Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy was recently published by Apprentice House.
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AS KIDS, Wilner Baptiste (viola) and Kevin Sylvester (violin) might have been labeled classical music nerds. They played in the orchestra at their Fort Lauderdale, Fla. performing arts high school and went to college on full music scholarships. They have excelled in an insular and rarified world: one in which people devote hours every day to mastering the subtleties of antique and unforgiving instruments and the difficult repertoire left by the dead white guys. It’s a sphere peopled almost entirely by whites and Asians, and Baptiste and Sylvester are neither.
“Wil B” Baptiste and “Kev Marcus” Sylvester are Black Violin, a duo that fuses the thrilling virtuosity of the European classical world with the booty-shaking funk and street-level grace of hip-hop. In September they released their first major-label album, Stereotypes.
While these two young men were honing their chops in that high school orchestra, they were also typical turn-of-the-century hip-hop kids, tuned into the world of rap. After graduating from different colleges, the two got back together and worked the South Florida clubs, developing an act that involved playing classical-string covers of hip-hop hits.
I know, this whole hip-hop and classical thing sounds like a gimmick, and if I’d read about it before I heard these guys, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. It sounds too much like the prog-rock abominations of the 1970s, when rock operas and rock symphonies almost killed off rock and roll. But I was lucky enough to hear Black Violin live before I ever read about them. They were playing at a banquet honoring top academic achievers from historically black colleges and universities. It was the perfect pairing of artist and audience. Taking the stage backed by a live drummer and a deejay, Black Violin rocked the house with sophisticated sparkle.
Singing the People's Blues
THE DEATH of B.B. King this spring was marked by an outpouring of homage appropriate to the man’s talent, his influence on U.S. culture, and his fabled personal humility and generosity.
He started out picking cotton and singing on the street and ended as one of the most famous and honored men on earth—a classic rags-to-riches tale. But King wasn’t just a black Horatio Alger. And his story wasn’t just one of individual striving and achievement. King also understood that his art was rooted in the collective struggle of his people and that he was a part of that struggle.
I grew up about 30 miles from B.B. King’s Sunflower County, Miss., home, but I discovered him the same way most white people my age did, by hearing “The Thrill Is Gone” on the radio. It’s a recording that still jumps out of the speakers and grabs the heart. It starts with a mournful guitar melody. Then, behind verse two, an eerie, quavering wash of strings begins low in the mix and rises through the rest of the song. By the time King wails out to his lover, “I’m free from your spell, and now that it’s all over, all I can do is wish you well,” you knew you were hearing the last words of a dying man.
Revisiting the Sugar Bowl
AS THIS IS written, the U.S. and Cuba are in the final stages of the haggling that will likely lead to the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington, and peace, love, and understanding seem to be breaking out all over. Pope Francis, who helped broker the U.S.-Cuba thaw, will visit the island in September on his way to the U.S. After a recent meeting with the pope, Cuban President Raul Castro said, “if the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church.” And Major League Baseball is already working on bringing at least spring training games back to baseball-crazy Cuba.
In the U.S. media, discussion of the new détente with Cuba has focused almost entirely on the past 55 years of Cold War-inspired confrontation. However, the U.S. and Cuba had a close and troubled relationship for a full 60 years before Fidel Castro took power, and as hostilities wane and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba is eventually dropped, the patterns of this U.S.-Cuban “prehistory” may become important again.
That story begins in 1898, when the U.S. empire first extended beyond our North American shores as the U.S. took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico we still hold.
Brian Fallon's Christianity is less apparent than his Bruce devotion.
Epic Bad Behavior
Fraternities have become the tail that wags the dog in U.S. universities.
Rich Songs of Economic Despair
Singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.
Comcast's Net Neutrality Shell Game
Democracy requires universal access to the means of communication.
Time for a Cyberweapons Treaty?
Cyberwar stories were uninteresting until one involved a threat to our inalienable right to laugh at fart jokes.
The Persistent Strain
White supremacy may have weakened, but it can still make us sick.
The Internet's Toxic Waste Dump
Souls are being stained and scarred to keep your internet experiance relatively clean.
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