In a speech on July 5, 1852, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed a question: “What is your Fourth of July to the American slave?” I answer; a day which reveals to him, more than all the other days of the year, the gross injustice and the cruelty of which he is the constant victim.
One hundred and seventy years later, musician and spoken word poet Anthony Parker, better known as Wordsmith, still asks the same question.
At Baltimore’s citywide Fourth of July celebration, Wordsmith will perform selections from Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and a musical piece, “Made in America”, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its assistant conductor, Jonathan Rush.
For Wordsmith, performances like this – ones that delve into different complexities such as slavery and race – are all about embodiment.
“How did Frederick Douglass want this speech to impact an audience? How can I impact an audience in this regard on this day and at the time of a day when we celebrate? Because I’m talking about a speech that doesn’t celebrate the 4th of July,” Wordsmith said. “There’s a celebration going on – but also, being black in America, we can’t always fully celebrate the Fourth because we weren’t free when America gained independence in 1776. We were still slaves .”
Preceding the city fireworks, Wordsmith’s performance will take place Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the BGE Pavilion in the Inner Harbor at Rash Field Park. Additionally, he is scheduled to perform on July 3, also with the BSO, at the Star-Spangled Spectacular at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville.
For Douglass’ speech, he will mix spoken word with a cappella elements.
“It’s about putting myself in a mode where I can embody that and present it to an audience where they can feel like, ‘OK, I don’t feel threatened by what I’m hearing, but I know this is part of our American history,” he said.
“Made in America,” which musically conveys the story of the American dream, is a hip-hop and classical music collaboration with the BSO. With both genres – one historically coming from a white upper-class audience and the other with roots dating back to block parties in New York’s predominantly black neighborhoods – Wordsmith hopes to “tell stories to through the beauty of classical music, hip-hop and urban music, combining these stories together and saying, ‘Yeah, they’re two different genres. But look how they tell the same story.
Over the years, Wordsmith and the BSO have worked to bring a fusion of classical music and hip-hop to Baltimore communities, with an emphasis on reaching younger audiences.
“It feels approachable,” Wordsmith said. “Classical music seems more accessible because of the way it’s delivered now.”
In 2018, the BSO hired the spoken word artist to write a new narration for Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals”, triggering a relationship with the orchestra. He then hosted the 2018 BSO gala with Cynthia Erivo and became an official artistic partner in September 2020.
Wordsmith was clear from the start that he did not want to be merely a token minority representing an institution of classical music, an area that is still predominantly white and with which the BSO has struggled in the past.
“I needed to know that my role was going to be legit – that it wasn’t just talk, but that we were going to see action. And they didn’t do anything but show action “Wordsmith said.
Since the beginning of their partnership, Wordsmith has led and participated in numerous collaborations with the orchestra, including community performances, educational programs and musical projects in which he reinvents texts of famous classical works with a hip- poof.
“Little by little, we’re taking these steps to say, ‘Hey, one of yours is here in the lobby. It’s a safe space to come to. It’s a place where you can learn something,” Wordsmith said. “Classical music is not a form of black music — it’s not in our community; we don’t wake up and hit that in our car. But there is such beauty that even I as a black man had come to love it as I learned music over the years.
This desire to make classical music more accessible symbolizes Wordsmith’s work to ensure that historically marginalized people have increased access to the resources and opportunities they need to survive and succeed – not just access to music venues. elite.
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“What I think a lot of people don’t realize — especially if you’re not from Baltimore — is that there are segregated communities here. We have to realize there’s redlining here,” he said. said Wordsmith. “The city of Baltimore is over 60% black. And in that 60% of black people, most of us are underserved. Most of us are single parents. I am one of them; I’m part of that statistic,” he said, referring to his status as a single parent raising two young sons.
Connecting classical music and hip-hop through its partnership with the BSO is more than just a music project — it’s about healing and rebuilding communities in Baltimore that have been neglected for generations, he said. he declares.
“We cannot throw out my community and other communities here that are underserved. We can’t just say, ‘Well, they don’t exist, so I don’t need to go there,’ said Wordsmith, who lives between Bolton Hill and Sandtown.
Wordsmith works with BSO OrchKids, a program designed to provide opportunities and equitable access to music and other resources for young people in the city of Baltimore.
“Music, on the whole, often helps make students stronger and more dedicated,” said Allison Burr-Livingstone, senior vice president and director of advancement at BSO. “We’ve had longitudinal studies that have shown that those who attend OrchKids have higher attendance and higher scores compared to their other Baltimore City school peers.”
Wordsmith prides itself on the amount of work it puts into its community, both musically and non-musically.
“Fifty percent of my life is about writing a ton of music, playing a ton of it,” he said, “but the other 50 percent is I’m a dad, I’m in my community and helping the next generation of leaders and musicians.”