Standing before a class of Camden teens recently, composer Hannibal Lokumbe held up two small figurines, grotesques of another era: a mammy and its male counterpart.
His string of stories and thoughts was discursive, but the message was clear. “Everything is imagery — how you see yourself.”
He told the students at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy about the time, as a young trumpeter, when he was two months behind on his rent, and yet he turned down a great deal of money to make one recording with “one of those shake-it” entertainers, and another of the “call my sister a b—” variety.
“Who is the present-day Aunt Jemima? Because it still exists. Society told me I could not be composer-in-residence with a great orchestra.”
Now he is. At 68, living in Texas, and a mystic of the most musical sort, Hannibal is in town as part of a Philadelphia Orchestra residency that will culminate with Healing Tones, a full-orchestra oratorio to be premiered by the orchestra in 2019.
In the meantime, he has written Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling, to be premiered Saturday, two years to the day after the murder of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The concert at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church is to be part of a three-day series of performances and discussions that will stake out the intersection of music and social justice.
“As I follow this work, its purpose is so clear,” Hannibal said about one point in the process of writing it. “Heal, restore, remind.”
Hannibal’s residency is new, but he has been cultivating relationships here for years — at Morgan Village, the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) on South Broad Street, the Philadelphia Detention Center in Holmesburg, and elsewhere.
On this visit, he has been showing a series of scrolls — long sheets of paper he filled with text, pictures, and poetry — that were a blueprint to Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling.
He calls the piece a requiem, and in it, he gives voice to the nine who were murdered at the Charleston church. The Philadelphia experience will begin with a “walk of love” from Weccacoe Park — originally Mother Bethel’s burial ground — to the church for the premiere of the work for jazz trio, jazz trumpet, solo violin, vocalists, narrators, and choir.
In it, four scribes name each of the victims and declare that they, “having now attained the realm of sainthood — and by their blood — souls are saved and evil is kept from gaining its ultimate prize, all the virtues of sainthood they now fulfill and will be forever acknowledged as such by those whose task it is to liberate the soul from hatred and fear — and whose desire it is to make peace the common good.”
Each soul is asked what he or she would like recorded in the Book of Ages.
Some of the responses Hannibal gives the victims are poetical, like that of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who delivers a “song-prayer.”
So little the time my angels
This harvest of life
The flesh in all its splendor
stands so briefly in the light
And now with silent steps — I walk from valley to shore
the wind my compass
the moon my tear
the flowers my words
the lark my song
And each time your heart moves
I will live
To another victim, Hannibal gives language that speaks to the power of art.
“Music would have saved that boy,” says Daniel Simmons Sr. “A few tones from Miles [Davis] would have made him whole. Too bad nobody didn’t put a violin or a saxophone in his hands – and had him listen to Trane play “A Love Supreme.” The lives of my children are filled with the power of music. That’s why their eyes sing like the summer stars.”
He has Myra Thompson asking that her husband forgive her for not saying goodbye.
Tywanza Sanders chants: “F-R-E-E-D-O-M.”
When speaking about the need for understanding, for reformation of society’s image of a people who came here on slave ships, Hannibal refers to “turning Aunt Jemimas into saints.”
His goal, he says, is to “change the mind-set of how people of color are seen in this land.”
At CAPA a few weeks ago, speaking to the school choir, he asked: “Have you ever seen an image of a saint that looks like me?” The students laughed.
He has engaged visual artist Steven Prince to create a series of “veils” depicting each victim as a saint, to be revealed Thursday at the Painted Bride.
“Too many people wielding great power, mesmerized by the sound of their own voice, running after themselves with no regard for those trampled beneath their feet,” Hannibal wrote to a reporter during the writing of his new piece. “The more the tyrant attempts to substitute ego for peace, the more hours we must spend going about the task of human restoration. Back to the wheel, collective meditation. No time for rest as long as our babies feel there is no refuge from the incessant human storm. More light, more compassion, more love is the cry, the call, the mission.”
• Hannibal Lokumbe’s June events begin Thursday with an “Unveiling of the Saints,” an evening of conversation and performance Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., with Hannibal and visual artist Steve Prince. The performance is ticketed, with a “pay what you can” price scale. 215-925-9914, www.paintedbride.org.
• “Remembering Birmingham: Civil Rights and Constitutional Change” on Friday at noon at the National Constitution Center, Independence Mall, 525 Arch St., is a panel discussion that brings together Hannibal with Sarah Collins Rudolph, a survivor of 1963 bombing of the the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and Washington Post editor Steven Levingston. Hannibal performs on trumpet. This event is free, but registration is required. 215-409-6700, www.constitutioncenter.org/debate.
• Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling receives its world premiere Saturday at 7 p.m. at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 419 S. 6th Street, with musicians including violinist Juliette Kang, soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo-soprano Tiffany Godette and tenor Rodrick Dixon. The performance is preceded by a “walk of love” to the church that begins at 6 p.m. at Weccacoe Park, S. Lawrence and Queen Streets. The concert is free. 215-925-0616, tickets can be reserved at www.philorch.org.