It’s not that Carnegie has gone old-school hip-hop. Lyte and the Original Human Beat Box are part of a strikingly eclectic show launching Carnegie’s monthlong celebration of black music, put together by soprano legend Jessye Norman. And the fact that you just read Norman’s name in the same sentence with the phrase “human beat box” tells you much about the program’s aspirations.
Tonight actually won’t be Lyte’s first Carnegie performance. Back in 1990, the Brooklyn native and founding mother of hip-hop made history as the first rapper to mount the storied concert hall’s stage. Tonight’s show is billed as a romp through those sorts of high moments in Carnegie’s history with black music of all genres, mixing old-heads like Ashford & Simpson with upstarts like hard-to-define Toshi Reagon.
After tonight’s opener, the festival—dubbed Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy—will sprawl out across the city with more than 20 events, primarily concerts and panel discussions, hosted at a similar hodgepodge of locales—from the Apollo Theater to the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Black musical culture, Carnegie has declared, is everywhere.
The festival’s effort to celebrate black music across genre, space and time is laudable. But in the end, the most tantalizing events on the month’s calendar aren’t about R&B and hip-hop, contemporary or otherwise. They are instead the sort of high-art fare you’d expect from Carnegie Hall and Jessye Norman.
Norman is certain to steal her own festival’s show with her March 7 concert, at which she’ll perform excerpts from Duke Ellington’s three “Sacred Concerts.” Singing with a jazz ensemble, a gospel choir and two dancers, Norman will pay tribute to Ellington’s renowned, late-life choral tour de force. Between 1965 and his death in 1974, Ellington composed and performed a series of pondering spiritual concerts, which he reportedly called the most important work of his life. He debuted the second of the three at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Norman will perform this weekend.
Norman will also join in for a remarkable-sounding March 16 concert paying tribute to Langston Hughes. The ambitious show, composed by Laura Karpman, will feature hip-hop super-band The Roots alongside jazz vocalist Lizz Wright and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, among other performers. The multimedia concert is based on Hughes’ 1961 poem Ask Your Mama!, which Hughes wrote as just the sort of multi-genre vehicle Karpman has turned it into. He scribbled a wide-ranging soundtrack in the poem’s margins—including everything from African drum to German lieder (whatever that is)—and Karpman aims to bring his vision to life.
The Honor festival also includes some eye-catching educational events. There’s a packed day with panels, each paired with performances, on March 8, which will include The Root’s editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. and contributors to The Root including journalist Gwen Ifill and Michael Eric Dyson, along with folks like Toni Morrison, Judith Jamison and Arthur Mitchell. A few days later, on March 12, Mitchell will also talk about his famed Dance Theater of Harlem.
Black culture junkies outside of New York can tap into the Honor experience online. The festival Web site includes an interactive timeline of black music, organized along the same musical tracks that the festival’s programming seems to run—spiritual, jazz and pop to disco and hip-hop. There’s also a clickable timeline of significant black performances at Carnegie. Carnegie’s clearly proud of this history, and with good reason. Black soprano Sissieretta Jones performed there in 1892, just a year after the hall opened. Marian Anderson debuted there in 1928, a decade before getting barred from D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Carnegie has since hosted the likes of Mary J. Blige and Wyclef Jean, not to mention MC Lyte.
It would have been fun to see more of these sorts of pop and hip-hop trailblazers involved in the festival but, as they say, it is what it is. Norman’s program is more a tribute to Carnegie’s history with black music than it is a celebration of the whole canon. And so be it. That’s plenty to fill a month.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.