The Blacknificent 7, a new collective of composers, finds strength in numbers

The composer collective Blacknificent 7 consists of Jessie Montgomery (center, clockwise), Damien Geter, Carlos Simon, Joel Thompson, Dave Ragland, Jasmine Barnes and Shawn Okpebholo.

Like many of the best inventions, the Blacknificent 7 was born of necessity. And serendipity. Six Black artists, all of them classical-music composers and performers, just happened to appear on the same Facebook Live program, Kiki Konversations, during the pandemic summer of 2020. Several of them stayed online afterward and continued the conversation, which morphed into a still-ongoing text thread that eventually added a seventh participant. It has helped sustain, and entertain, them for more than three years.

“We probably have one of the most hilarious text threads anyone could ever see, and it’s all from a genuine space,” says soprano and composer Jasmine Barnes. “We just want to make music that rings true to our individual voices, and continue to be the representation and change that we’ve always wanted to see.”

The collective’s clever name, in case you’re wondering, is a play on the 1960 gunslinger classic “The Magnificent Seven.” Besides Barnes, its ranks consist of composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter, CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence and violinist Jessie Montgomery (the group’s quasi-leader), composer and educator Shawn E. Okpebholo, composer Dave Ragland, composer and keyboardist Carlos Simon and composer Joel Thompson.

To kick off this season’s CSO MusicNOW series, the B7 members will perform their first-ever concert — which almost certainly won’t be their last, though it’s difficult — from a scheduling standpoint — to get them in the same space at the same time. Joining the B7 will be conductor Donald Lee III and tenor Russell Thomas. The 4:30 p.m. concert follows a 3 p.m. panel discussion, co-presented by Chicago Humanities, in Grainger Ballroom that’s open to all ticket holders.

“I think our collective is a signifier of things to come,” says Montgomery, who curated the program of original works — by Thompson, Okpebholo, Ragland, Barnes and Geter — addressing race, social justice, love and family. “That’s our optimistic view of what opportunities may be coming down the pike for other Black composers. We want to serve as an example not just of our own work, but the way in which we uplift and support each other’s work and create the kind of opportunities like the one on Dec. 3.”

That’s as close to a mission statement as the group has. And by the way, members say, it’s not so much a “group” as it is a safe space for Black artists to share creative ideas, support one another’s work, swap music-world contacts and express frustrations without fear of reprisal. Racial equity in the classical realm has improved somewhat, but there’s still a long way to go.

“Any time you add race to a situation, there are going to be things that happen,” says Geter. “Microaggressions, people having conversations where they start spreading stereotypes. Or they expect your music to sound a certain way. Or they get very curious about your musical background and how you got into classical music in the first place. This group allows us to vent.”

As Barnes puts it, “We have found such value in creating a space to support each other, vent, discuss business, collaborate — and not feel judged while doing it. Community is so important, and finding people who just get you is invaluable.”

For Okpebholo, who says B7 was nothing less than “life-giving” during a time of contagion-spurred isolation, that understanding comes from being around people “who look like you.”

“I grew up in a poor Black area, but I was always in white spaces. And I was encouraged in these spaces; people performed my work. Then I got my doctorate and went straight into academia [he’s now the Blanchard Chair of Music at Wheaton College]. But being part of this collective was almost freeing. I can write what I want to write. I thought I was doing that before, and perhaps I was, but it’s freeing because now we’re writing Black music.”

While to some degree music is music, notes on a page to be played, he adds, “no matter how good an orchestra is or how good a soloist you are, it’s challenging in different ways, because the conservatory doesn’t necessarily prepare you for certain rhythms that we may write or the way we voice harmonies.”

Black artists playing Black-composed music helps narrow that gap.   

In addition to being sources of creative and moral support, Geter says, “We’ve had conversations about legacy. We’re not an exclusive group by any means, and we have conversations about what the future looks like in terms of how we can help this industry keep key Black people very safe. We also talk about how we can preserve our own legacies and what happens after we’re gone — how can we foster the generation that’s coming up after us?”

But it’s early days, and there’s no road map as of yet. There might never be. Montgomery, though, has some clear ideas about how the collective can have a meaningful impact and serve as an example for others. A self-described “traditionalist,” she’s all about leveraging the old to build the new. That includes championing composer-performed work, which is far less common today than it used to be.

“The composer premieres their work and is an advocate for and catalyst in bringing their music into the world, rather than getting chosen by a commissioner and staying in their little ivory tower and making an appearance and taking a bow and going home,” she says. “All of that is very nice, but classical music is going through a major transformation right now. I think trying to bring more audience members in and connect with different parts of the public means having the composer onstage, performing their work and being very visible.

“Talking about and showing the inflection of their work in real time is really valuable.”