often subscribe to this quote that Nina Simone once said “the role of the artists is to reflect the times in which they live.” And as a Black African American man, it’s hard not to talk about these issues that affect, not only my community, but our society as a whole. And I think whatever our duty, whatever our jobs are as the accountant or a news anchor or a musician like myself, I think we all have a collective obligation, if you will, to try to make the world a better place.

And I’m fortunate to use music as a platform for that. So when I start writing something and then it really starts with how I’m feeling about this and whatever’s happening in the world. Whether it be the murder of George Floyd or Trayvon Martin, and I use music as therapy as dealing with these feelings. And how do I feel about this and in correlation to what’s happening in the world?

And this is a start for more inspiration for when I begin a piece and it takes on a whole different life of its own. Hearing people who have heard the piece in the audience and it’s like, wow, okay, I connect with this. I have the same feelings or I may have something different. And that’s the joy of being a composer I feel.

Alford [00:02:34] It’s beautiful. I have to be honest, Carlos. I mean, I kind of feel like you’re an anomaly. Like if you look at the mainstream Black music, right? What is promoted, what is marketed to young people in particular, it doesn’t always feel like the music is talking about what is happening on a social justice level.

Like there might be some mentions, but, I mean, my daddy says today’s music is trash compared to his generation. I don’t know how you feel about that, but, the sense of “What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye, like, those types of songs don’t necessarily make the top ten on the radio for whatever is marketed to Black people or the so-called urban community.

What’s your take on the state of music right now? Mainstream music? And whether we’ve sort of lost our way in terms of being reporters and witnesses of what is happening on the front lines of social justice.

Simon [00:03:35] Well, this is a tough question. I think that the world is a big place and there are so many different artists who speak about different things. Yes, the mainstream doesn’t speak about social justice and as far as music is concerned.

But I truly believe that music is is one of these things that’s universal and it and has the ability to connect on a subconscious level. And my take on music today is that I think that there’s more variety with the types of artists being created. And yes, I do wish that there were more artists who responded to what was happening in the society.

And that’s a hope of mine, but hopefully down in two years, three years from now, this will be something that that’s happening, but there are artists doing it, especially in classical music, and that’s a great joy. But I wish it was happening in the mainstream more.

Alford [00:04:45] Yeah, I think a lot of people have that same wish and I just wonder, could you maybe give advice to a young Black artist who wants to focus on social justice, who wants to focus on issues really impacting the community, but they’re afraid that the industry won’t accept them, won’t promote their music, won’t elevate them. You’ve had success, so how does someone else replicate that?

Simon [00:05:09] Well, I think the one thing that I practice is being honest. I remember the first piece that I wrote about Black Lives Matter in 2014 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. I wrote the piece for me. I didn’t actually expect it to be performed, I just wanted to write it just because it was therapeutic for me.

But a friend of mine at the time encouraged me to have it before. And I was so, like, afraid because I didn’t know what the people would think, and the 2014 Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t really as big as it is today, and I was living in Michigan at the time, a very conservative place. So I was very like, Oh my God, is what’s going to happen.

And when I had the piece before me, it was like, wow, my soul was on stage and for everybody to see. So I encourage people to just be honest, just to be honest.

Alford [00:06:02] Carlos Simon, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today. Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to join the show. Definitely want to have you back.

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