PaviElle French Pushes for Social Justice Through Genre-Crossing Music 

The music of PaviElle French — a soulful amalgam of R&B, gospel, and jazz — is an exhortation for a more tolerant, self-aware society. Whether she’s backed by a funky six-piece band or a chamber ensemble, French sings unflinchingly about the all-too-common experience of racism and oppression in the United States. “This is my hour/ ‘Cause I know my power/ I’m Black and I’m proud/ I’ll say it louder/ This keg’s full of powder,” she declares in the title track of her 2021 album SOVEREIGN.

French’s identity as an interdisciplinary artist is directly tied to her roots in the historically Black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It’s the basis of everything that I am, because it was a small community and we rallied around each other,” she told me over Zoom. In the early 20th century, St. Paul’s Black population surged and concentrated in Rondo. But before French was born in 1984, the construction of Interstate 94 had ruptured the town’s community and its culture.

“It was because of segregation that we had to come together and build the things we needed, because we couldn’t go to white stores,” French said. What she envisions in society, especially among white people, is the introspection to unpack the forces that motivate their behavior. If those conversations still make people “squirmy and uncomfortable,” they’re the very things we have to talk about, she said. “For me, that’s not uncomfortable; that’s the life I live.”

As a student at Maxfield Elementary, where her mother taught, French was inadvertently influenced to conform to whiteness; she came to understand that a Black person having her own opinions, which she did, meant trouble. But those times also marked the beginning of her life in music: She started singing in choirs when she was 5; by 9 she was performing in shows.

Almost 30 years later, French has released two albums, won an Upper Midwest Emmy Award, and collaborated with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) twice, with the support of American Composers Forum (ACF). The singer-composer channels the politically and socially attuned artists who influenced her when she was younger, particularly actress and playwright Laurie Carlos, an artistic fellow in the late 1990s at the Penumbra Theatre Company, where a teenaged French was a student. It was Carlos who first showed her how to preserve her culture in a marginalized community.

But despite the recent demonstrations calling for diversity and equity, “the climate and the overall landscape of racism in this country still hasn’t changed,” French told me with a tinge of despondency. “You still have to assimilate and fight being tokenized. You still have to carry a different culture and code-switch when you’re in these rooms.”

Those rooms, physical and metaphorical, are predominantly white institutions like the orchestra, to which French is a relative newcomer. Having established a songwriting career influenced by Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Patrice Rushen, and Philadelphia soul artists like McFadden & Whitehead, French sought out a new partnership with the SPCO to expand her sound palette.

A Requiem for Zula, made possible through an ACF grant, was her first classical crossover effort: a seven-movement orchestral song cycle, featuring the composer on vocals and piano. The piece was commissioned by the SPCO for its 2019 Tapestry Festival; the theme was “Home in the Twin Cities,” a good fit for an artist whose roots in Rondo are indelible. A Requiem for Zula celebrates the life of French’s mother, Zula Young, who was also a musician. The making of the piece, and its performance, was an opportunity for French to walk through the grief of losing a parent. The 2019 premiere at the Ordway Center was followed by a 2021 performance by the New World Symphony in Miami.

My writing is not only unconventional and polyrhythmic but extremely cultural; it is the antithesis of classical music. It comes from my Blackness, from my having a certain cultural style and feel for music.

The foray into classical music was a learning process; collaborating with orchestrator Michi Wiancko, French learned the limits and idioms of each instrument, substituting, say, a flute for a clarinet if a melody was pitched too high. French composes on Apple’s software GarageBand, using a free style that embraces improvisation. She has received some pushback. But it’s hard to notate soul, gospel, and complex African rhythms. “My writing is not only unconventional and polyrhythmic but extremely cultural; it is the antithesis of classical music. It comes from my Blackness, from my having a certain cultural style and feel for music,” she said. Wiancko helped capture that in her orchestration.

The collaboration style changed for Sands of Time, the second work for the SPCO, commissioned by Bill and Susan Sands and supported by ACF. French had orchestrated and arranged the piece herself before sending it to Wiancko, whose role this time was closer to transcriber and editor. The Sands, who had heard Requiem for Zula, gave French free rein for a piece to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The resulting 20-minute work for vocals, keyboard, and chamber orchestra closed the SPCO’s season in June 2022.

French’s association with ACF — whether it be through commissioned works, mentoring young music creators for ACF’s NextNotes High School Music Creator Awards, or speaking on panels — has allowed her to impart her knowledge as a professional musician whose training didn’t follow the rigors of the conservatory. Though she studied piano and voice at St. Paul’s Walker West Music Academy, “it’s a different training when it’s Black people training you and you’re Black; it’s a complete cultural difference in how I’m treated, in how I’m looked at and spoken to, than in white institutions,” she said. “There’s an implicit bias and a certain level of when you look like me in the orchestral world you have to work twice as hard to show that you’re a composer to be respected.”

“A lot of people in the orchestral world, even if they are people of color, still have to follow the rules and stay on the page. It’s the world that they grew up in,” she continued. “I’m an improviser; I don’t follow the page. For me, that makes the world sterile, deliberate, and intentional. I play jazz music. All of my experiences come from improvisation, so it allows me to bring a different experience.”

PaviElle French working with students at Purple Playground--Photo by Heidi Vader

PaviElle French working with students at Purple Playground–Photo by Heidi Vader

French is now engaged in a multi-part residency in conjunction with six St. Paul-based arts organizations, led by ACF. The final event of Liberation! Lifting Up Our Youth will be ACF’s annual Artist Equity Summit on Saturday, September 17. Livestreamed from Walker West Music Academy, the summit will invite composers, artists, teachers, listeners, advocates, and community leaders to discuss how to empower the young people of our own local ecosystems. The event will also feature performances by young artists from two of the programs currently working with French: TruArtSpeaks and Purple Playground.

A highlight of the residency so far has been the May 2022 premiere of The SOVEREIGN Suite for R&B band and a string ensemble composed of Walker West students. Commissioned by the Schubert Club, the hourlong, two-movement suite has shades of jazz, gospel, hip-hop, soul, funk, and spoken word.

Early into the piece, there is a poignant entreaty for “Ancestors come closer/ I need your love and care,” sung by three women who back up the composer. She answers with “Ancestors watch over me,” while the trio add washes of wordless harmonizing. It is French at her most inspired, but her upbeat stage presence belies the sobriety of her words. “I yearn for the day when I don’t have to keep talking about this plight/ Creating art in response to our trauma,” she later sings in the suite, a genuine plea for progressive change.

PaviElle French’s residency Liberation! Lifting Up our Youth is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Generous support has also been provided by Bill and Susan Sands, the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation, and Lillian Wright and C. Emil Berglund Foundation. Her first award for the development of A Requiem for Zula was ACF | create with generous funding from the Jerome Foundation. 


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