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Black Notes Project Uplifts Black Voices in Orchestra, Other Genres

Igmar Thomas and his Revive Big Band are set to perform at Knight Theater on Jan. 27. (Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Arts)

Thirteen years ago, Michael Kitchen attended a show featuring hip-hop artist Common, who performed with the backing of a live orchestra. Kitchen didn’t know it at the time, but the experience stirred something in his soul. 

At that point, Kitchen was nearly a decade into his namesake project The Sol Kitchen, a live music and events company that was born out of Kitchen’s work with music production and record labels. Before launching The Sol Kitchen, the producer and promoter played a pivotal role in the hip-hop scene, bringing artists like Wu-Tang, Q-Tip, Estelle, Common and The Roots to Charlotte. 

Always preferring to be a behind-the-scenes presence, Kitchen craftily marketed musicians in a pre-digital era. He could be found promoting new artists at record stores or bargaining for air time with radio stations. He scouted out performance spaces, intent on finding the perfect venue for artists, asking where would this band work? How will we get people out to this show?

Kitchen was driven by his passion for connection, always conspiring on how to get more people involved in productions and support, especially for up-and-coming artists. It was a life filled with excitement and possibility, a way to be deeply rooted in the musical stratosphere without being on stage.

Hearing Common’s lyrical brilliance backed by full symphonic accompaniment, though, was an unexpected paradigm shift that left Kitchen awestruck, one that would eventually lead him and partner Amy Carleton and to create the Black Notes Project, a musical festival that will take place at Knight Theater on Jan. 26-27, along with ancillary events. 

The beginnings of the Black Notes Project

After meeting in line for a Prince tribute concert in Minneapolis, Kitchen and Carleton soon realized they shared a drive for connectivity and began to blend their creative endeavors. The two say their complementary backgrounds and strengths lead them to a promising future. 

With MIT professor Carleton’s work in academia and Kitchen’s experience with live music production, plus his plans to pursue a doctorate in education from Northeastern University, the pair hopes to build on the foundation of the upcoming kick-off event at Knight Theater to expand on the Black Notes Project.  

Black Notes Project cofounders Michael Kitchen (left) and Amy Carleton. (Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Arts)

The name of the upcoming festival was intentionally chosen to remain broad and open-ended, with hope to host more concerts while adding a nonprofit, educational proponent under the same structural umbrella. 

Launched in partnership with Blumenthal Arts, Black Notes Project is part of Kitchen’s capstone research project to finish his master’s degree at Berklee College of Music, which is meant to be a “culmination of [your] work in the program,” one in which students “make a creative contribution to and/or define and solve a problem that exists in the profession.”

The pair presented the idea for Black Notes Project directly to Blumenthal president and CEO Tom Gabbard in June 2023 with hopes of co-presenting the concept. There was some shared past there; Sol Kitchen brought Atlanta’s Orchestra Noir, a Black orchestral ensemble, to perform at Y2k Meets 90s Vibe in Knight Theater in 2019 and played a part in Charlotte SHOUT!’s Bach to Biggie performance in April 2022. Those past experience set the stage for the Blumenthal partnership and a “yes” from Gabbard.

Kitchen, a Salisbury native who now shares time between Charlotte and Boston, says one problem in the Charlotte music scene is the excitement and support for traveling festivals that come with national recording artists. 

“People give money to them and they go,” he told Queen City Nerve, decrying the lack of locally curated festival events. “We want to see more widely attended festivals organized by locals, giving the chance to showcase Charlotte-based musicians alongside national and Grammy-nominated artists.”

Kitchen also aims to address a larger and more systemic problem that Kitchen with Black Notes Project: disparities in representation in the fine arts.

Brandee Younger sits next to a large harp wearing a pink outfit
Brandee Younger will perform jazz standards and selections from her most recent album, ‘Brand New Life,’ on Jan. 26. (Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Arts)

The goal of Black Notes Project is to showcase Black orchestral music in a way that speaks to modern audiences. 

“It’s important to show Black composers and arrangers that people don’t know about because this music has historically been robbed and copied,” Kitchen said. 

The Saturday morning portion of the Black Notes Project festival will see the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra showcase three composers: Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge and Duke Ellington. 

These are three vitally important musical voices by composers of African descent, and in addition to white composers, it’s crucial to share these masterpieces with our students so they can enter the musical world and the wider world with a more expansive understanding of history that might have pushed these voices to the margins,” read a press release announcing the event. 

Noted as the first Black classical composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was the offspring of a white plantation owner and a 16-year-old African woman he enslaved on his plantation. 

Through his father’s French connections, Saint-Georges was afforded an education not available to many other Black men; he ultimately became a violin virtuoso. A contemporary of Mozart, historian Chi-Chi Nwanoku believes Saint-Georges’ violin concertos are the more demanding of the two.

Nwanoku is far from the only one who believes it was this sort of comparison and rivalry, especially when paired with the racial atrocities of the time, that led Mozart to take one of Saint-Georges’ violin concertos “note-for-note” in his Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major in 1779. 

The Charlotte Strings Collective will provide string players for Friday night’s Black Notes Project festival concert. (Photo courtesy of UNC Charlotte)

Bill Barclay, writer and director of The Chevalier, a stage production on the life and contributions of Saint-Georges, said, “Chevalier was unfairly called the ‘Black Mozart,’ it should really be in many cases Mozart who should be called the ‘White Chevalier.’”

The white-washing of Black music continued well into the 20th century — Big Mama Thorton’s Hound Dog was forgotten beneath the weight of Elvis’ rendition, the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love taken from Muddy Waters’ You Need Love.

This erasure of Black presence in many forms and genres of music has created a divide among audiences in classical music, from orchestra to opera. Disparities in access have permeated the fine arts performance spaces, though a slow yet methodical change is taking place. 

Making connections online

Saturday night’s Black Notes Project itinerary brings baritone opera singer Babatunde Akinboboye (Tunde) to the stage at Knight Theater. Tunde rose to viral fame after posting a video of himself singing a piece from The Barber of Seville over the instrumental track of Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE, creating a sound he refers to as “hip-hopera.” 

Tunde, too, underwent a sort of musical transformation. As a high school sophomore, his primary reference to classical music had been through Looney Tunes, as he was “only interested in hip-hop.” 

He signed up for a choir class alongside a friend and throughout the course his instructor began talking to him about opera, an art form to which he’d never been truly exposed. He eventually went on to California State University to pursue a degree in vocal performance and, in 2012, attended his first opera — from the stage.

Tunde jumps up on a box and poses mid air
Known for his work with the LA Philharmonic and Detroit Opera, plus his viral videos, Tunde will perform on Jan. 27. (Photo by Blumenthal Arts)

From his social media platforms, typically dressed in a tuxedo and stirring both literal and figurative tea, Tunde has taken advantage of his viral popularity to publicly share a discourse of opera criticism. Tunde’s posts cover a litany of opera-related topics ranging from the costs associated with being an opera singer to whether or not opera singers should consume marijuana, along with informational segments about voice types and the history of classical Black artists. 

“This is because of how much I love opera,” Tunde said. “It’s kind of like an older relative that could use therapy; they think they are fine but are hurting people around them as a result. Like, ‘People love you but you need to change.’”

And, like Maestro Meena of Opera Carolina, Tunde is well aware of those who see opera as “silly” or “unattainable.” He also sees a side of the population who sees opera as a historic artform that is “somewhat dying off, yet they still see it as the highest form of art — there’s no middle ground.” Tunde’s honest criticism of the art gives followers something they can relate to, thus validating the feelings of those hesitant to see themselves in the opera house.

While popular music tends to evolve, Tunde says, opera has stayed largely the same since a certain era. 

You go to the opera and it is exactly what Mozart was doing and as opera singers we are trained to stay as close to this traditional training as possible but as an artist it’s disappointing.” Tunde says. “Artists should want to see evolution — it’s not the artist’s way to be preservationists.”

For years, Tunde would get in his car after rehearsal and belt opera over hip-hop tracks, as he did in one viral video since, but at the time he kept it secret, saying that “opera people can be somewhat traditional” and that he didn’t want to “upset protective sensibilities.” Then one day he said “screw it,” he recalled, and posted his private in-car session publicly. 

“Surprisingly, few people turned their noses up and everyone else was asking for more,” he said. 

Igmar Thomas wearing headphones composing music in a black and white photo
Igmar Thomas and his Revive Big Band are set to perform at Knight Theater on Jan. 27. (Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Arts)

That included Kitchen, who reached out to Babatunde online, hoping to bring him on board for the Black Notes Project. Tunde readily agreed.

“Being a Black person in a traditional opera space, I know the importance of amplifying Black voices and music,” Tunde said of Black Notes Project. “This is great for me because I like performing around Black people in the hip-hop element; I get to sing in the way I know best but in a way that my community can feel at home with. In performing in this space, I can bring whatever attention I can to Black music and art.”

Part of a lineup that includes Van Van, the 5-year-old rapper who has performed with Queen Latifah and on Snoop Dogg’s Doggyland kids’ album; as well as Brandy Younger, a harpist who has been featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, Tunde wants to give audiences permission to “break the rules” of traditional music “but also realize these rules aren’t real.” 

Black Notes Project’s mission is to pay homage to and amplify Black music, providing a space that is accessible to everyone and in which “people can see themselves,” Kitchen says. 

A broad array of cultural partners have allowed space for multiple opportunities to experience the event, including a free screening of rapper Mad Skillz’s documentary Mad Skillz and the 90s Girl Brunch on Jan. 28 at Mint Museum Uptown, followed by a panel discussion titled Archiving Black Music with Black Notes Project at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture on Jan. 31. The panel will be moderated by Carleton and feature Kitchen.  

The opportunities to broaden the cultural lexicon while redefining what it means to be a classical musician and bending the historic confines of genre will continue, with Kitchen and Carleton continuing to build on the Black Notes Project for performers and patrons in a movement that reaches far beyond social media and the stage. 

As Kitchen says, “The best art doesn’t just entertain, it educates, and we are all here to learn.”

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