Throughout his eclectic career, Christylez Bacon has brazenly pushed through the boundaries of genre, collaboration, and culture, making unexpected, high-risk, high-reward moves as a matter of course.
From his beginnings in Southeast D.C., the Grammy Nominated progressive hip-hop artist, multi-instrumentalist, and beatboxer has performed at the National Cathedral and Smithsonian Folklife Festival, worked with musicians from around the globe, cut a children’s album, and kept his collaborative series Washington Sound Museum running for over a decade.
His latest piece “Migrations in Rhythm: A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme” is similarly collaborative, this time in partnership with conductor John Devlin and composer Evan Meier. It premieres on Thursday, September 29, as part of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s Opening Night Gala Celebration.
We chatted with Bacon and Devlin to find out what to expect. The conversation is edited for clarity and length.
District Fray: Can you describe the collaborative process you used in writing and creating this work?
Christylez Bacon: This project started with John Devlin telling me that he wanted me to do something similar to the cross-cultural collaborative work that I’ve been doing for my Beatbox Remix Series on YouTube and Instagram, where I work with musicians, playing traditional music from different countries, and use my beatboxing to remix the traditional music, essentially.
I wanted to push the idea that American music is essentially an amalgamation of immigrant music, using this piece to trace the international roots of American music. Then, composer Evan Meier entered into the collaboration wonderfully. I wanted to start with West African music, incorporating Irish music, Hip-Hop, Go-Go, Brazilian music, Cuban music, etc. I believe it was Evan Meier that decided that the best format for doing this with the orchestra would be to do this as a concerto.
After that, the process really took off, and I started writing rhymes for each of the genre-specific variations to act as an informative introduction. Then, Evan suggested a cool style of music that I never heard of before from the Ewe people of Ghana, called Agbadza. Then, an Afro-Cuban Rumba guaguancó. From there, we read tons of books, listened to old recordings, and Evan did his thing with the score. I came in with some edits around the beatbox and my genres of expertise, and it all fell into place.
John Devlin: When I arrived in Wheeling, I knew that I wanted to create a project to highlight Christylez’s unique abilities, amplify his message of unity, and that would tell a story around the many disparate styles of music that have come together in the United States to form genres of music that are truly American. I approached Christylez about this idea two years ago — and from there, it’s been incredibly exciting. Chris and I next set out to find the third creative partner for the endeavor, a composer who could bring these ideas to life. We discussed many possibilities between us, but after a careful collaborative process, we decided on the DMV-based composer Evan Meier to fill this role.
Once we knew the stylistic influences, Chris and Evan got to work creating. Evan composed a melody that serves as a theme throughout the piece, which is treated differently in each section, based on the referenced musical style. Chris then went about composing rap lyrics that communicate the musical and human stories of the piece and next, created the beat-boxing patterns that form the concerto element of the work, featuring his amazing abilities as the human beatbox. We then had a few other moments of good creativity that added to the piece a place for Chris to play the spoons and a cadenza, where Chris will solicit words live from the audience and create a freestyle rap on the spot. It’s going to be a one-of-a-kind performance!
Can you describe your approach to mixing together all these different influences and elements into a seamless whole?
CB: I’ve always had full confidence that we can mix all of these genres together because all of the music is built on the foundation of time. So, if you can figure out the timing, you can make anything work together. Also, the majority of Western music has roots in African music. Because of this, we can focus on a thing called the clave, which means key in Spanish, and connect everything through its African roots. Everything has a sync point. You just have to be determined enough to find it. This is the same with meeting strangers and having a conversation.
JD: It was Evan that came up with the idea of a theme-and-variations format for the piece. Within it, one musical idea or melody that continues throughout the piece is repeated in each of the different styles. This feeling of something familiar that permeates throughout helps to ground the audience. Then, through Chris’ words and the way that Evan connects the ideas, the musical influences and correlations between these seemingly foreign styles of music will be revealed.
You’ve taken many calculated risks in your work and careers. Do you have any advice for those of us who need to get out of our comfort zones?
CB: I think you should always challenge yourself and step outside of your comfort zone because it promotes resilience, neuroplasticity, and new techniques and structures that you can apply to your own practice. If you’re always learning, you’re always growing.
JD: If you stay in your comfort zone, it’s hard to create interesting art, and that’s what we are about. I believe that to make meaningful projects like this one, you have to dream widely, find the right collaborators, and tell the stories that they want to tell. I didn’t prescribe to Evan and Chris a single thing about this commission, except for the fact that we wanted Chris to beatbox. Even the idea for the rapping came later.
Classical music was one of many genres that I loved growing up. I grew up in the ’90s on punk-ska, Eminem, Dispatch, and Linkin Park. When I lived in D.C. for 10 years, I was a conductor for the Go-Go Symphony. If I hid these influences behind a curtain of classical music “seriousness,” I would be doing a disservice to the community of which I am part.
There is so much tradition baked into the classical-music concert experience. And that’s a great thing, sometimes, but let’s try lots of things and keep the new ideas that work, too.