Long before the resurgence of mashups on TikTok, Thee Phantom blended hip-hop and rap with a repertoire of classical music. In a special performance on Juneteenth, Thee Phantom will perform at Wolf Trap alongside the Illharmonic Orchestra, a 40-piece all African American ensemble.
Jeffrey McNeill and Andrea Coln are the powerhouse duo behind Thee Phantom. An internationally recognized project formed in 2001, Thee Phantom has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to The Kennedy Center. McNeill is the self-proclaimed maestro of Thee Phantom, and Coln will perform alongside McNeill under her moniker The Phoenix.
McNeill expresses the group’s upcoming Juneteenth performance will be a show that alchemizes “the evolution of the Black experience and Black music.”
Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and is a symbol of Black liberation. The holiday recognizes the continued efforts to dismantle systems of oppression that pervade societal structures.
The classical music industry is long known as lacking inclusivity of ethnic minorities. Thee Phantom’s pairing with The Illharmonic draws attention to the need for equity within orchestral classical music.
Coln emphasizes the importance of representation within the industry and its promising effect on aspiring musicians of minority backgrounds.
“If there’s a person who can come to our show and say ‘I see this differently, I know I can aspire to this,’ then we’ve done our jobs,” Coln says.
Chemistry beyond artistic compatibility also drew McNeill and Coln together 21 years ago. The pair are a couple entering their 11th year of marriage.
The couple shares a love for layering the simple melodies of classical music with the contemporary vibrancy of rap and hip-hop. Growing up in North Philly, McNeill’s exposure to a wide variety of music — from Motown to Mozart — spurred an enthusiasm to mix the Beastie Boys with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Thee Phantom’s unique combination of sound challenges the misconception that classical music and hip-hop are dissonant genres. In actuality, both hip-hop and rap can match the cadence of classical music, McNeill explains.
“The greatest composers will tell you there’s only 12 notes,” he says. “It’s how you rearrange those 12 notes that makes sense to you. [Combining] classical music, jazz and R&B collide doesn’t feel different to me. When I combine [the sounds], it feels like a natural progression.”
Coln echoes the sentiment, emphasizing, “These two genres are not as different as people think. If there’s one person who comes to the show with a different idea of what hip-hop is and how they feel about the mixing [the genre], they can also [find] value and a connection.”
Summer at Nature’s Music Venue
Nestled in the lush woods of Vienna, Virginia, Wolf Trap blends two innately grounding entities — music and nature. The venue is housed on the only national park committed to advancing the performing arts, and this year’s summer series will showcase a wide range of genres, from orchestral music to indie sounds.
Director of programming Diana Ezerins says Wolf Trap’s multiple stages — both indoors and out — allow visitors to experience the performing arts in any manner they prefer. Whether a picnic and dancing on the grounds for a more social experience, or booking seats for closer proximity to the stage, visitors can craft their individual experiences.
At the core of Wolf Trap’s summer experience is the desire to further an intergenerational love for music.
With an eye toward community engagement, “The only thing better for a young person engaged in music is to see other people who love [music, too],” Ezerins says.
The venue’s summer series culminates with Joyfully Together led by The Washington Chorus’s Dr. Eugene Rogers, an intergenerational, intercultural musical experience joining 8,000 choir singers from the DMV in community and song. The multi-layered performance will include 15-minute solo performances of each individual vocal ensemble, in addition to pop-up performances on the grounds.
“We’re just happy to be able to reflect the region we live in and respond to what’s happening in society through this awesome platform,” Ezerins says.