How Anthony Davis put Malcolm X, and Black power, center stage
The Daily Beast
November 11, 2023
Pulitzer-winning composer Anthony Davis on Malcolm X at the Met, challenging racism in opera, championing Black power in his work—and why artists must “step up” against bigotry.
In the opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, to Dec. 2), the iconic title character sings, “As long as I’ve been living, you’ve had your foot on me, always pressing,” and “You’ve had your foot on me a very long time.” The words may have been written in 1986, but, as its composer Anthony Davis told The Daily Beast, they are piercingly prescient for baritone Will Liverman to sing in 2023.
“That’s George Floyd, that’s the image,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, that cycle of violence still exists, and it existed prior to Malcolm too. On stage you see the names of all the victims of that history of racist violence. That violence has always been with us; it is part of the legacy to slavery too. The opera puts it in a larger historical context, and then has a cathartic release too.”
Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2019 opera The Central Park Five, based on the high-profile 1989 case of five Black and Hispanic teenagers convicted and later exonerated of attacking a female jogger in Central Park. He is only the second Black composer to have their work presented by the Met. X—with a libretto by Thulani Davis, Anthony’s Grammy Award-winning cousin and longtime collaborator, and a story by his brother Christopher—premiered at New York City Opera in 1986, and it was “very exciting” to finally see it staged at the Met, said Davis.
“It has been realized in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time,” he said of the new staging, a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, Detroit Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Omaha, and Seattle Opera. “What (director) Robert O’Hara has brought to the opera is incredible. In a way we were looking back when we created the opera in 1986 to a time of revolution and the promise of Malcolm X. This production looks to the future, and the idea of what Malcolm X and his legacy looks like in the future—and how much it is relevant to today.” In Clint Ramos’ striking stage design, “a spaceship has crashed into the Met,” O’Hara told NPR, “and a future race of people are telling the story of this icon.”
The opera (incorporating Davis’ trademark mix of musical styles, including jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel) includes powerful sequences, including Malcolm X’s assassination, and the moment a group of demonstrators—played by dancers—being the victims of police brutality.
Davis, 72, is happy the sequence includes the image of the raised fist symbolizing Black Power, resonating with the famous image from the 1968 Summer Olympics of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze respectively in the 200m, on the winners’ podium raising their black-gloved fists as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
“It shows how we can be empowered, despite all that has happened, despite police brutality and resistance to change,” Davis said. “The opera also shows how Malcolm’s movement was a culmination of Marcus Garvey and other movements prior to that. The opera speaks to today as well. You can’t imagine Black Lives Matter without Malcolm X, and Malcolm X has been a symbol in hip-hop culture and Black radicalism since the 1960s.
“Seeing people from the future in the opera rediscover Malcolm X symbolizes our own rediscovery of Malcom X, and what he means today and what he will mean in the future. History kind of descends from that spaceship. It allows us to take a more abstract view of what Malcolm’s story is. The opera also shows something celebratory about being Black in America—overcoming obstacles, and the miraculous story of Malcolm X having this sixth-grade education, then becoming a leader.”
Davis’ brother, who once played Malcolm X in a play, pointed out all the references to music in the civil rights leader’s biography—and how music and musicians were so entwined with his political work. In Boston, Malcolm X was introduced to jazz and the Lindy Hop at the Roseland-State Ballroom where he once worked as a shoeshine boy. In his autobiography (as told to Alex Haley), Malcolm X recalled how he once had shined Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton’s shoes at the venue, and the big band music they played that he delighted, so young, in being introduced to: “I could feel the beat in my bones, even though I had never danced.”
Jazz was played after his political speeches, Davis said, while the music of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders “musically embodied the revolutionary spirit of the ‘60s.” The opera brings together these complementary and interwoven threads of music and politics.
Davis is excited to see the diversity of the audience at the Met to see X, reminding him that “it was an over 50 percent African American house” when first performed at City Opera. “It’s unprecedented. That’s the potential with works like this—you can make sure the diverse population of New York City finds themselves in the opera. It is not excluding to them. It can include and involve them, and they can feel that attachment to, and involvement with, the music.”
“We can make opera into something we want it to be”
Davis follows Terrence Blanchard, who was the first Black composer to have their presented at the Met (Fire Shut Up in My Bones in 2021, and Champion in April this year). “It is shocking,” Davis said of the paucity of work by Black composers until now. “It is shocking that no one thought to commission Duke Ellington in the ’40s and ’50s. I always remember that Ellington and (his longtime collaborator) Billy Strayhorn, and the other great composers who opened the door for us.
“When Ellington presented Black, Brown, and Beige at Carnegie Hall in 1943 it was a big moment to look at Black American history in a serious way. I hope that the access I have at the Met similarly opens doors for more African American composers. But I think also think it shows that American opera has come of age. We have our own aesthetic we can draw upon, and a rich musical history that is unique—unlike Europe—and that’s good. We have our own identity. It’s not subservient to what Europe is. We can make opera into something we want it to be.”
Other institutions like Hollywood and Broadway have sought to interrogate institutional racism and initiate change post-George Floyd’s death. How has opera fared? “Opera has been some ways is ahead of other institutions, in areas like interracial casting, over the last 20 or 30 years—that has not existed as widely in movies and theater,” Davis said. “On the other hand, it is dealing with Black creators—composers and librettists—and acknowledging them bringing in a new aesthetic of opera, to make up something Americans can really identify with. That’s starting to happen.
“Opera is a way of telling big stories that have significance and things of great meaning. When you write an opera, in order to justify what the music does—drama that is implicit in the music—the stakes have to be higher. We have had so many things happen in America where those stakes are high, and the way we can recast that and reimagine history is through the lens of history.”
Had Davis experienced racism while working in opera? “Oh yeah. I think the first problem is invisibility. What Ralph Ellison (in Invisible Man, 1953) described about being invisible—that is the real issue. I did X to really great acclaim in 1986, but it went nowhere, then it was forgotten for several years. What happens is, you have a big success and it doesn’t count. I think it’s always been weird, as an African American, how quickly erasure happens. It is something we always have to address and think about. We have to ensure that after great moments like when X and Terrence’s operas happen that the gates of Janus don’t close again.”
When Davis won the Pulitzer for The Central Park Five, “it was kind of surreal as everything was locked down. I was doing a Zoom faculty meeting with colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, and then the phone was ringing. When they announce the Pulitzers, they don’t tell you ahead of time. They just release the announcement to the press. I thought, ‘Maybe I should answer the phone to see what’s up.’ I forgot to mute the faculty meeting. I was told I had won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The whole faculty heard it. They heard it the same time I did. Then I called my wife!”
The Pulitzer represents “a different kind of recognition,” Davis said. During lockdown, he returned to X to both edit it and electronically transcribe it as it was originally written by hand.
“I had time on my hands, and wanted to feel busy. I did it every day, and it was a wonderful experience. I got to revisit why I got into opera in the first place, and what I was like at 33 or 34 when I wrote it, and staying true to that vision but bringing 35 years of experience since then to say, ‘OK, I can do that a little better.’” Davis laughed, and said he had made the opera more concise, and created a new duet for the character of Malcolm and his wife Betty.
“It was a big statement when I did it, and it was great for me to revisit my younger self,” said of returning to X so many years later. “I was thinking, ‘What lit my fire back then? What really got me so committed and passionate about opera, and the discovery of a new form?’ There are things in it that I would never write today because it’s so direct and in a way simple—but I think that’s what makes it great too. It was very interesting to see what I was thinking back then.”
The themes of anger at injustice are sometimes present when he writes, Davis said, especially when writing music such as Malcolm X’s passion-filled aria. “Also, as a young African American composer at the time, I was fighting for recognition myself, so also in my mind was for struggle I was feeling for respect. That was fuel in itself—I had a strong identification with Malcolm and his rage at that moment, and expressed it all through music.”
As a composer, Davis is guided by his commitment to activism and politics. “That’s why I do it. In writing opera I found a way of being politically active and engage with music at the same time. I remember in 10th grade living in Italy, and having this wonderful teacher who introduced me to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. I thought about politics, and was president of our student council. I wanted to find that synthesis of political activism and music—how music could be part of politics, and the spirit of revolution. That was really important to me: the revolutionary spirit that’s in music.
“You could feel it in the 19th century—listen to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony. It was so present in what it addressed. I felt the idea of the Dionysian and Apollonian could be mapped on to the music of the African diaspora, using the classical form but also subverting that form. I always think of music as subversive, looking to what was done before, then introduce a different aesthetic and another kind of difference coming from a radical and revolutionary spirit.”
“I remember seeing Fidel Castro in our living room”
Davis was born in 1951 in Paterson, New Jersey. In 1955, his father, Charles T. Davis, became the first Black professor at Princeton. “There was a famous story,” Davis recalled. “One of the southern senators had a child at Princeton, and threatened to remove their child if my father’s appointment went through. The president of Princeton told the senator, ‘You’re welcome to take your child out of Princeton.’”
Davis’ father had grown up in the South himself, in Hampton, Virginia. “I remember vividly visiting my grandparents and dealing with segregation,” Anthony said. “You could not drink from this water fountain, this bathroom wasn’t for you, you couldn’t stop at this rest stop. My father was generally a very friendly and open person. But there were times when he was tested, and times you could see the real fight in him when someone said something.”
His father was “quite radical, politically,” and was blacklisted in the 1950s; Davis recalled hearing a click on the phone when he picked it up. “My father’s roommate in college became Fidel Castro’s ambassador to the UN just after the Cuban Revolution. Castro visited our house. I remember seeing him in our living room, me peering down from the stairs in my pajamas.”
An English professor, Davis’ father had also been a musician—a violinist and pianist. His mother also played the piano, but was more engaged in dance. “The pressure growing up in that family was to be excellent,” Davis recalled. “You were expected to be great—and not allowed to be average, or sell yourself short. That was the big thing. This was a time when the way to overcome adversity was to be better than everyone else. That was something engrained in my brother and me.”
Davis started playing the piano in first grade. “The first time I played piano I was in diapers on (jazz pianist) Billy Taylor’s lap, playing with him. Dad used to play Mozart. I picked out some of it by ear when he was playing.”
Davis studied piano under the renowned pianist Frances Clark. “We had to do a concert every month, and I had to do piece of my own. I wrote some music in second grade. I abandoned that, and went down the classical piano track until ninth grade, and then I got really into jazz.”
When the family lived in Italy, His father’s record, Thelonius Monk in Italy, helped him fall in love with and study Monk’s music, learning many of the compositions by ear.
The young Davis practiced piano at a Steinway store in Turin, playing Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Monk. He began composing his own music, and by 10th grade “I started to think of myself as a composer and also an improviser.”
Early on, playing piano was a “refuge” for Davis, who went to prep school at Exeter. “I wasn’t thinking of it as a career. I was thinking I would be a lawyer, or involved in civil rights. I wrote poetry, and tried to write a novel. Words were very natural for me. I thought of myself as an activist, and about politics generally. Piano was always my way to escape pressures. To decompress, I would play piano for two hours at home and get all my anxiety out and get into the music. Then I discovered it was my vocation and how I could express myself, and began working with Thulani.”
At Yale, one of Davis’ early pieces focused on the trial of Bobby Seale, during which the co-founder of the Black Panther Party was bound and gagged because of what the judge said were his outbursts in court.
“I became involved with the Black Panthers, monitoring demonstrations,” Davis said. “I tried to make sure no one got killed by the National Guard which had happened at Kent State (when the Guard had shot 13 students, killing four and wounding nine—one permanently paralyzed—in 1970). I had to deal with Abbie Hoffman, who was a great person, and some of other radicals who came—like Jerry Rubin, who was a jerk.”
At college, Davis formed his own band with George Lewis and Gerry Hemingway. One of Davis’ early pieces, “May Day,” was “a very powerful, rhythmic piece about revolution. I was trying to evoke that energy and passion in music. When I listened to Coltrane’s music I always felt it there, and with Ellington too in Black, Brown, and Beige and ‘Harlem.’ Ellington was such an important model for me. He was wrestling with the civil rights struggle in his work, and worked with Martin Luther King.”
After Yale, Davis moved to New York in 1975, was mentored by figures like Charles Mingus and Wadada Leo Smith, and began working with musicians like experimental composer Anthony Braxton. In 1981, Davis founded his own octet Episteme (from the Greek word for knowledge), and composed and worked as a pianist and bandleader before embarking on his opera compositions. He wrote the incidental music for Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway in 1993.
His major works to date, beside X and The Central Park Five, have been Tania (1992, about Patty Hearst), the slavery-focused Amistad (1987), which premiered with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Wakonda’s Dream, which premiered at Opera Omaha in 2007, and Lilith (2009).
Next, Davis and Thulani are working on an opera based on the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, called Fire Across the Tracks. If he can acquire the rights he would love to adapt Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and an operatic adaptation of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator.
He is also planning an opera based on Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. He would love to mount X in Europe, and some parts of Amistad in Africa. Laughing, he says he has “always thought of doing a mash-up of Strauss’ Aridane auf Naxos and the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.
Davis’ eyes are also set on Broadway. He has composed a musical, Shimmer, based on Sarah Schulman’s novel about a love triangle and political and cultural upheaval and blacklists of the late 1940s and 1950s. The team behind the show-in-gestation have done one workshop at Yale, with one planned for Northwestern in the new year.
“The music captures that period of time and beyond,” Davis said. “I am very excited. A young lesbian arrives in New York, wanting to be a journalist. She falls in love with a jazz singer, who is married to a young African American playwright. The show has themes of race and gender. There are police raids on lesbian bars. The woman who is a jazz singer abandons both of them, and wants to be Doris Day. But she can’t be Doris Day, because she’s married to a Black man, and her lover is a woman! Hopefully it will come to Broadway at some point.”
“I have a lot of projects,” Davis laughed. “I hope I have time to do them all.” A sense of his mortality is “real. You feel a certain urgency about doing things. That’s one of the reasons I made an electronic version of X during the pandemic. I wanted to make it as good as it could be, but I also wanted to solidify my legacy.”
“I don’t really think of boundaries in music”
Davis has lived in San Diego for 26 years (he is professor of music at the University of San Diego), but has always proudly and emphatically identified himself as a New Yorker. He married his wife, Cynthia Aaronson, an opera singer, in 1994 (he wrote Tania for her). He has two children. Timothy, his elder son from a previous marriage, is 44 and a science fiction writer living in New York. Cynthia and Anthony’s 26-year-old son, Jonah (who sang opera when he was a young boy), is a pro baseball player in California.
“I love baseball,” Davis said laughing. “But I realized when he was 9 I couldn’t play catch with him because he threw the ball too hard. My whole career was going to end. My fingers couldn’t take it!”
Davis loves listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Benjamin Britten (particularly Peter Grimes), Alban Berg’s operas Wozzeck (the first opera he ever heard when he was at Yale, “which was very exciting to me”) and Lulu, alongside the music of Weill, Janáček, Strauss, and Wagner.
“My son always plays hip-hop for me,” Davis said. “My younger son turned me on to Kendrick Lamar. He tries to keep me apprised what else is going on.”
He laughed, recalling a story of when Jonah was at kindergarten, performing something for a “day of sharing.” “He memorized an Eminem song. He didn’t tell us he was going to do it. Well, he had not listened to the PG version. It was the adult version, and he didn’t know what it meant. He recited the whole thing. We got a call from his kindergarten teacher who said, ‘What your son was saying wasn’t really appropriate.’ He has an amazing ear. He’d sing Ray Charles, and memorize sax solos and Michael Jackson songs.”
Like son, like father. “I don’t really think of boundaries in music,” Davis said. “I like the freedom of not being bound by genre, by the bins of the record store, and the algorithms of the computer. I find that freedom inspiring. A lot of American composers spend a lot of time editing ourselves in order to be serious or popular, or whatever. We should release ourselves from our own psychological prisons.”
Davis’ political focus and activist spirit remain strong today, rooted in grave concern about America’s future.
“If Trump comes back into power we’re in 1930’s Berlin,” Davis said. “I think about the end of the Weimar Republic. That potential is there here, today. If Trump is re-elected, I may have to do my art somewhere else. It is most unfortunate that America could go down that path again. A sizable part of the population wants to go back. ‘Make America Great Again’? When was it great? During segregation in the ’50s? When homosexuals couldn’t be out in the open? Those are the fundamentals you think about. It’s really ‘Make America oppressive again.’ The idea is to create a ’50s-like environment where people can’t be themselves.
“We are in a very dangerous period,” Davis said. “I am very wary about the future. We see Antisemitism, we see Islamophobia. Trump has really exploited the racial divide and hatred among people, and demonized many minority groups, including transgender people, Blacks, and immigrants. The ‘othering’ that he and his supporters do is a real danger. As an artist at this time, you’re like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in the ’30s. We have a role to play. We have to step up.”