Angel Elmore believes in the power of sound to heal and be an engine for change and education — and you should too
by Britt Julious
Like her music, composer, clarinetist and singer Angel Elmore (who performs as Angel Bat Dawid) is passionate, intelligent, and forthright. But more importantly, she is on a mission. Period.
“I’m not a politician. I don’t really like weapons. I don’t really like going to marches and stuff like that,” Elmore said. “But I am a musician, and I believe in the power of sound, and I really do believe that if I put this intention out sonically, it really will change stuff. I really do.”
The stuff she aims to change includes the systemic and generational perception of what it means to be black in this country. Elmore operates out of a place of beauty and power, and her music is in reflection of that. She makes music not only to describe the black experience, but you also to amplify and perhaps revolutionize our perceptions of that black experience in America.
Elmore’s goals were not born out of thin air. It is her rich musical background which formed the foundation of her musical destiny. Elmore is a jazz artist, but her influences are far ranging and encompass the breath and beauty of black musical composition. “Hip-hop, jazz, gospel, blues. All of that is black music. They are distinctly different sounds that come from them, but there’s also this thing that ties them all together,“ she said. “All this music came from the spiritual, which was started by my enslaved ancestors. So of course, I can tap into any of that because that is my ethnicity and that is my identity as a black woman.”
Those influences can be heard throughout her latest album, “The Oracle,” released earlier this year on beloved label International Anthem. The album, a collection of tracks Elmore recorded on her cell phone, was the most perfect manifestation of her goals as an artist to examine blackness. “I had very strong intentions of what I wanted each song to do for anyone who listened to the album,” she said. “I wanted this to be healing.”
And healing it is. Consider tracks like “What Should I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Dr. Margaret Burroughs),” influenced by the Margaret T. Burroughs poem of the same name. The track, created after receiving a grant from Music in the Park, is part of a suite honoring Burroughs and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Elmore said she “hates” the poem and “hates” the song not because they are bad, but because they represent something dark and incomplete in the structure of America. “Margaret Burroughs wrote that song in 1963, and I still have to ask that question. That’s problematic. That song shouldn’t even exist. That poem shouldn’t even exist,” she said.
Influenced by this reality, her music now is a form of activism, and she wouldn’t want it any other way. “I want to continue that legacy of people in the past who used their music to really change things that just weren’t right,” said Elmore. And so that tradition will continue beyond the confines of her album and into her latest performance and musical project, titled “Requiem for Jazz,” to take place at the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Elmore was commissioned by the festival to create something that is connected to Chicago. “I just started thinking about it, praying about it, and (the film) Cry of Jazz came in my head,” said Elmore. “I watched the movie again, and that’s when it came to me. Like ‘Oh, if jazz died, then we need a funeral.’”
How could jazz be dead, Elmore argued, if it is the music born out of the still-present joy and suffering of her people? Those facets are built into the very fabric of jazz, along with every other black musical art form. What does it mean when others try to lay claim to the destiny of something that never belonged to them in the first place? Those are the questions she aims to answer. “I am really, really challenging the entire city of Chicago at this amazing jazz festival. This is the best opportunity for me to put it out to the entire city, and for us to have this conversation,” said Elmore. “This is the best thing I’ve composed in my life. I went deep with it.”