A century ago, some of America's greatest artists and writers found strength in a community that became known as the Harlem Renaissance — a confluence of now-familiar names including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Aaron Douglas.
Today pianist Lara Downes, host of NPR's interview series Amplify, which has just launched its third season, wonders: Are we currently in a new, Harlem-style renaissance?
The Harlem Renaissance, she says, was nothing less than an explosion of creativity and transformation. "It happened because of communal movement and shift — 300,000 Black Americans moving out of the South in the Great Migration that brought so many to Harlem and to other cities," she says. "It was a meeting of minds, this energy of shared experience. There's a courage and a confidence of expression that can only happen in community."
Hughes wrote an essay in 1926 that served as a sort of statement of purpose, saying: "We intend to express our individual dark skin cells without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful and ugly, too. We build our temples for tomorrow as strong as we know how."
Since the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, Downes feels a major shift in the arts world; a strengthened focus on inclusion and recognition of Black artists. She says it's been complicated, conflicted and long overdue.
"For me, as a classical pianist, it's always been the status quo that I'd be aware of other Black artists working in my discipline," she says. "But we were all like these little islands in a sea of whiteness. Now, I feel connected and like I'm part of a cohort. There's so much energy."
Downes points to composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, the first Black composer to have his operas presented at New York's Metropolitan Opera, and to Jessie Montgomery, the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was named the Composer of the Year by Musical America.
While it feels like a genuine phenomenon in this moment, there's also been backlash. Books that focus on race are being banned. A new adaptation of The Little Mermaid with a Black leading actress riled some who felt that this modicum of diversity diluted the original story, though it's completely fictional. Downes thinks the Harlem Renaissance offers yet another good lesson.
"When you've got this 100 years of history, then you're aware of the cycles of history," she says. "So I don't think that any of us who are working today feel like everything's been fixed. I feel like this is a moment. And the action that's being taken, whether it's cynical or not, whether it's lasting or not, what do we do as artists? What agency do we take to grab this moment to create something that can live on? I think it's about the strength of that community as a force for change."
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A century ago, some of America's greatest artists and writers found strength in community as part of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance - Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas - just a few of the names. There's an artist today who's wondering, are we currently in a new renaissance? Her name is Lara Downes. She's a concert pianist and the host of the NPR music interview series Amplify. Welcome back to the program.
LARA DOWNES: Oh, it's great to be here. Thank you.
FADEL: First, let's go back 100 years. What was it about the Harlem Renaissance scene that made it so fruitful, so welcoming?
DOWNES: It was an absolute explosion of creativity and transformation. And it happened because of communal movement and shift - right? - 300,000 Black Americans moving out of the South in the Great Migration that brought so many of them to Harlem and to other cities. So I feel like it was a meeting of minds. It was, like, this energy of shared experience. There's, I think, a courage and a confidence of expression that can only happen in community. Langston Hughes wrote this essay in 1926, and he said, we intend to express our individual dark skin cells without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful and ugly, too. We build our temples for tomorrow as strong as we know how.
FADEL: So you're launching the new season of Amplify today, and you're basing a lot of your conversations on whether or not artists of color are experiencing their own renaissance right now. What's the theory? What's happening now that makes the atmosphere different than, say, 10 years ago?
DOWNES: These last three years since the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there's been a huge shift in the world of the arts, and it's focused on the inclusion and recognition of Black artists. It's been complicated. It's been conflicted. It's definitely overdue, and it's a work in progress. But I think that right now there's a feeling among artists of color that we're working and we're being recognized as a collective presence. So for me, as a classical pianist, it's always been normal. It's always been the status quo that I'd be aware of other Black artists working in my discipline, but we were all, like, these little islands in a sea of whiteness.
DOWNES: But now I feel connected, and I feel like I'm part of a cohort. There's so much energy. I mean, there are these big things happening, you know, like Terence Blanchard, the first Black composer to have his operas presented at the Met, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones" and now "Champion." Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels wrote this amazing opera called "Omar" that's traveling to the big opera houses. Jessie Montgomery - she's the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony. She was just named the Composer of the Year by Musical America - a lot of really incredible figures just defining what the present is right now of the culture.
FADEL: Wow. So who did you talk to about this?
DOWNES: A lot of creative minds in many areas of music and the arts. Samara Joy, for example - she's a phenomenal young jazz vocalist. She's nominated for best new artist at the Grammys, and she'll be performing in the awards ceremony this weekend. She's 23 years old, so she was literally born at the turn of this century. But her work is centered on the classic jazz that came out of the Harlem Renaissance 100 years ago. And she's opening up this music to a whole new, very young audience. But she's also a tremendous voice for the power of that legacy. Here's a clip.
SAMARA JOY: I realized that whenever I go on stage, I do amplify Black composers, Black women, and pay, like, honor and respect to them. I was listening to an interview of Max Roach, great drummer. And he's like, you know, it's always been there in the Black community with Duke Ellington, "Black, Brown And Beige," blues singers, you know, singing folk songs in that way. So music is definitely a big part of the unifying aspect of activism.
DOWNES: I want to be clear on the subject of change. Like, the Harlem Renaissance didn't solve everything.
DOWNES: It was a really beautiful time of courage and creativity, but it was within a reality that was still very broken and biased. And so I think it built the foundation for what could come next and what can come now. So I had this conversation with the author and linguist John McWhorter for some perspective on these 100 years of history.
JOHN MCWHORTER: With the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston could not make a living writing her books. Langston Hughes lived in what most of us would consider genteel poverty. They were dependent on benefactors who often did not think of them as whole people. So I think the Harlem Renaissance is something we look back on as a wonderful thing. But I think that what we're seeing now is genuinely a national phenomenon. So I'd rather be now.
FADEL: So he talks about a genuinely national phenomenon in this moment, but there's also been a lot of backlash to this type of work - book banning that has really focused on books that deal with anything related to race. I think of "The Little Mermaid" - having a Black mermaid got backlash where people were saying it was inaccurate, even though this is a fictional character. You know, I'm just wondering if you heard from people about that backlash and what that means.
DOWNES: I guess I think that the Harlem Renaissance was a good lesson for us in that regard. I mean, when you've got this 100 years of history, then you're aware of the cycles of history, right? So I don't think that any of us who are working today...
DOWNES: ...Feel like everything's been fixed. I feel like this is a moment. This is an opening in time. I'm just back recently from the annual conference of the Sphinx Organization, which was founded to promote diversity in classical music. So again, this is my, like - you know, my very small world of classical music. But all of the conversations I had were about the possibilities that this moment offers and the action that's being taken, whether it's cynical or not, whether it's lasting or not. What do we do as artists? What agency do we take to grab this moment and, again, like, create something that can live on, that can open more doors? I mean, I think it's about the strength of that community as a force for change.
FADEL: So I understand you'll be closing out our conversation today by reading a poem from the original Harlem Renaissance by Langston Hughes.
DOWNES: Yeah, it's a poem about his community, his people. It's called "My People."
(Reading) Dream-singers, storytellers, dancers, loud laughers in the hands of fate, my people.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DOWNES: (Reading) Dishwashers, elevator boys, ladies' maids, crap-shooters, cooks, waiters, jazzers, nursers of babies, loaders of ships, porters, hairdressers, comedians in vaudeville and band men in circuses - dream-singers all, storytellers all. Dancers - God, what dancers. Singers - God, what singers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DOWNES: (Reading) Singers and dancers, dancers and laughers. Laughers? Yes, laughers, laughers, laughers, loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of fate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FADEL: Lara Downes is the host of the NPR music interview series Amplify. The new season launches today. Lara, thanks so much.
DOWNES: Thank you so much, Leila. It's wonderful to talk to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.