February 2, 2023

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A century ago, some of America’s greatest artists and writers found strength in a community that became known as the Harlem Renaissance — a confluence of now-familiar names including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Neale Hurston and Aaron Douglas. 

Today pianist Lara Downes, host of NPR’s interview series Amplify, which has just launched its third season, wonders: Are we currently in a new, Harlem-style renaissance?

The Harlem Renaissance, she says, was nothing less than an explosion of creativity and transformation. “It happened because of communal movement and shift — 300,000 Black Americans moving out of the South in the Great Migration that brought so many to Harlem and to other cities,” she says. “It was a meeting of minds, this energy of shared experience. There’s a courage and a confidence of expression that can only happen in community.”

Langston Hughes, a key figure, wrote an essay in 1926 that served as a sort of statement of purpose, saying: “We intend to express our individual dark skin cells without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful and ugly, too. We build our temples for tomorrow as strong as we know how.”

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Since the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, Downes feels a major shift in the arts world; a strengthened focus on inclusion and recognition of Black artists. She says it’s been complicated, conflicted and long overdue.

“For me, as a classical pianist, it’s always been the status quo that I’d be aware of other Black artists working in my discipline,” she says. “But we were all like these little islands in a sea of whiteness. Now, I feel connected and like I’m part of a cohort. There’s so much energy.”

Downes points to composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, the first Black composer to have his operas presented at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and to Jessie Montgomery, the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was named the composer of the Year by Musical America.

While it feels like a genuine phenomenon in this moment, there’s also been backlash. Books that focus on race are being banned. A new adaptation of The Little Mermaidwith a Black leading actress riled some who felt that this modicum of diversity diluted the original story, though it’s completely fictional. Downes thinks the Harlem Renaissance offers yet another good lesson.

“When you’ve got this 100 years of history, then you’re aware of the cycles of history,” she says. “So I don’t think that any of us who are working today feel like everything’s been fixed. I feel like this is a moment. And the action that’s being taken, whether it’s cynical or not, whether it’s lasting or not, what do we do as artists? What agency do wetake to grab this moment to create something that can live on? I think it’s about the strength of that community as a force for change.”

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