Typically, an artist chooses his content. Occasionally, the content chooses her or him. Sometimes, the process is so fluid, organic and intuitive, it’s only discernible that the work was destined to be done.
Carlos Simon’s musical debut,“Requiem for the Enslaved,” released on June 17, seems to fall into this category.
In 2019, Simon, whose father was a New Orleans preacher, joined the faculty at Georgetown University, which was founded by Jesuit priests. “I wanted (to) learn about the history of this iconic institution,” Simon said.
A few years earlier, an important bit of history had begun to circulate widely, and it was uncovered that 272 African-American slaves were sold for $115,000 by the Maryland Jesuits, Georgetown’s founders, in 1838. This transaction rescued the university from bankruptcy.
“There was a lot of work going on at the University around its involvement in slavery,” Simon recalls.
In 2020, the horrific incidents involving Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery stirred emotions and activism around crimes against Black people in this country, and reflections on the history permeated the conversational ether in a way that stuck.
“I had two fundamental reasons for making this album. I first wanted to honor those men, women and children who were enslaved and sold by the founders of Georgetown University. I also wanted to highlight how slavery is inextricably linked to systematic racism in this country and the world,” says Simon.
Thus, he set forth with his new assistant professorship, the lingering melodic echoes of his own gospel-scored childhood, this knowledge of his employer’s history, and his own musical proficiency that has been said to transcend genre, fusing jazz, classical and hip-hop styles, and he composed “Requiem for the Enslaved.”
“Because Georgetown University was founded by Jesuit priests, I decided to use a traditional musical structure of the Catholic church, the Requiem, as the basic form of the work,” he explains. “I combined music of traditional Latin mass (The Gregorian Chant) with African-American spirituals. So, you will hear the plainchant from ‘In paradisium’ section of the requiem infused with ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ These two songs are from two completely cultures, but still speaking about the afterlife.”
Released just days in advance of Juneteenth this year, only the second year the holiday would be recognized on a national and federal level, Simon’s “Requiem” explores themes of migration, belonging and community, and fittingly, he brought together a community of artists he’s long personally cherished for this release, including trumpeter MK Zulu and Marco Pave, who lends spoken word.
“This project was all about collaboration, so I wanted to choose artists that could connect with the message and have something unique to say. MK Zulu and Marco Pave are close friends but also incredible artists in their own right. Marco Pave currently serves as the Artist-in-Residence at Georgetown University, so it seemed natural that we collaborate. MK Zulu is a close childhood friend. We actually played together in our home church in Washington, D.C. Of course, I have to mention the incredible musicianship of Boston-based ensemble HUB New Music, who were also four outstanding musicians who also added tremendously to this album. This piece would not be possible without their profound contributions,” says Simon.
Simon won the Sphinx Medal of Excellence in 2021 and is Composer-in-Residence at The Kennedy Center. He has had recent works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, and the Washington National Opera.
Outside of the US, he has recently had his compositions performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chineke! Orchestra in London. His new commission by the Minnesota Orchestra will find him paying tribute to George Floyd.
“Requiem for the Enslaved,” released on Decca Label Group, can be streamed on all major streaming platforms.