Singer sees radical vision in black spirituals

New York (AFP) - Growing up with a love of African American spirituals, M. Lamar sensed there was a powerful, even radical, undertone to the gospel music tradition.

In the songs' pleas for a new day, the composer heard a wish for the end of the world expressed by the victims of slavery.

In his piece "Funeral Doom Spiritual," Lamar brings his darkly operatic countertenor voice to a new imagining of the songs -- set 100 years in the future in a world ruled by white supremacists.

Lamar, a self-described "Negrogothic" artist who is classically trained but traces his musical roots to metal, also plays piano on the work as he is immersed in lights and other multimedia and accompanied by strings and electronics.

"Funeral Doom Spiritual" -- composed with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of metal band Liturgy -- is part of New York's annual Prototype festival of experimental opera and will appear Friday and Saturday at Brooklyn's avant-garde National Sawdust venue.

For Lamar -- the twin brother of "Orange is the New Black" star and transgender trailblazer Laverne Cox -- the apocalyptic nature of black spirituals made "perfect sense" as the Bible was generally the only permitted text for slaves.

"I thought it was really poignant to think of these enslaved Africans, these people who were in bondage, dreaming of the day when a particular world would end -- the world of white supremacy, the world of the plantation," Lamar told AFP.

"I really wanted to embrace that aspect of it because people think of the spirituals in a very almost sentimental way these days," he said.

They see it as "this 'Woe is Me' kind of thing, rather than as this revelatory moment of a certain kind of destruction," Lamar added.

- 'My sadness was not mine alone' -

Lamar, while not identifying as Christian, explores the concept of spirits living beyond death -- an idea that resonates with him personally.

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Lamar says he felt "very isolated and very alienated."

"But I always felt that my sadness was not mine alone but it was connected to histories that were beyond me -- spirits that hover," Lamar, sporting a leather jacket and shades, said with a chuckle.

The plot of "Funeral Doom Spiritual" loosely revolves around an eternal carrying of coffins -- the concept of an unbroken motion in the African American experience from slavery to segregation to the present.

By setting "Funeral Doom Spiritual" in 2116, Lamar showed his deep pessimism with the current period -- a tumultuous time in the United States with growing attention to racially tinged police behavior and the divisive presidential election.

"I couldn't imagine a solution five years from now, or 50 years from now," he said of racial injustice.

"I'm not suggesting this piece is a solution, but it is a kind of hope that the dead will not rest in peace," he said, quoting Diamanda Galas, the gothic soprano who is one of his major influences.

Lamar is particularly haunted by watching the video of the 2014 shooting death by police of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy in Cleveland who was holding a toy gun.

"You can't unsee that -- I haven't been the same since seeing that," he said. "It is a form of terrorism, really, for any black person to have to see that."

Lamar said that, rather than proposing an alternative, "Funeral Doom Spiritual" was more of a personal coping mechanism for him.

"Ultimately it's a very selfish work," he said, adding with a laugh: "I'm only really doing it so that I don't off myself."