by Melanie Wong
Photo credit: Benjamin Sutton
Grammy Award-winning "Queen of Neo-soul" Erykah Badu joined forces with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Brooklyn-based composer Ted Hearne this past weekend at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House. A highly anticipated event, "You're Causing Quite a Disturbance" sold out a whopping two months prior, quickly prompting the addition of a second show. As Brooklyn Philharmonic's artist-in-residence this season, Badu performed the Sunday night show as a benefit concert, with all proceeds directed to the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The actual evening proved to be well worth its hype, as funk and soul combined with classical to create the ultimate orchestral fusion.
Emcee Wordisbon (Kevin J. Estwick) and local composer Randall Woolf opened the show with Blues for Black Hoodies, a collaboration composed in the eleventh hour due to hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey's (Mos Def) last-minute withdrawal. Wordisbon took the spotlight dressed in ripped jeans, studded boots, dark sunglasses, and the symbolic black hoodie. Spoken from the heart, Wordisbon's poetry was a quasi-autobiographical reflection of the life of black Americans; his deep and soothing voice was powerful over the lush strings melodies and digitized blues-gospel beats.
Setting the stage even further for Badu, DJ Ringo Rashad Smith (a.k.a. Tumblin' Dice) spun a set based on recordings that had inspired Badu's 2008 album, New Amerykah, Part I. Wayne duMaine and Jonathan Barber accompanied Tumblin' Dice's skillfully mixed creation on trumpet and drum set, respectively. Dumaine's improvisation skills, characterized by aggressive trills and high arpeggiations, were particularly impressive, and toward the end of the set, the entire crowd was engaged in singing along to Stevie Wonder's "All I Do."
Two former album collaborators also joined Badu for the performance: Amen Khum Ra, who wore traditional-style robes and carried an ankh while chanting in ancient Egyptian during "Twinkle," and Om'Mas Keith, whose clear, emphatic voiceovers sporadically cut through the music during key moments. Tumblin' Dice sat toward the back of the orchestra controlling the digital beats and effects, and during Hearne's interludes, Badu even soloed on a modern theremin.
The integration between orchestra, digital beats, voiceovers, and Badu's voice was seamless, greatly exceeding any and all expectations—the epitome of a successful collaboration and further shattering traditional boundaries between classical and popular music. In a time when classical music has been striving to reach out to younger generations, the Brooklyn Philharmonic seems to be championing a new medium that could, in fact, revitalize orchestral audiences.