After Buffalo massacre, Kennedy Center presents ‘An African American Requiem’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'An African American Requiem' (Part 1)

Last week, 10 people were killed in Buffalo, New York in a horrific act of racial violence.

On Monday night, the Choral Arts Society of Washington presents the East Coast premiere of Damien Geter’s “An African American Requiem” 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.

“I conceived of the piece in 2016 after the death of Philando Castile, so this recent massacre that just happened, this is what the piece is about,” Geter told WTOP. “This piece is dedicated to victims of racial violence and unfortunately year after year we keep doing the same thing and telling the same story and I think this piece will remain relevant.”

The 20-movement piece memorializes Black victims of lynchings, hangings, shootings and other racial violence perpetuated through American history to the present day.

“I was getting fed up by how many people were getting killed by the police,” Geter said. “Somebody gets shot, we talk about it, then we move on — until George Floyd was killed then people were forced to watch what happens on a regular basis. I just got to the point of how many more of these have to happen before we actually do something?”

Geter grew up in Chesterfield County, Virginia near Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.

“I was born and raised in Virginia,” Geter said. “Confederate flags were part of my daily visual. When you’re a kid and even when you grow up, you just become accustomed to it like, ‘That’s how it is,’ but I’m glad to see that people aren’t taking this anymore. … I can’t wait until they change Route 1 from Jeff Davis Highway to something else.”

Musically, the piece infuses Black vernacular, spirituals and modern declarations, featuring Ida B. Wells’s speech “Lynching is Color-Line Murder”; the famous last words of Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe”; and hymns like “There’s A Man Goin’ Round” and “Kumbaya.”

“I’m a product of all the music that has come across my ears in the last 42 years,” Geter said. “It’s the traditional Latin text, so it’s a proper requiem mass inspired by the greatest composers that have written requiem masses like Verdi, Britten and Penderecki, but you’ll also hear the influence of jazz, spirituals, maybe even a little bit of hip-hop and R&B.”

The piece was commissioned by Resonance Ensemble in 2017 and was originally set to premiere in April of 2020, but the pandemic delayed its world premiere until May 7, 2022, in Portland, Oregon. The East Coast premiere is in D.C. on Monday.

“When we commissioned ‘An African American Requiem,’ we had no idea the path we were about to embark on,” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon said. “Damien’s work is extraordinary and moving, and it’s exciting to see how audiences, community partners, and arts organizations across the country are coming together.”

Scott Tucker, the artistic director at The Choral Arts Society of Washington, said the group is proud to present the work.

“[This] has been in the works for a long time and we cannot wait to share it,” Tucker said. “Music has the power to awe, transform opinions and evoke change. As we honor the lives of Black women, children, and men who have been killed senselessly in this country, we hope the audience is moved to start conversations.”

As for Geter, he remains hopeful for the future but disheartened by recent violence.

“After George Floyd was murdered, I do feel like there was a change … so I remain hopeful,” Geter said. “However, things keep happening where we keep taking steps back, for example, the Buffalo shooting. … I will always remain hopeful because that’s how we keep going, but there are moments where I’m just like, ‘Why are we going backward?'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'An African American Requiem' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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