The Activist Artist

Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard's opera “Champions” civil rights
Friday, September 13, 2013

Artists have always made it their mission to inspire social change. It’s not by accident that Aesop tucked a few morals into the fables he told around ancient Athens or that all those parables written into the Bible carry etiquette lessons for the masses. 

Handel’s operas were loaded with messages about civic responsibility and so were Shakespeare’s plays. The tradition was honed centuries later by such icons as Woody Guthrie, whose Depression-era songs called for a kinder America, and Luis Valdez, whose 1960s plays—performed in the back of flatbed trucks—rallied California farmworkers to strike against unfair labor conditions. 

These days, artists continue those efforts, but in new ways. The current brand of cultural activism tends to have a more sophisticated tone and a higher art quotient. The call to action remains, but it’s less likely to come from a morality play or a protest song, more likely to be weaved through the movements of modern dance or showered out in metaphors at a poetry slam. 

Or, in the case of Terence Blanchard’s new opera, “Champion,” drawn out and dramatized by a riveting musical score. 

“Champion” is based on the true story of Virgin Islands-born Emile Griffith, the Kennedy-era welterweight boxer whose punches put opponent Benny "the Kid" Paret into a coma from which he never emerged. The work juxtaposes Griffith’s life-long guilt over the incident alongside his struggles as a dark-skinned man held back by white society, and as a gay man who labored to keep his sexuality a secret. Griffith took his own beating later in life when he was attacked while exiting a gay bar, a scene captured bluntly on stage. 

The work, which premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June, is a potent expose on the hazards of intolerance and a quiet demand for compassion and acceptance. Griffith’s plight was made real by a coincidence even Blanchard did not predict. Just two months earlier, basketball player Jason Collins was heralded as a pioneer when he disclosed publicly that he is gay, becoming the country's first active, professional athlete to come out. 

The opera was a departure from Blanchard’s musical repertoire; he’s better-known as a jazz trumpeter and the composer of film scores for directors like Spike Lee and George Lucas. But the innate activism of “Champion” fits well into a career highlighted by involvement with projects that bring attention to pertinent issues. 

“My habit is to be a socially conscious person in general,” said Blanchard, who has won five Grammys for his recorded work. “I’ve always tried to champion the causes of people, the less fortunate, the poor, just trying to keep my head in that arena.” 

He doesn’t believe all the work artists do should be crusading. Art has to reach people in different ways and serve many purposes. Blanchard composed original music for the Mariah Carey movie, “Glitter,” after all, and he’s clearly not opposed to a little well-produced fluff. “Just to go out and laugh and not think and not be so intellectually consumed by a story, that’s still great.” 

But he’s also the musician behind “Malcolm X,” “Jungle Fever” and “Talk to Me,” films with serious messages about justice and race relations. When films take on such rich topics, a point of view emerges organically. His social responsibility extends to sustaining the history of his own art form; Blanchard likes to quote Miles Davis or tell you about the good work John Coltrane did. He invokes drummer Art Blakey as a way of explaining his day-to-day motivations: “He used to say ‘You’ve got to let the punishment fit the crime.’” 

By that he means artists can’t hold back on what they are thinking to make audiences feel good about themselves. They have to size up a situation and respond authentically, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. For him that can demand anything from conjuring up ominous background music for an on-screen murder scene or expressing his passion through a new art form, such as opera. “The whole purpose of it is to be honest and truthful. That’s the only way, I feel, to truly make anything that's going to touch anybody,” he said. 

Blanchard does stay true to himself in “Champion.” He lets the words in Michael Cristofer’s libretto lead the charge, but he instills the opera with the traditions of his own trade. The score calls for improvisation from players, it is paced as a jazz composition, and it weaves Afro-Cuban beats and other jazz tricks into the music. Interestingly, he chose not to score music for some of the dialogue, letting sections of prose stand alone, which is rare for the genre. 

“I think that took away a lot of the artifice of opera and played to his strengths,” said Don Roth, a veteran arts presenter, who attended the premiere. 

Roth is executive director at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Davis. He is working to arrange an upcoming residency with Blanchard that will draw on his talents as a player, film scorer, and now, operatic composer. New operas can struggle to stay afloat after their premieres, so the gig will provide some timely energy. Blanchard is also in talks with the Washington National Opera. 

Roth sees “Champion” as perfect fare for his center, because it is “very rich in issues that are relevant to the various communities that are a part of it.” Academic presenters look for work that gets a dialogue going and allows them to host high-level discussions on current events. “That’s one of the reasons why college presenting has been so important in developing art. It’s a safe place to talk about issues that may be politicized in the world around us.” 

The key, he said, is quality. A work can spark discourse only if it is well-done and relevant. “If it weren’t good, it wouldn’t matter to people. ‘Champion’ is very good.” 

The relevance inherent in a socially conscious piece of music or play can also work in art’s favor, said Marda Kirn, the founder of EcoArts Connections, based in Boulder, Colorado. Art that sends messages might anger and divide audiences but it can attract them, too. EcoArts often teams artists and scientists together to make visual and performance pieces that explain the effects of climate change, and their output can be contentious. 

Artists are sometimes reluctant to tackle politics in their work because they know audiences might see it as propaganda, Kirn said. A generation raised on advertising and political commercials that use the tools of artists—music, scripts, acting, video— are quick to suspect it. "The fear of art being misused colors the way people think about informing the arts with relevant topics," she said. 

On the other hand, it counteracts the notion that art has lost touch with people’s lives. An opera that tackles race and bigotry can’t be seen as detached, as art for art’s sake. It is loaded with real-life lessons and has added value. 

Kirn echoes Roth in saying that quality counts. The work EcoArts sponsors is rooted in real research by qualified scientists and rendered by artists with proven skills as communicators of ideas. It is sensitive to the people that approach it. “Good art is not didactic. It’s not one-sided. It shows many different sides.” 

And it has to avoid sanctimony, said John Flax, artistic director of Theater Grottesco, the Santa Fe, New Mexico, company that combines classical and modern theater techniques in its stagecraft. Work built around issues has to remain art at its core, which can mean raising more questions than it answers, getting people to think rather than telling them what to think. 

Theater Grottesco recently developed and began touring “Storm,” a play that explores our collective anxiety over population growth, environmental changes and more. Instead of taking a stand one way or another, or trying to present a science lecture, the piece looks at the reasons the public remains confused on the issues, exploring media reports, religious beliefs, and politics. 

"We purposely shot for ambiguity. We embraced that. We decided we were going to avoid the issue stuff because you can get that from the internet or newspapers,” he said. “What we really wanted to look at were the gray shades, the difficulties, the questions.” 

The work has succeeded in that way, generating discussions that encourage people to consider their own reasoning and reactions. Flax notes that the post-show talkbacks often last longer than the shows themselves. 

Blanchard has the same goal for his work. He understands audiences come at art from all different backgrounds and with a variety of needs that are always changing. 

An artist can try too hard to make a point and that just defeats the purpose. If art is to resonate, it has to start from a genuine idea. In his case, that translates into conjuring musical lines guided by the rhythms or harmonies—or tragic scenes—that are true to the moment at hand. “When you are honest, audiences come to whatever you are trying say,” he said. 

“It’s not like I’m trying to preach. I don’t believe that’s my role at all,” he said. “I’m just trying to polish the looking glass so people take a look at things.” 

Ray Mark Rinaldi is an arts journalist and editor who writes about culture in the West. Currently, he is the fine arts critic for the Denver Post website and newspaper. On Twitter: @rayrinaldi 


Ray Mark Rinaldi