Esperanza Spalding unites jazz and social justice

Esperanza Spalding performs in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Johnny Franks/The Occidental

Musical and social empowerment reverberated through the rows of Thorne Hall Feb. 2 after Esperanza Spalding, jazz bassist, singer and the 2018 Hume Fellow in Performing Arts sang and played a collection of her songs for a sold-out show.

According to her website, Spalding was a child prodigy, playing the violin with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at only 5 years old. She was trained on the guitar and bass and attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She is now a professor at the music department at Harvard University. Her courses on songwriting, arranging and stage performance combine elements of musical theory and social justice. Although she was classically trained, her music can hardly be classified as solely jazz. Her songs combine elements of pop, hip-hop and classic eclecticism. In recent years, she has deliberately used her music to speak out about social injustice. 

The performance began with Spalding and her band members strolling on stage with copies of Forbes and Newsweek in their hands. Her band members took their positions in the back, swaying side to side, their noses engrossed in the readings. “F— that!” Spalding said, after a few minutes, and began her song “Word Jungle.” The lyrics critiqued the media’s inaccurate representation of reality and the oppression of minority voices.

Esperanza Spalding performs in Thorne Hall at Occidental College on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Johnny Franks/The Occidental

“We have so much to talk about. I mean, I love the bass, but it’s nice to just listen to it sometimes,” Spalding said after a few songs. “It’s more important that we call out the madness.”

Spalding’s song “I Am Telling You” called out some of that madness, illuminating her experiences as a woman in the music industry and with a co-worker who always got a little too close. The song emphasizes the need for better treatment and less harassment.

She carried on this topic with her next song “Tangerine” in which the lyrics compared women to tangerines and clementines. Through her comparison, Spalding elaborated on the treatment of women in the music industry as being easily transferable, tossed around, replaced and replenished with each season.

Spalding also taught a master class for Occidental music students and provided one-on-one advice for vocalists a few hours before her performance. Those students were Inez Leon (first year) and Cate Selna (sophomore), who are both music majors. Desiree LaVertu, director of choral and vocal activities, and David Kasunic, chair of the music department, approached Leon and Selna midway through the Fall 2017 semester.

Selna, who performed Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” during the master class, said she had heard of Spalding’s music before but had not listened to it.

“After I found out that she had written, recorded, edited and live streamed her last album in, like, 72 hours, I was amazed. What a legend,” Selna said.

After Selna’s performance during the master class, Spalding advised her to forget how to sing.

“I will definitely remember that when I perform from now on,” Selna said. “She is such an accomplished musician and the fact that I got to sing for her is crazy to me.”

Leon, who performed a piece of her own during the master class, received similar advice.

Esperanza Spalding performs in Thorne Hall at Occidental College on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Johnny Franks/The Occidental

“She brought up this point about remembering that we are storytellers and that we are trying to communicate something to the audience, which is so important and emphasizes the intention we have behind the music,” Leon said.

After performing her song, Leon had the opportunity to hear advice from Spalding and try singing it again. Leon said she had received similar advice from her other professors, but Spalding articulated it in a way that made her understand.

“Because she’s so intelligent about music, she could have pointed out any of the technical things wrong, but she really just got to the heart of it and told me to connect to my lyrics more,” Leon said.

Both Selna and Leon were able to attend Spalding’s performance after the class.

“I thought her performance was incredible, and all of the advice she gave to me was really shown in practice while she was singing,” Leon said.

According to Kasunic, Spalding was not a random choice for the music faculty, who were looking for a Hume fellow that resonated with the culture of social activism on campus.

“She really embodies the shared mission of the college, of musical excellence and commitment to social justice,” Kasunic said.”Having Esperanza visit on the heels of other previous guest artists such as Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, we are signaling our commitment to cutting-edge, genre-expanding music,” Kasunic said.

Spalding ended her concert with her song “Black Gold,” in which she invited the audience to sing alongside with her. The lyrics of the song emphasized the importance of women, especially women of color, to hold their heads high. The crowd was passionate, and several yelps and cheers followed her voice throughout the performance. The night concluded with a standing ovation from the audience and an encore.