W. Kamau Bell Takes the Oakland Symphony on a Musical Adventure
By Lou Fancher
Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan admits he’s stymied by W. Kamau Bell’s playlist.
“My hope is to do one of these concerts each year. We haven’t landed on who’s next — mostly because we feel the bar is set so high with someone as compelling as Kamau,” Morgan says in a phone interview.
Invited to launch the orchestra’s new guest-curated Playlist series, the Bay Area-based sociopolitical comedian, author, and host of three radio podcasts and the Emmy-nominated CNN docuseries, United Shades of America, selected a 12-song playlist. Among Bell’s eclectic choices: Nina Simone’s achingly gorgeous “Feeling Good” and the singer-songwriter’s oh, so relevant “Mississippi Goddamn,” Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” Moses Hogan’s “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Todd Rundgren’s “I Love My Life,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee; and the retro-romantic “Sowing the Seeds of Love” from Tears for Fears.
Bell, in an interview, says he was at first shy about sending a list of songs to Morgan. “I only sent a few songs. I picked ones I thought would make me sound really smart. Michael said send more, the wider the palette the better. I sent tons of songs.”
Bell chose some songs for their personal significance. “The Prince [“Take Me With U”/“Let’s Go Crazy”] reminds me of when I met my wife. It’s about new love and at the time, I was listening to that song a lot.” Others, he’d seen performed by an orchestra or had a format he “figured Michael could figure out.”
Arguably most important are songs that embrace ideas Bell believes are needed in 2018. “America goes through a reckoning every now and then. What does this country mean? Who’s important? What do we do when the powers are stacked against us? You can’t just read the news all day, you need inspiration. All the people in the Paramount sitting together to take in this great music, experiencing it, people of all ages; it’s not going to be your average night out at the symphony.”
Bell chose “Mississippi Goddamn” for its long-ago and right-now importance. “We can’t forget the current moment. I’m a fan of artists who’re being socially responsible in their art. And people who swim upstream. I’m a big fan of outspoken Black women; I was raised by one. Simone’s powerful because she’s refusing to do it the way you expect it: she’s creating her own world. She also sang “Feeling Good.” The same person is singing that. That can all exist in the same person.” Bell says the takeaway message is, “Don’t get caught in the thing people expect you to do. Trust your instincts.”
It will require more than the orchestra to pull the playlist off. Not all of Bell’s suggestions suit an orchestra. “That’s why we have Jazz Mafia for the Prince and Coltrane,” says Morgan. “I’ve never heard any orchestra do Coltrane at any level that’s acceptable. We need to use a house band to do a concert like this.”
Additional guest artists invited by Morgan include Zakiya Harris with the band Elephantine, appearances by Moorea Dickason, the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus, and Oakland-based T Sisterscovering Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Morgan explained, “I wanted people who felt a connection to the pieces. It was their interest in the specific piece, not their voices. The T Sisters couldn’t be farther from Bob Marley, but they do a particularly compelling version of the [Marley] song.”
Bell used to listen to John Coltrane’s albums and talk with a friend about how Coltrane knew not only what a song was about but how to get into a song. He says it’s similar to stand-up comedy. “Every comedian at a certain point knows the things you like to talk about and how you like to talk about them. It’s not just the pause, it’s how you enter and exit the pause. It’s not just rhythm, it’s also about your internal rhythm. It’s how you land a punch line. Do you want to give it straight, slow, gradually, only at the end? Comedy is like Coltrane.”
If they are similar, both carry bite, rawness, revelation, struggle, a cool factor, and endless interest in achieving broad spectrum perspectives — the very things that caused Morgan to choose Bell as curator for Playlist’s debut. “The playlist is all about him being an interesting thinker. It isn’t that he actually performs music. I just assumed someone with his worldview had a wide appreciation of world music.”
Bell appreciates that curating the series was “a light lift.” He’s not been involved in the planning or rehearsal process. In fact, he hasn’t heard a single note yet, but will be onstage at the performance. “It’ll be happening to me for the first time just like for the audience,” he says.
His aim for the concert is simple: “As an artist, you step onstage and do your thing. I hope everyone loves it, but I hope they feel something. If you hate it, I hope you really hate it. Good conversations about something you don’t like can lead to better places. I hope they walk out buzzing. The mission is laughter and joy, but it’s more important that people aren’t stuck in a groove, feeling less and less.”