Two American artists of notoriety drew audiences wanting diversity, style, and message in the music. Both spoke to the Black condition in contemporary American society; one wooed the younger fans with his pizzaz which elegantly matched their heartthrobbing outbursts of “Cory, I love you!” The other musician hailed from Ferguson’s steaming racial struggles.
Briefly, a major draw card for the festival was New Yorker organist/rapper Cory Henry who ignited a packed-full Masterclass room of some 500 loving youthful fans, whistling and wooing in awe when Henry breathed one word or played one chord. Then complete utter silence when he opened his mouth to speak. Henry wanted to chat with this audience, and rightly so. His kinetic energy prevailed. We heard only one song performed at the end. But he made us all feel young again with his youth appeal, his experimental musical audacity on the organ, and his friendly acceptance of all. No attitude in this vibrant man!! But he then disappeared….from press interviews.
Trumpeter Keyon Harrold, another jazz-hip hop cross-over draw card performed at the same time as Henry, both closing the 2nd day of the Festival in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Not only did Henry not show up for his press conference and scheduled one-on-one interview with me, but I missed his performance. A downer for this writer, indeed! But I had to choose. And choose I did…..
Keyon Harrold – one of 16 siblings, a brother drummer with Gregory Porter, a policeman grandfather who worked young Keyon into music education projects with hundreds of others, a policeman father who carried forward this young talent, to calm and educate the Black kids who were viewed as potential threats to the ‘established order’ of urban St. Louis and Ferguson – rose in ranks with such positive backing amidst horrors of being a Black male in middle America……
I interviewed and watched the performance of this soft spoken trumpeter, who hails from the civil strife in his home town of Ferguson, Missouri, known for its extensive police brutality. Coming from a musical family, Harrold has articulated his stance against injustice with truthfulness. His unadulterated views on police brutality (followed by questionable judiciary proceedings) towards African Americans and other Blacks from the Diaspora, shone through a surprising musical gentility during his performance. Harrold is humble, yet savvy with the ‘celebrity’ world, having befriended and doubled with actor Don Cheatle in the memorable (Hollywood) film, Miles Ahead, about jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Harrold played the music; Cheatle mimicked on camera.
During his performance on the Moses Molelekwa stage late Saturday night, Harrold’s melodies and songs, backed by a stellar set of musicians including pianist Gerald Clayton (no stranger to Capetown stages), produced both memory and emotion: some wailing, joyful runs, pensive and sometimes mournful moods from bassist Burniss Travis, and other mixes of improvisation, rock and blues.
His opening song set the mood for honouring memory: his mother’s voice message left on his phone applauding him for being strong in the struggle led into a soft blues ballad remembering her; she had passed on in December 2018. But when popular rapper Pharoahe Monch came on stage towards the end of Harrold’s moving episodes from his album, Mugician, the audience was set alight. The hip hop rap pounded on serious themes of injustice, warnings, and call for unity. The fans were on their feet, many seeming to know the rapper better than Harrold himself.
Harrold’s press conference revealed his experience and knowledge of the truth behind what it’s like to live, learn, and walk as a Black man in American cities. When asked about his social activism, he replied, “When I’m moved by something, I must write about it…. That’s my calling.”
When asked by Cheatle and producer Robert Glasper to play Miles Davis (who also grew up in St. Louis) behind the scene, Harrold quipped: “Technically, the music of Miles was in my DNA. I already knew it. I was already transcribing Miles and listening to so much of his music as part of my own development.” Harrold knew the technicalities of playing trumpet. In the comforts of his home studio, he played and recorded: “With only three valves to play on, I watched Don’s fingering, and had to go through some 7 types of possible fingers to get the right sound.”
Harrold’s social activism revolves around musical attitude and youth development. “I’m lucky that I’ve had such opportunity to learn, and that I try my best to give back as much as I can, whether it’s working in schools or in a community center.” He doesn’t shy away from telling the true story: “I’ve been blessed in life with a story (police brutality) that requires me to talk about it. My parents encouraged this. I’m touched by certain things so I feel I have to tell it and write it in my music. If something is going on, like the refugee crises or the Michael Brown killing, I have to write about it. “
What is it like to be invited to a festival in Africa? Harrold expressed his yearning as an African American, living in the United States, that something was ‘missing’. “But when I come here, I can find a way to complete what my psyche is missing. It’s such a pleasure to perform on this continent. Africa gave birth to the root of jazz, the soul, the rhythm, the intensity. The heart of jazz, for me, comes from the Black experience. It’s a homecoming to me, so coming here is very very special.” In a careful and calculated way, Harrold admits he will continue to fight against the “global matrix of anti-black sentiments”, and to be part of the solution, “to advance culture and the majesty of Black people”.
So how would you define your music, I asked Harrold sheepishly, knowing full well no one likes to be asked that question. Keeping to his polite demeanor, he shared: “ My music is not traditional, with trumpet, bass, etc. but sometimes rap, sometimes beats from the machine. It’s everything. That’s why I brought my man, Pharoahe Monch, with me. His music is a living kind of thing, so I use it.” Monch had brought the final performance of the Festival on that one stage to an utter frenzy, as security mustered up their wits to prepare for a jovial crowd of over 1000 people to exit the hall en mass, down the narrow escalators, almost single file, to exit the Center at ground level.
But I can’t stop here…. There’s more to tell about this creative thinker and grassroots activist. Wanting to look right into the soul of this artist, I asked: “What really moves you?” Appropriately, he quickly replied: “You said it – ‘move’ is key. I like to use the word,’ vibration’. Blowing the horn, there’s a vibration for every note. So everytime I play the trumpet, I get moved, I can’t explain it. I just like to send out those vibrations, in the spirit of love and peace.”
Keyon Harrold is determined to return to South Africa, and is ever ready to workshop with youth, something he’s used to doing for several decades, with grace and a giving spirit. We were blessed to have his presence, even though short. Watch this delightful video:;