One sunny June Sunday in Manhattan’s Union Square, Jon Batiste spoke through a megaphone and a mask about “the need to implement systemic change and to avoid collective apathy.”
He then marched roughly a thousand people, including members of the Stay Human band he leads as music director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” up Sixth Avenue. He was just blocks from the Village Vanguard, the storied jazz club where he’d recorded two albums. He drew directly on the second-line tradition he learned as a boy, in New Orleans. He played and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed more than a century ago and often referred to as the “Black National Anthem.” He segued into his latest single, “We Are,” a call-to-arms, he told me, “meant to confront the choice between profit and humanity, between freedom and the bondage of racism and all the terrible things that have been accepted and perpetuated in this country.”
A week later Batiste sat at an upright piano in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Wearing a mask and bright-blue protective gloves, he played a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Like the version he’d recorded for his 2013 album, “Social Music” it sounded playful, rollicking, chaotic, even threatening.
We talked on the phone about these protests and this moment.
What prompted you to head out to Union Square and lead a protest?
It was part of the national response that has grown since the murder of George Floyd, and of course, it was also more than just that. I felt like the entertainment community and the cultural community were not responding properly. There is a lack of leadership and recognition regarding how much Black music and Black culture has been a part of not only what has made this country special but also what has brought so much that we truly need into the world. The reason why everyone is protesting is that there’s a systemic problem, and I believe that the systemic solution is in protesting and in voting. I wanted to highlight that through my action.
What was the scene at Union Square like for you?
The scene got to be transcendent, by the end of it. You saw people of all races, genders and ages. We had more than 50 volunteer musicians and a dozen Alvin Ailey dancers. Black lives were being represented but we were also simply speaking of humanity. We’re not only dealing with a black and white issue, we’re dealing with a human issue. Humanity is something that reacts and responds when it’s being denied or marginalized, so the good in people comes out as well as the evil. People have seen the news. You’ve seen the riots and even the lootings, and all of the kinds of things that can happen in a moment like this. None of that was happening at our event. The police were chanting along with us. The police escorted us. They blocked off part of Sixth Avenue for us to do what we do.
I gave a short speech, broadcast live on MSNBC, to rally and motivate everyone, and to establish on a national stage why we were there. We were wearing shirts that said, “We Are.” A lot of people say we’re not. We are in response to killing and inequity. I want to focus on where the change may be most impactful. Really, I think that’s voting. 100 million eligible voters did not vote in the last election. That’s more people not voting than voted for any one candidate. 100 million people not voting! You have to consider how people feel. A lot of people in certain communities and in particular states feel unseen or unheard. We’re the ones to change that. We are the generation who can change that. Voting is the solution we’re dealing with. The presidential election is between three main candidates—Donald Trump, Joe Biden and apathy. And if you could see the yesterday, you’d understand why I think the music is important.
Musically, how did you start off?
We started with “Life Every Voice and Sing.” And the we played my new song, “We Are.”
What’s interesting about it is I’ve been working on music for all of this. Its intention is aligned with this movement. The purpose of the song, and of the album I will soon release, is to highlight how I have been aligned in my path, and really how all of us have been aligned, with all of the great contributions of Black artists in this country, and in the world.
The main themes of that song, “We Are,” are like chants—“We are the chosen ones/We are the golden ones.” What do you mean?
Think 400-plus years. Think of all the different things that have culminated in the moment we’re facing now. We are the ones that can make a shift and set the tone for the next several hundred years. To have 100 million people who could have spoken up, who could have engaged in the political process, but didn’t, speaks to a generational trauma and to the fact that a lot of people don’t feel like they can have a part in what’s going on. They are disenchanted with the process, and I’m saying the opposite of that. I’m telling those people that not only do they not have to accept the precedent that has been set in this country but that together we can set a new precedent for generations to come. Voting, to me, is the first step in doing it.
Your commentary and your choices of words remind me of one of your musical mentors, Allen Toussaint.
Absolutely. You see, he understood that music has the unifying power. And now that I’m privileged enough to have a platform and to have resources and to have money, just in the same way that Allen was able to come up from the dirt and into the glory, I feel that, like he did, I have to say something, to know how to use the music to say it. This isn’t really jazz or even New Orleans music that he was making or we are making. It’s human soul music. It’s about the message, and what you can do with it.
When was the last time you played music in public?
Yesterday was first time since before the quarantine, and that was the first time that many of the musicians had played live for people in months. That speaks to the fact, even though it involved some danger, folks are willing to deal with that danger because they believe in the fact that we can change a bogus system. Other than The Late Show, the last time I performed before that was in a recording studio, prior to working on the show and going into quarantine, while I was working on this new album.
When did you start working on it?
A year ago. And there’s a wide range of different people involved in this, which reflects the depth and the range of the message we’re trying to carry. That song, “We Are,” features the St. Augustine High School Marching 100, the band I was a part of once—predominantly Black, historically Black. I was in that band in high school, and I had the current iteration of that band perform on the album. I had my grandfather on it, too, David Gauthier, who was president of the New Orleans postal workers union, who marched and organized for his workers, and who is an elder in an AME church. I had the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children singing on the track as well as him, preaching.
I wanted anthems to be featured throughout the record that represent the very things people are protesting right now. There’s a song called “Freedom,” on which Mavis Staples is giving a sermon. I mean, Mavis—who marched with Dr. King. So, Mavis is on that song, which I composed on the Fourth of July last year. I stayed inside that night, and wrote that song. There’s another song, “I Need You.” That song deals with a range of topics, but ultimately it is saying that in order to change the world, I need you and you need me. The only way that we can move forward is actually realizing that we need each other. This partisanship thing going on now is the opposite of that mentality.
Is that song about compassion?
It’s a song about compassion, but also realism. The fact that the way we’re currently coexisting is not going to move us forward to where we have to go. People need to have a soundtrack to what’s going on that will uplift them. We’ve all been facing these issues and these crises together, in a global way, we just have not fully acknowledged it. The fact that we’re acknowledging it collectively now is, in a sense, a moral reckoning. We’re forced right now to confront the choice between profit and humanity, between life and death and, I think, we’re really facing the choice between freedom and bondage—a bondage by racism, by capitalism, by all the things that have been accepted and perpetuated for so long.
Would you consider your approach to all of this, in the end, celebratory?
Oh, well I think that’s one thing the ancestors used music for. You know—you’ve studied the history of music and understand that the slave songs capture the range of our suffering. They weren’t just celebratory, they spoke to the things that we couldn’t put into words and to the hidden messages, all the things beneath the surface that help us change the pain. It’s almost a form of alchemy, to change the pain into something meaningful. Beyond joy, there’s a deeper meaning, which is why we sing a lot of these songs way after they are conceived. It brings joy to us to know that we’re connected to something bigger than our suffering, bigger than the current moment.
During this Covid-19 crisis, you’ve lost people—not least Ellis Marsalis, who I know taught you a great deal. What does it mean to be cut off from that great tradition of jazz funerals that you were raised in, to not be able to let the spirit go properly?
Where I grew up, we come from neighborhoods that are villages. When you talk about someone like Ellis, he’s not just a loved one—he’s an elder. He represents so much of what came before in our village and our community, for art form. No matter how much success any of us get of how far we go in the world, you always—in any culture, in any mythology—you always have to come back to the village. There’s always some test, and you have to come back—to refuel, to get wisdom, to pay respect, to be humble. It makes me very, very sad that when one of our elders passes away now, I can’t go back to the village and pay my respects and get that final scoop of wisdom, and that the final meaning can’t be fully reflected upon together in the same space.
In your role now on “The Late Show” do you try to invoke some sense of that village on network TV?
I think that it’s important for us now in this global word, through the internet, through all our resources, to create a global village, in a sense, to communicate. And I do feel that I can be a unifier. I’m called to be a leader. I’m pushed to be a leader because of the nature of this time and of the platform that I have been granted.
Those marches and those protests I have been leading are celebrations of Black lives and of humanity, as well as a protest for Black Lives Matter and for humanity. To protest for Black lives in this moment is to protest for humanity. What we’re seeing right now is an outcry from the Black community based on the fact that there are many among us who don’t care about Black lives. Those who don’t care about Black lives are the ones we need to reach. I want to amplify the message that Black culture matters, Black music matters, Black perspectives matter, Black lives matter. Together, we’re going to raise the vibration of humanity.