Countless people have seen Cornel West give his characteristically fiery speeches, but on May 21, a thousand audience members sitting in New York City’s historic Apollo Theater saw the eminent activist and scholar do something few have seen him do before: recite passionate poetry over the discordant blaring of a jazz band, dance to an ebullient funk groove and even sing a bluesy hymn.
West, a world-renowned liberation theologian who has taught at Harvard, Princeton and the Sorbonne, literally took center stage Saturday night for the premiere of "The Cornel West Concerto," a new composition by jazz composer Arturo O'Farrill.
The Apollo Theater, a landmark site in black history, commissioned the work for a concert titled "Jazz and Spirit," which used West's words and O'Farrill's music to explore "the deep connection between jazz and spiritual traditions."
"Steeped deeply in the faith and in the oratory of great preachers, Dr. West's clarion call for social justice rings loud and clear in the style and improvisatory genius of a great jazz musician," the Apollo said in a statement.
The concert markedly returned to jazz's political roots. O’Farrill, a socially engaged Grammy Award-winning musician who was born in Mexico and raised in New York City, set a subversive tone for the show.
"Distribution of wealth, the police state," he explained during the performance, "the lobbyists and their puppet masters" — "this is what this concert is about."
O’Farrill condemned "unbridled capitalism, in all its brutality." ("Oh god," a grizzled white man in an expensive suit sitting behind me said with a condescending groan, "go to Cuba!")
"There are heroes," O’Farrill continued. "There are heroes, men and women who shape our thought and give us courage to run the race," those who "set our sights on higher planes."
Cornel West is one of them — "a true civil rights hero," he shouted, as the scholar stepped onto the stage. The audience exploded in what would be the first of several standing ovations.
West himself emphasized in his euphonious narration that the "music goes hand in hand with the politics."
"We live in an age where everything is for sale, everybody is for sale," he lamented.
In an interview with Salon before the concert, West and O’Farrill discussed this dystopian age, in which everything and everybody is for sale, and the deleterious effects it has had on music.
In another article, Salon reported West's strong remarks on the 2016 presidential campaign.
"Commodified, sanitized, deodorized"
Both West and O’Farrill denounced the ways in which jazz, and music overall, has become commodified and depoliticized. They harshly criticized the bane of existence of so many musicians today: the corporate-controlled music industry.
For most of its history, jazz has been subversive and political, O'Farrill told Salon. "But what jazz has become has been very sanitized and deodorized."
Jazz has been "commodified, sanitized, deodorized and so forth, like any other activity in a capitalist society," West echoed.
"It's a particularly hideous thing when you co-op jazz," O'Farrill said. "I hate to see its sting taken away."
"Jazz without sting is in some ways like jazz without swing," West continued.
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that sting," O'Farrill added with a hearty laugh.
West discussed how the music industry dehumanizes musicians — particularly black ones — turning them into brands to sell.
Illustrious jazz saxophonist John "Coltrane is not a brand," he stressed. Musicians are "not a commercial, they are creative, loving human beings trying to make sense of the world before they die."
When black jazz musicians like Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and more began to embrace their African roots and become more overtly political, O'Farrill explained, "it became music that was threatening to those who would rather keep it in a very specific niche, either for selling records or for affirming 'Americanism.'"
For many back Americans, experimentation in jazz and other art forms had serious "political power," he noted. "That's the voice of resistance, that's the voice of pain, that's the voice of truth."
Jazz "is the apogee of political confrontation and revolution," O'Farrill argued. But today's jazz history books often end in the late '60s or early '70s, with musicians like Coltrane and Sun Ra. "They don't talk about the continuation of the truth and the struggle that this music represents," he said.
"In general, profound love and genuine creativity usually constitute a threat to powerful forces in the world who are unsettled by it," West added.
"People are often addicted to the familiar so you don't fit. But when you fall in love, you are no longer fitting, you are flying."
"In the age of Ferguson"
In both his performance and his interview, West stressed that we live "in the age of Ferguson," a deeply political time in which millions of people throughout the U.S. and the world are rising up against injustice.
O'Farrill recalled in the interview that a "turning point" for his life was the killing of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed black teen who was shot by a police officer in the Bronx borough of New York City in 2012. Police forcibly entered the house of Graham's family without a warrant and shot him point-blank in the chest, in front of his grandmother. No one was punished.
"These are politicized times, these are brutal times," O'Farrill reflected. "It's a huge injustice that we're living on a daily basis."
"All I try to do is tell the truth, bear witness and die," West added. "It's always dangerous. But you've got to live dangerously in order to bring any joy."
West's musical narration explored similar ideas. It centered on three values: integrity, honesty and decency.
He called for maintaining "integrity and honesty in the face of oppression," quoting Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who declared "indifference to evil is worse than evil itself."
"What does it mean to have integrity?" West asked. "This music has integrity."
He criticized the U.S. government for refusing to punish the Wall Street officials responsible for the 2008 crash. "Not one executive went to jail!" he bellowed.
In his narration, West also condemned the defunding of public schools, the proliferation of bad housing, the prison-industrial complex and war.
"I don't care if it's children in Palestine, Afghanistan and Somalia; if they are killed by U.S. bombs it's a crime," he thundered.
"If we really love folks, we loathe the fact that people are treated unjustly," West added.
"We fight together. Why? Because that's what love is."
He cited the work of distinguished black intellectual and communist W. E. B. DuBois, and honored the memories of black musical legends, including Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Prince.
"A people who have been terrorized for 400 years," West explained, have created some of the most influential works of genius in human history, and have impacted myriad people around the world.
He quoted the mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by white supremacists in 1955. After her son was brutally killed, she insisted, "I don't have a minute to hate; I will pursue justice for the rest of my life."
"Tenderness is what love looks like in private, just like justice is what love looks like in public," West proclaimed.
The performance ended with two standing ovations.
"We will never be silenced"
O’Farrill, the son of the influential Cuban jazz musician Chico O'Farrill, has spent years cultivating the Afro-Cuban musical tradition. In 2007, he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and leads the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
He approached West with the idea for "The Cornel West Orchestra," and remembered being "scared" to do so. "You know, when you approached your heroes, you're a little bit frightened," O'Farrill noted. But West said he would love to a part of it.
The composition is based on West's fiery political speeches and his book "Black Prophetic Fire."
"As he spoke I heard notes and phrases, and realized Dr. West was a jazz musician using words and truth to perform the equivalent of what a great jazz instrumentalist or singer does when he or she uses notes and scales as they improvise," O'Farrill wrote in the program.
The composer had his share of political moments in the concert too. "The Cornel West Concerto" was only one of the several compositions performed.
Explaining his work "Trump Untrump," which is based on far-right Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, O'Farrill jokingly described the billionaire real estate mogul as a "weak-minded, short-fingered businessman."
He called the rise of Trump "a horror many of us can't wrap our minds around," and laughingly recalled a "Make America Mexico again" hat he saw.
O'Farrill kick-started the composition with two words: "Fuck Trump." And the music went off. In the middle of his solo, the trumpet player shouted "China" in an infantile Trump accent.
"The Cornel West Concerto" is not the first time West has been featured in a jazz work. Composer Terence Blanchard included spoken-word interludes from West in his 2009 album "Choices."
West has also participated in other musical projects. He has released three spoken-word albums, collaborating with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Bootsy Collins and more.
In 2004, West was even featured on the Prince song "Dear Mr. Man," in which he declared, “Mercy, mercy me, we’ve got a crisis in our ecology, a system of legalized bribery, normalized corruption, leadership of bona fide mediocrity and certified mendacity.”
When I asked if West has ever played music himself, he replied with a laugh, "Not in public."
"Oh yes you have," O'Farrill shot back. "Every time you speak,"
West later admitted that he played violin and piano when he was younger.
O'Farrill says he hopes to keep on using his music to shine light on injustices.
The composer summarized his thoughts in the program notes for the concert: "We must rise up to demand better of those who govern us. No more brutal and wanton killing of our children by renegade police officers who consider themselves above the law because they are in collusion with the judicial system. No more corporatization and co-option of culture. The media machine cannot fool us anymore. Polls, scientific studies and talking heads can no longer shill for the powerful."
"There is no righteousness that I personally hold to but that which is on loan to me from the divine, and now is our moment to reckon with that," O'Farrill wrote. "We will never be silenced. We have no intention of going away. We will only get stronger and more numerous."