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The African American Composer Initiative Holds its 13th Annual Concert

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Over the weekend, the African American Composer Initiative (AACI) celebrated its 13th annual concert, titled ”What’s Going On” after Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit classic. The event, held at the Eastside College Preparatory School, spotlighted Black composers of the past and present. Spanning the gamut of classically inspired compositions to jazz standards, the afternoon showcased works overlooked in mainstream media for the familiar faces of Western European composers. In its 13th year, the AACI continues to explore the troves of underappreciated scores hidden behind the biases of white audiences.

The event kicked off with Valerie Coleman’s wind quintet, “Umoja,” performed by the Foothill Symphonic Winds. With each piece, speaker LaDoris Cordell offered a few words of recognition for each of the featured composers, explaining the inspirations behind the pieces. The anthem, named after the Swahili word for unity, rose and fell with a serene elegance.

The program continued with “Four Spirituals” by Jacqueline Hairston, a Juilliard-trained composer. The vocal duet carries the legacy of African American history with a classically-inspired twist. 

Moving forward with Shawn Okpebholo’s take on “Amazing Grace,” pianist Dianne Tucker allowed each note of the familiar theme to ring out, layering into an eerie backdrop. As the piece progressed, the development saw the theme morph with earthy rhythms and a vigor that called back to its spiritual inspirations. The final instance of the theme returned to the serenity of the unaccompanied melody, dying out to thunderous applause.

Next was a series of compositions written expressly for this year’s event, beginning with a tribute to Colonel William Gunn, commemorated for his community service in heading the Boys & Girls Club in the Greater Washington area following his successful career in the military. 

John H. Robinson’s playful composition, “Tammie’s Music Box,” followed soon after, telling the story of a little girl’s beloved music box. The piece centered itself around its sweet melody, an innocent motif that warped as the piece progressed and returned every so often as a gentle reminder. It distorted into eerie tones, meandered into slow melodies, and transformed into upbeat rhythms that Robinson danced along to on stage. 

Following a couple of original jazz compositions by Valerie Capers, the afternoon came to a close with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a reminder of the purpose of the day’s gathering. Written in response to police brutality, the song searches for justice with a message of love and hope. Cordell took to the mic for the first time, her voice sounding with warmth, inviting the audience to its feet in recognition of AACI’s mission.

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