‘This Is Why We Kneel’: Powerful music and graphics in new video
Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles

A highly emotional and effectively produced new video of the men’s choral composition This Is Why We Kneel has been released by the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. If anything, it is more timely now than when the music was first performed. People’s World reviewed it on July 3, 2018. The following is excerpted from that review. Full links to the video are supplied at the end of this article.

ICYOLA devoted a part of its season finale concert to the young unarmed African Americans who have been victimized by gun violence, particularly at the hands of police. This year the orchestra especially remembered Stephon Clark, 22, shot and killed in his grandma’s backyard in Sacramento while talking on his cell phone. Also mentioned was Antwon Rose, killed running from the police in East Pittsburgh, Pa., less than two weeks before. You don’t have to be an expert in police procedure, conductor and composer Charles Dickerson said, to know that “when someone’s running away from you, they’re no threat to you.”

Concluding the first half, Dickerson presented the world premiere of his 12-minute cantata with full orchestra, This Is Why We Kneel. In conjunction with the performance, the orchestra gave its Empowering Life award to football player Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the movement to “take a knee” during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games as a peaceful, nonviolent way of calling attention to the continuing issues of racial injustice and excessive police violence in America that contrast so tragically with the “land of the free, home of the brave” spirit that the anthem describes for America. Kaepernick was not able to be present for this occasion, but a video about him featuring him in a recent speech…was screened. Dickerson amplified the message against police violence to also add, “And don’t be killing each other!” which received vocal support from the audience.

With the orchestra assembled on stage, the fifty men comprising the chorus filed on in two rows. Most of them had obviously memorized their parts, for no one carried a score, although a few referred to their cell phones or small sheets of paper to reassure them of the text. While the musicians performed, a powerful video encompassing the entirety of American history, showed the never-ending sequence of punishing people in America for “living while Black”—slave auctions, beatings, whippings, Jim Crow lynchings, voter suppression, attacks on civil rights marches, and always, killing, killing, killing.

It took considerable courage to program this work as the nation headed into the 4th of July celebration. This was the true “patriotic” counterpoint to the false populism of a supposed shared national identity that some citizens force on the country as they parade their sacred right to oppress other fellow citizens. The Revolutionary Era ideal of e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—simply cannot be recalled uncritically anymore until some essential understanding is achieved that for many classes and races, that America has simply never existed.

The orchestra started off with insistent, low pounding rhythms, which grew in power from repetition as the chorus joined in with its achingly sorrowful words. The choral writing had a chant-like character, as if, with orchestral punctuation, a crowd of militant, singing marchers were approaching down the street and into the concert hall. Their hearts, and all of our hearts as listeners, beat as one. “Stop the killing”—over and over and over, but nowhere near the number of times African-American people have been gunned down on our sidewalks and front yards. Over and over, but nowhere near.

The musical style reminded me of the male choral sound that Kurt Weill often incorporated into such works as The Seven Deadly Sins or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Others might hear the pagan-inspired texture of Carl Orff’s music, such as Carmina Burana. More to the point, it summoned up African-American work refrains, in the fields, on the job, on the prison farm. But the chorus took on a special, different character here: It’s as if the fathers, the brothers, the elders of the Black community were trying to assert their manly protector role over the nation, as if to say, We are demanding that you stop now, in the name of decency, stop and think what you are doing to our people and our country!

It is so vital that an American audience (mostly African-American at Disney Hall) could hear This Is Why We Kneel when at this time of year we’re far more likely to hear fulsome patriotica that only belies the American reality as it pumps out nationalistic propaganda for mass consumption. The time for honest conversations is long overdue. No one hearing this new choral composition will ever look askance at those who take a knee. In fact, the audience could not contain itself as the work unfolded—they joined in singing, applauding, yelling their support for the chorus and its plea.

As time goes on more and more people will join Kaepernick in respectful but visible, necessary protest. (For years I have refused to sing this racist anthem to militarism.) Choral directors and associations: Program this emphatic, timely work soon! Dickerson’s text follows:

This Is Why We Kneel
by Charles Dickerson (c)

The blood of young Black men flows in the streets of America at the hands of officers of the law.
The scene plays time and again: Black men dying in America at the hands of officers of the law.
We cannot just ignore Black men dying in America at the hands of officers of the law.
Our purpose to implore: stop this killing in America at the hands of officers of the law.
This, this, this is why, this is why we kneel.
Violence gets normalized when Black men are killed in America at the hands of officers of the law.
All lives are jeopardized when Black men are killed in America at the hands of officers of the law.
So when you disregard our plea to stop this killing in America at the hands of officers of the law,
We respectfully take a knee to stop this killing in America at the hands of officers of the law.
This, this, this is why, this is why we kneel.
For now we heed the cry: we cannot just stand by and watch as young men die, at the hands of officers of the law.
So when the anthem sounds, together on the ground we offer our appeal. This is why we kneel.
Stop killing these young boys! Stop killing these men! Stop killing these fathers! Stop killing these children!
This is why we kneel!

The versatile conductor and composer Charles Dickerson is Executive Director and Conductor, Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and the South Side Chicago Youth Orchestra. He is also Director of Special Ensembles at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Director of Music at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church and Choir Director at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.

This Is Why We Kneel can be viewed on any of the following three platforms:

YouTube

Vimeo

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CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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