It’s night one of the Soundtrack of America, and the McCourt—The Shed’s standout event area—is packed from wall-to-wall. Folks of various walks of life populate the area, and the buzzing energy let’s you know the night is going to be special. If you’re unaware of just how special this night is, Lupita Nyong’o walks in. Yes, this five-part music series—helmed by none other than Steve McQueen—is a pretty big deal.
As it should be. After all, McQueen had been thinking about this event since 2012 as he was making 12 Years a Slave. Tonight, the fruits of the trees planted are borne for all to witness via homage to James Reese Europe, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, among many notable others.
Just after eight, the lights dim, and a chorus of drums permeates the space as their rhythms reverb through the audience. The Howard University marching band files in, followed by the 369th Experience military band, which tonight is led by the prolific Jon Batiste.
They’ll open the stage for McQueen, who is joined by Quincy Jones and cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon—co-creators of this commemorative concert experience. Soon, The GP Experience band, led by Greg Phillinganes, takes the stage with the night’s performers—PJ Morton, Rapsody, Victory, Sheléa, and more—who all pay homage to the legendary Black musicians who paved the way for them.
For many of the series’ billed performers, who are all emerging, this is what gives the concert series its power.
“What really spoke to me about it was the ‘family tree’ of music and the history of African American music beginning all the way back up until now,” Kelsey Lu, who performed during the series’ second evening on Sunday (April 7), told CASSIUS days before opening night. “I think it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to kind of hold space in that way, which is the recognition of the old, the new, and what’s to come.”
Mahon also explained to CASSIUS that this “look back and look forward” is essentially what McQueen hoped to accomplish—with an emphasis on Black music’s rich history.
“[He] wanted to look at the long history of the music from the very beginnings, from the first arrival of Africans onto what became the United States to the present, and to do that he felt like he wanted to have a sort of comprehensive overview of the music in the form of a family tree.”
So as much as the concert series celebrates the opening of The Shed—New York City’s new bustling creative arts center located in Hudson Yards—it’s especially a celebration of Black music, which holds particular poignancy during an especially pressing political climate.
CASSIUS sat down with Mahon to talk about the series’ conception and the importance of celebrating Black music history. Check out what she had to share below, then grab tickets for the Soundtrack America over at TheShed.org.
CASSIUS: So you are currently with the music department at NYU?
Maureen Mahon: The Department of Music and the College of Arts & Science.
C.: Tell me about how you got involved in such an amazing, immersive project.
M.M.: Alex Poots contacted me by email. It was a very short email and he asked if I would to meet with him to talk about a commission with Steve MCQueen for The Shed. I think that was the context of the email, along with his title and The Shed. This was in March 2017, so I didn’t know what The Shed was.
C.: Okay! So this has been—
M.M.: It’s been a while. And probably that week or the next week we met. Steve happened to be in town, so the three of us met for breakfast and Steve described this idea that he had. It had a different title at that time, but he was interested in, in some way, celebrating the history of African American music and the impact—sort of drawing attention to the impact of African American music within the United States and globally. And he wanted to look at the long history of the music from the very beginnings, from the first arrival of Africans onto what became the United States to the present. To do that he felt like he wanted to have a sort of comprehensive overview of the music in the form of a family tree.
They were looking for a researcher, someone who was a scholar of African American music to put that together, so that’s how I came into the project. I think I started probably the next month, and then fairly soon after that, they brought Quincy Jones into the project and then [started] adding advisors. It’s such a broad amount of music that we were thinking about, and so there was a series of meetings, conversations, a lot of brainstorming around how to tell the story. I think it started with a much shorter, smaller number of concerts or smaller number of events and it finally expanded to this form of five shows and the idea focusing on emerging artists. So we’re sort of doing a look back, but also a look forward.
C.: What was it like working with Steve McQueen and Quincy Jones?
M.M.: When I got the email, at the very beginning it said “Steve McQueen,” and I said, “Sure! I’d love to meet him.” And it was really interesting—it’s been interesting working with both of them.
With Quincy, he has a very strong commitment to telling the story of this music in different ways. He was the one who put together the performance at the opening of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History & Culture, so I mean, for him, he just has a really strong commitment to wanting to make sure people know this story, and he’s especially concerned that young people know this history and are aware of it.
He was really engaged in the project, and one of the things he said to us as we were talking through our ideas was, “We wanna get the story right, we wanna get the facts right, but it has to be entertaining.” So he kept that focus in the foreground, that it, for me, it’s not an academic lecture, it’s a show, it’s a concert, and it’s a celebration. So we hope that people come away with curiosity, but we also hope they come away entertained and curiosity about the history of the music, the story of the music, but also about the artists who we’re presenting in the show.
C.: So as you stated, you first received that email in 2017. Can you briefly walk me through the research process? How did it ultimately all come together?
M.M.: Well, in a way it was sort of like doing a deeper dive into a lot of the things I routinely teach, just spending a bit more time learning about them and learning about their connections. I knew that there were certain genres that I had to cover, like I was going to need to talk about jazz, I was going to need to talk about rhythm and blues, rap, and then go back, sort of trace where they came from, where they started. And those are things that I think most people who are teaching African American music would know, but I don’t know if we always think about it all at the same time.
What was really interesting was looking at it sort of holistically and seeing the breadth over time and through all of these different genres and starting to think about how the different genres were connected to each other, how they are different from one another, but also just seeing their certain commonalities. It was a lot of reading and a lot of listening. I think that was one summer. And then obviously once you start listing things, when someone else looks at it they’re like “Where’s this person or this artist or this sound?” So, as it developed, other people would look at it and provide feedback.
A late version of the tree went to the artists once we contracted different people for the show, and what we invited them to do was to look at the tree and think about where they saw themselves on the tree, who they heard as their influences, where they feel connected. And it didn’t have to be a straight line, ’cause a lot of times it’s many different things. Most of the time it’s many different things. So that was the process.
C.: I follow a lot of creatives on Twitter, and I’ve been seeing a conversation about how there’s currently a Black musical renaissance happening in New York City, so I find the timing of this music series to be particularly poignant considering that we’re revisiting this music history within this said renaissance. I wanted to see if you have any thoughts on that.
M.M.: I feel like there are always renaissances happening. I’m not sure which artists they’re referring to, but for the last several years, there’s been the annual AFROPUNK production, so that’s a way of bringing together a lot of disparate artists under one rubric, and obviously, people who are interested in those artists. So I think this is another moment when that kind of thing is happening. Music is always being created, people are always doing new things, so I’m not sure if this is a singular moment. One thing that might make it singular or feel more pressing is the political climate that we’re in, so having a space where artists of color are creating and voicing themselves may feel like there might be a heightened sense that this is really important and really significant because there’s so much other discourse out there that they’re responding to and really pushing against.
C.: Absolutely. You kind of touched upon this in your previous answers, but what do you ultimately want audiences to walk away with after witnessing this production?
M.M.: I hope curiosity and interest in the music, even if it’s just one artist, whether it’s a current artist, one of the people who are performing, or an artist that they reference in their work, someone that they didn’t know about, they wanna look into and learn more about. I think a general appreciation for the breadth of African American music, its impact. We talk about the power of music in a lot of romanticized ways, but I think we’ll hear some of that over these nights. I think an appreciation for this new space, because I think this is the beginning of a lot of interesting possibilities that could happen here, so sort of wanting to see what else is coming through here.
And I guess, mostly an appreciation for this musical history, the thing that we’re celebrating. All of us who have been sitting around these tables brainstorming are all fans of this music, and we don’t all like the same things, but I think we all share an appreciation and a recognition of the importance of this music, so we just want that to be spread out. I think too often, African American contributions to culture are cannibalized by other people, but the source isn’t always recognized, so we wanna recognize and celebrate the source.