5 Questions to Lara Downes (Host, AMPLIFY with Lara Downes)

Lara Downes is a multifaceted pianist whose prolific output routinely explores American music’s many voices. In 2020 alone, she released two albums: one featuring works by Florence Price (Florence Price Piano Discoveries) and another collaborative album of spirituals and civil rights freedom songs (Some of These Days). These albums, along with her My Promise Project, are only the most recent efforts in Downes’ long history of artistic activism in pursuit of a more equitable American music and society.

On October 17, 2020, Downes began AMPLIFY with Lara Downes, a bi-weekly video series on NPR Music that features “intimate and deeply personal” conversations with leading Black artists. We asked Lara to reflect on her recent projects and the power of the arts.

The tagline for AMPLIFY, “An Artist. An Activist. An Amplifier,” positions artists as both instigators and facilitators of change. How has activism informed and shaped your career?

I’m an artist of my time, in my time. And we are living in some kind of time! I think there was a specific moment when activism came to find me, a real awakening about the need to dig deep for meaning and mission in my work. The morning of June 17, 2015, I was sitting at my kitchen table working on a program for an upcoming recording project when I saw the news of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, in which nine Black congregants were murdered during their Bible study. Another chapter in the long American story of racist brutality. And I just kind of broke down and fell apart, and I felt this clarity, that I couldn’t move ahead unaltered. I spent that day reading Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and reflecting on his promise that somehow America will be what it’s never yet been.

That day of tears and reflection turned into my album America Again, a collection of music that asks listeners to consider some deep questions about American history within the landscape of our music. That was my first recording of the music of Florence Price! Black composers, female composers, composers who were immigrants to this country…The album came out in October 2016, days before Trump was elected, and I seriously took on the job of advocating for and amplifying marginalized voices, intentionally taking action through my music to offer some healing to this country that was hurting so badly.

I’ll never, ever forget the day after that election, having traveled across the country to Louisville, exhausted and depleted after a sleepless, tearful night, to play a recital there. It was a very small crowd, and we were all sort of shell shocked, I think. But when I finished the concert, two things happened. A gentleman towards the back of the room stood up and he said, “My wife wants me to tell you that your music gave her hope tonight.” She couldn’t speak herself, because she was weeping. And then a young man raised his hand from the front row and said, “My family is undocumented, but your music made us feel like we belong here.”

I’ve never looked back from that moment. Because even on your worst night, when you feel despairing and destroyed, you can give something, as an artist, that offers hope and belonging. And that can be change-making.

Lara Downes--Photo by Max Barrett

Lara Downes–Photo by Max Barrett

Can you tell us about your experience working on the My Promise Project, as well as the impact it has on the participants?

My Promise Project began at the same time, in 2016, as I was traveling around the country, embedded in so many communities, and encouraging reflection on the state of our nation by virtue of the stories I was telling through my music. My work with young people became a really powerful space for that reflection. The project is inspired by a quote from Rita Dove’s poem “Testimonial:” “I gave my promise to the world / And the world followed me here.” My workshops ask kids to identify their own promise–the gifts, interests, desires that motivate them, and the changes they want to see in the world–and we kind of walk back from an enormous and potentially overwhelming idea like “I want to end racism” to investigating the small actions we can each take as individuals to bring about enormous change. How can we address racial inequities within our very smallest circles, and in our personal actions? How can we “end pollution” by picking up trash in our local park? It’s about taking agency and building community.

I’ve taken this to schools in small towns and big cities, from Watts in LA to Southside Chicago, and it gives kids a beautiful awakening to possibility on the individual and communal levels. Last spring one young girl told me, “Grownups always ask what you want to be when you grow up, but they never ask what you can do now.” That’s so true. And even as grownups, I think it’s essential to stay connected to the power of our small actions. The woes of the world can seem impossibly overwhelming otherwise!

In your AMPLIFY conversation with Rhiannon Giddens, you talk about the importance of finding shared stories “deep within American music.” How do these musical stories bridge divides and mediate conversations about America’s racial history?

American music has traveled such a long and winding road, through migrations, generations, and all the unexpected meeting places where human stories converge. And that’s everything! Convergence and common experience–the spaces, the memories that unite us, and the stories we don’t even know. Take a song like “All The Pretty Little Horses.” My mom sang it to me when I was little–it’s one of my first memories. She probably didn’t know anything about its origins. Most likely, this is an old plantation song, sung by a woman in slavery who couldn’t care for her own baby because she was obliged to take care of her master’s child. But the song has traveled through time and place, and there it was, centuries later, translated through some Judy Collins/Joan Baez pipeline to my mom, who sang it to put me to sleep. Imagine all the mothers, across generations, across state lines, across racial and social divides, who’ve sung that song to put their babies to sleep.

And there you have our common ground. If we dig down and find the places where our songs converge with our stories, then maybe we understand what brings us together, instead of what drives us apart.

Lara Downes--Photo by Max Barrett

Lara Downes–Photo by Max Barrett

You have compared the past months to historic Black artistic and intellectual awakenings like the Harlem Renaissance. What is the significance and impact of sharing the conversations you’re having with other Black artists on AMPLIFY to this current moment?

This year has been devastating, destructive, and divisive. And it’s also been transformative. We won’t come out of it the same way we went in. There’s a major cultural shift in the making, and the conversations we’re having on AMPLIFY are capturing it in real time. I think that’s important, because it’s a shift that’s taking place behind closed doors, in isolation. These conversations seem to be helping artists connect with each other, lean on each other, grow creative collaborations…Last week I taped a segment with the soprano Julia Bullock, who’s an upcoming guest later this month, and as we wrapped up our call, we realized that we had each come to some important new insights during our time together.

These conversations are remarkably open and honest–some really profound moments of vulnerability in talking about what it means to process and interpret the realities of this time as members of the Black community. There is so much to manage: grief, fear, anger, and just a deep emotional exhaustion. And at the same time, we are wanting to express those feelings through our music, and give something meaningful and beautiful to the world we’re living in, such as it is. Langston Hughes said “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people – the beauty within themselves.” I think this is a time when we all need desperately to connect with the beauty within ourselves and within each other.

This season of AMPLIFY also features Anthony McGill, Helga Davis, and Davóne Tines, artists who, “all had moments of awakening during this tragic and transformative year… and dared to express something as audacious as hope.” What inspiration, lessons, and wisdom are you taking away from your conversations with these artists, and what do you hope your listeners will learn?

I’m learning about what we’re learning, during this time of change. Musicians are strange creatures: goal driven, and focused on achievement and excellence from such a young age. We learn how to be really good at what we do. Now the world has stopped us in our tracks. We’re looking inward as well as forward, noticing the internal shifts–in priorities, in mission, in message–that will send us down the next stretch of our road with a different stride, and maybe with a different destination in sight. And I think this change reflects our human condition. We are all learning, reconsidering, reflecting, reckoning. We all have an opportunity to amplify the promise of what we can give to the world.


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