Classical Roots: Poetry, Verse, Rhyme and Reason

by Dr. A. Kori Hill

Classical Roots
Classical Roots Community Choir at the 2023 Classical Roots concert. Credit: JP Leong

It’s easy to take Classical Roots for granted. Classical Roots was founded in 2001 with the leadership of Kathy Jorgensen-Finley, Anne Cushing-Reid, John Morris Russell and community faith leaders to help diversify orchestral audiences, and bring music making to underserved and underrepresented areas in our region. Classical Roots is a yearly celebration of Black music and a Queen City institution. Since the concert’s move to Music Hall in 2011, the artists have been fairly constant—the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, John Morris Russell, the Classical Roots Community Choir (CRCC), members of the Nouveau Program and guest artists. But the programming continues to expand and grow more eclectic—a pointed reminder of the stylistic scope of Black culture.

“Classical Roots has always been about Black history, but it is too big a story to tell in a single concert, in the shortest month of the year,” John Morris Russell says. “We design our concerts to go deep. We can be really nerdy about the details we present, because this music, and this history, is too important. The connections we create in each concert link us historically from one generation to the next, and represent a runway to the future. Each year, we strive to tell new and different stories, getting into the glorious details and nuanced connections that make the Black experience so meaningful to everyone.”

John Morris Russell
John Morris Russell Credit: Roger Mastroianni

Classical Roots 2024’s “glorious detail” is the convergence of music and words—through poetry, through gospel, through hip-hop and through orchestral and choral works. Headlined by this year’s guest artist, the producer, emcee and Cincinnati son Hi-Tek, who closes a concert that mirrors the variety of early 20th-century classical music programs and pageants involving Black writers, musicians and intellectuals, all meant to educate through entertainment.

The first half of the program is dominated by classical and religious music, poetry and a proclamation. There’s the rousing audience participation performance of the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” by brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson; an excerpt from William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, Afro-American, and Danzas de Panama, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite; Rosephanye Powell’s “The Word Was God”; “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony reimagined in the film Sister Act 2; Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Ode to Ethiopia”; recitations by Cincinnati and Mercantile Library Poet Laureate Yalie Kamara and Cincinnati Youth Poet Laureate Gabrielle Walker; Langston Hughes’ poem “The Weary Blues” performed with a jazz sextet; and a reading of a speech by lawyer and Congressman John Mercer Langston.

Yalie Kamara, Cincinnati and Mercantile Library Poet Laureate and Gabrielle Walker, Youth Poet Laureate of Cincinnati

Multiple layers of significance are represented in the program’s first half: Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor were not just contemporaries; they met in person, leaving Coleridge-Taylor inspired by Dunbar’s embrace of Black literary, linguistic and storytelling forms. Still quoted four of Dunbar’s poems for each of the four movements of his “Afro-American” Symphony; the last movement, heard at this year’s concert, quotes a portion of Dunbar’s “Ode to Ethiopia.” Beethoven was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to the extent he did something folks rarely do in a symphony: he added a choir to sing the words—which has been given a new life in the gospel/funk incarnation that will be performed. And, perhaps most touchingly, we celebrate John Mercer Langston—the great-uncle of poet Langston Hughes, first African American lawyer in Ohio, first Representative of color for the state of Virginia—who stood on the stage of Springer Auditorium in 1889 at the African American Republican Meeting, urging 5,000 men to exercise their unalienable right to vote. This was one year before Langston would win a seat in the House of Representatives (1890–1891). We will experience the power and timelessness of his oration, set to music of Coleridge-Taylor.

Jason Alexander Holmes
Jason Alexander Holmes

While there is weight to Classical Roots, there is also beauty, celebration and fierce dedication to the craft of music-making. The latter is clear to the Interim Resident Conductor of CRCC,
Jason Alexander Holmes. When Holmes moved to Cincinnati in 2019, he immediately sought out a Black musical community. He was a CRCC member before he was their conductor. “From performer to conductor was a major shift, because if something doesn’t happen, it’s on you,” Holmes shares.

“There is not necessarily a connection between the quality of music-making and whether you’re labeled a professional or an amateur,” Holmes adds. “Especially in Black music, in Black church music, we see a lot of the formal music training being done by ‘non-professionals.’” In Holmes’ experience, CRCC members see technical execution and communicative success as inseparable. “We’re going to be honest if something does not move us,” he continues. “That’s what I appreciate about the Classical Roots community. The feedback is real…people are coming at it with really in-depth knowledge, which creates a push to be better from both sides. Sometimes it’s me saying, ‘No it’s this way,’ and sometimes it’s the choir saying, ‘No, someone’s not doing this.’”

This spirit of focus and collaboration is magnified in the second half of the concert. The CRCC opens the second half by performing Richard Smallwood’s Psalm 8, and the program closes with the rousing finale from The Color Purple musical by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. In between, it is all Hi-Tek.

In a career that spans 30+ years, Hi-Tek has had every experience possible: he’s been a group member (Cincy-based Mood and Reflection Eternal with Talib Kweli), a producer and a solo artist. He’s been considered both underground and mainstream. But regardless of categorization, his love of R&B and jazz-inflected lyricism, propulsive beats and evocative prose is clear.


“As a kid, I listened to a lot of soul music, and when I got to a point when I started making beats, I was inspired by a lot of New York producers who introduced me to sampling jazz,” he explains. “When I approach my beats, I’m always looking for something that touches your soul and sounds abstract, original and sonically different from your basic stock sounds.”

As a producer, his work for major figures like 50 Cent, D12 (which featured Eminem), Common and Anderson .Paak required a balancing act: create songs that sound like the artist but also sound like himself. It’s a challenge that comes naturally. “In most cases, I’m already a fan of the artist before I work with them,” he explains, “so it’s only natural to try to create something that I think they would like. Sometimes an artist is just looking for me to be me, then they incorporate themselves into that, which becomes a beautiful mesh. As far as keeping my unique stamp on it, it’s something unexplainable to be honest. It’s a gift.”

Classical Roots 2024 is also about the necessity of connection through collaboration, a necessity that courses through the repertoire and through how the performers see themselves—the tradition, the history, not only of Classical Roots but in Black musical practice, period. It impacts how Hi-Tek sees hip-hop, not as an isolated development but part of a centuries long tradition in Black communities of weaving words and music together. “It’s very important,” Hi-Tek says, “because hip-hop is a blend of all genres of music. Hip-hop is that rose that grew through the concrete…it has expanded into so many different styles.”

Collaboration and connection also are important to CRCC director Holmes, who notes, “In terms of the musical community, we are taking care of each other, and it continues to be part of the energy for Classical Roots.”