5 Questions to BLKBOK (composer, pianist)

On his new album, Black Book DLUX, classical pianist and composer BLKBOK (pronounced “Black Bach”) returns to his native Detroit roots. Grounded in the aural and oral tradition of storytelling in various African cultures (which have also become a source of African-American survival), the album alternates the poetry of Lauren Delapenha with BLKBOK’s own piano works that he defines as Neo-classical. This term is often associated with the 18th century revival of Greco-Roman arts and culture that coincided with the Age of Enlightenment. It was a time of rediscovery, but also a time of challenging, purging, then redefining.

While this is the mission BLKBOK (born Charles Wilson III) takes on — weaving his love for classical composers like Debussy, Mozart, and Bach with MC’s like Mos Def, Biggie, and Busta Rhymes — the historical meaning of the term “Neo-classical” would need to be challenged, purged, and redefined, as well. BLKBOK makes it a point to mention the elephant in the concert hall: not just that he’s Black or didn’t go to a conservatory, but also that he is tattooed, something that may be artistic or quirky for a white artist, but is easily vilifying for a Black man anywhere, especially in Western classical music.

What is the significance of your choice to define your music as “Neo-classical” as opposed to something more mainstream like “contemporary?” Are there any references or meanings you’d like someone to pull from it if they haven’t heard your music before?

My initial intention was to write music that spoke to the current social and cultural issues that we face in America through the lens of a Black man. I honestly had no idea of what the end result would sound like, but I was willing to take to journey and find my creative voice. I studied classical music as a child until around age 16, then of course I ventured off into many other genres, so as I discovered my voice, the sound was classical music with inflections from the other genres I’ve explored (hip-hop, pop, jazz, etc) — hence Neo-classical.

You’ve vividly described your hybrid musical expression by calling yourself a rapper — not defined how others might assume by just looking at you, but a rapper who spits rhymes through your fingers. What kind of presence do you want your physical body to have in this field of classical music while you challenge the look and sound through your music?

Classical music throughout the years has had this presence of either elitism or passive music that exists in the background. Not for me — I encourage an active listening experience for my audiences where the visual stories are created by the mood and feelings that the listener experiences. The idea is to create a space free of a fixed narrative where the listener is free to experience the music in their own unique way.

What was your collaboration with Lauren Delapenha in putting together Black Book DLUX, and how did you decide to alternate music and poems throughout the album?

Working with Lauren was an absolute pleasure. There were many in-depth conversations discussing the mood of the pieces and the energy and inspiration behind my writing process. It amazes me the ability that Lauren has with words and how she was able to manipulate them and essentially bring this beautifully crafted layer of context to the Black Book album. It was only fitting that we give the listener the same experience that we had as she wrote the poems and they flowed directly into the song.

If you had to choose one demographic of listeners you’d want to be most impacted by this new album, which would you choose and why?

I would most like to introduce new listeners to this type of music. I believe that there is a massive need for music that allows the listener to feel without vocally guiding their journey. In a time where depression and anxiety are at a high in this country, this album is an opportunity to connect in a different way: it allows for a beautiful journey of the soul.

Black Book DLUX is a part of your “What’s Goin’ On Social Series,” so where do you expect to go from here?

The “What’s Goin’ On Social Series” is literally audible commentary on the events that are happening around us in real-time. Some of the titles are “Ketanji’s Court,” which speaks to the appointment of Supreme Court justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, or “A Moment to Look Back” which was written about an episode of racism I faced on a call with some music industry professionals. Essentially, the “What’s Goin’ On Social Series” is an extension of Black Book DLUX, and I have a feeling that it will eventually turn into a body of work — we’ll see.

Black Book DLUX is out Friday, June 17, 2022 via icons+giants. Pre-save the album on your preferred platform here.


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