5 Questions to John Holiday (countertenor) about Save The Boys

John Holiday is countertenor whose advocacy for the Black presence in classical performing arts aligns itself with the idea of transformative resilience, a state of consciousness encompassed in what Maya Angelou poignantly called, “And Still I Rise.” This theme, along with “I am a Man, Do you see me,” occupies the foundation of the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries written by Black men from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to Essex Hemphill and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

These themes also inhabit the music of Save The Boys, a new song cycle by Opera Philadelphia Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey based on the text of 19th century Black abolitionist and activist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. John Holiday will give the world premiere of Save The Boys on February 12, 2020 on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

As a Black man and countertenor, you have occupied a rare multi-dimensional space that bespeaks the themes stated above. As a result, do you bring a transformative resilience and deeper understanding to the text?

I relate very much to the text of Ms. Watkins Harper. There are experiences that I have had, as a young African-American boy and as an adult, which speak directly to this text and the importance of saving our boys…saving our girls…saving our children. Because of those experiences, I would like to think that helps me to bring this poignant text to life. There is absolutely no doubt that my experiences have given me a deeper understanding of the text–because I have lived it.

John Holiday--Photo by Shervin Lainez

John Holiday–Photo by Shervin Lainez

In Opera Philadelphia’s We Shall Not Be Moved, Daniel Bernard Roumain informs us that being Black and male in Philadelphia is both dangerous and short lived. Is there a through line from this opera to Save The Boys?

Though the text in Save The Boys is completely different from the text of We Shall Not Be Moved, I’d say that there is a through line about what society is telling our young people. It’s important that we enable our young people, especially our young people of color, to see the best in themselves and for them to know that we value them and we need them. After all, our youth are the leaders of tomorrow.

Save The Boys was written 134 years ago by a Black woman who understood the challenge that Black male youth faced during and after slavery. In many ways, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem has a clairvoyance for our times. On “The Voice” and in previous interviews, you have shared how your grandmother as a Black woman embraced you in a way that speaks directly to what Watkins Harper wrote over 100 years prior. Do you see yourself and your grandmother occupying a shared space with Watkins Harper in Save The Boys?

Well, Bigmama and I have frequent discussions about the state of our world. Having been a former English and literature teacher, I am certain that she is well-versed in the texts of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Even still, she continues to give me guidance about how to navigate this world….how to navigate this space. I am sure that we will have many moments to reflect on the wonderful new work, which I am so proud to be a part of.

How can your voice and the text of Sorey’s songs find resonance in the wake of the unanswered reckonings with race that result from the death of George Floyd in 2021?

If anything, I want for young African-American boys and men to see themselves in me and to know that they are worthy of every single good thing. If they see me doing this, they too can accomplish their dreams. I want everyone to know that as we climb the ladder, it does not make us immune to hardships and challenges, but it is up to us to save one another–to make room for others as we continue moving through this world. After all, what good is it to have a gift and not be able to share it with others. In doing so, I hope that I am, in some way, helping to save other boys the way that music has saved me, this little country boy from Rosenberg, Texas.

John Holiday--Photo by Shervin Lainez

John Holiday–Photo by Shervin Lainez

How will Save The Boys impact your work going forward as an opera singer and celebrity singer to advance the cause of social justice for Black boys and men?

Save The Boys is very important to me, and it will impact my work in many ways. What I’ve always recognized is that I have a platform, and I will continue to use my platform to uplift all people, my people, and people from underserved areas. I want to use my voice to speak out and to be a beacon of light for those who have lost their own. As long as I live, I will endeavor to stand up for what is right and to help others. As I continue to climb up, I vow to lift others up, too.  That’s what I’m doing with this beautiful and poignant music.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or