Black History Month always brings a bevy of unique engagements across the First Coast, but maybe nothing quite as cool as that which ends the month this weekend. “Voices of Mahogany”, which streams on Sunday, Feb 28 at 3:30pm, was developed by singer/pianist Jay Myztroh, born Jeremy McKinnies in May 1983. “The mission is to explore, exhibit and exalt these composers from the African diaspora,” he says.
He conducts a crew comprised of members of the Osprey Treble Chorus, the UNF Chorale Singers and the UNF Chamber, as well as the UNF Percussion students, pianist Sachiko Frampton and Myztroh’s own Voices of Mahogany ensemble. Together, they present a programme of over a dozen songs drawn from America, as well as countries like Haiti, Cuba, Cameroon and South Africa, providing a rough overview of the vast range of creativity on display across the African diaspora, covering over 100 years’ worth of material. Most of these compositions have been performed in the US, but there has never been a choral performance of all Black music at UNF.
The project evolved from the maestro’s academic work. McKinnies is soon to earn his Master’s degree from UNF, and was searching for music that reflected the long, ongoing struggle to give credibility to Black composers in the classical world. In his studies, most of what he found was either South African music, or spirituals, “not due to the lack of voices,” he says, but the lack of any real institutional support system, which left much of this vital material to linger in relative obscurity. He views it as his responsibility to help bring this work to light.
“The whole purpose was to really lift up these voices,” he says. McKinnies pitched this project to his faculty advisor, the esteemed Dr. Cara Tasher, who came through with heavy support, both technical and emotional. “She’s driven by lifting up other voices,” he says. “She’s not trying to whitewash anything!” He also counts Dr. Timothy Snyder as another key mentor in his journey. “Both of them have treated me like family,” he says.
The show begins, as it should, with the erstwhile Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, which was originally written a a poem by James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938) in 1900; lyrics were by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1905. Both men were born and raised in Jacksonville, and later made their names as members of the legendary Harlem Renaissance. Their friend was the sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a Green Cove Springs native whose most famous work (reproduced on the program’s cover) takes its name from this song.
Time and space precludes a fuller analysis of every song contained herein, but more details will be provided during the show itself. The event itself is also a family affair, as Myztroh’s wife (and fellow UNF student), Fati D. McKinnies, will be performing “Ngothando” from the poem “Source”, accompanied by the Voices of Mahogany, and backed by Deven Bruner, Hunter Gross and Trevor Perez on percussion.
The concert concludes with “Mama Afrika” written by the Haitian Sydney Guillaume (b. 1982), the youngest of those composers featured here. “You can hear all of the Caribbean there,” says Myztroh. “He writes the vocal parts like drums.”
The whole thing is a tour de force for Jay Myztroh, a local boy who’s been making good for some time now. McKinnies made his name in the scene as a member of the Elevated Hip Hop Experience, which played all the major local spots in the early part of this century, as well as assorted one-offs and solo efforts. In recent years, those bonafides were burnished in association with the late great Paten Locke, an icon of the scene who tapped him for a team-up called Stono Echo in 2015. “His canvas allowed me to find my voice,” he says.
The collaboration with Locke really cemented him as a player in his own right, and helped place him firmly on the path that leads him to this point. “He viewed his place like a dojo,” says Myztroh, who also played keyboards on Locke’s “Food Chain” project with Dillon. “His guidance was always about being the best that you can make it, and never half-steppin’. I never heard anything bad from him. I never heard anything mediocre. I never heard him stumble on a rhyme.” (More Stono Echo material is forthcoming, and Myztroh is also working on a new album with the Afrobeat project Nightcrawler.)
Paten passed away on August 2, 2019; he died of cancer. It was one of the darkest days in recent memory, one that occasioned an outpouring of emotion from every nook and cranny of the local culture he helped shape for 30 years, as well as far-flung hubs hideouts of hip hop like LA, New York, Chicago, Boston, Bahrain and even Bali. Given how exhaustingly long 2020 was, it’s easy to forget that Paten’s only been gone 18 months. Murals have gone up, commemorative 45s have been released, and tributes continue to trickle in, to this day.
“Voices of Mahogany” emanates this Sunday from UNF’s Robinson Theatre. It’s not the biggest facility on campus, but one can think of no better location. The venue is named after the late Andrew Adolphus Robinson, Jr., a man who played a formative role in the city’s Black community, including the maestro’s own family. After graduating from FAMU, Robinson earned a masters at Columbia before building a dense and distinguished legacy in public serve, one that culminated in being the first Black president of UNF, from 1980-82.
Prior to that, Robinson was also the first principal at William M. Raines High School, where McKinnies’ parents were among the students he helped influence. “I grew up hearing ‘Ichiban’ in my home because of him,” says McKinnies. The experience of performing in the theater named after him is definitely a full-circle kind of thing, the full implications of which were not so obvious until they were will underway.
The logistics of such an undertaking would be daunting, under the best of conditions, but the pandemic era creates special challenges to a production of this type. “There are numerous obstacles, in terms of the preparation and the staging,” he says. “There is no area that we’re allowed to be in for more than 30 minutes,” due to covid, so the crew was forced to move about the campus constantly while undergoing the rigorous rehearsal process.
The theater can hold between 400 and 700 people, depending on its configuration, but there will be no audience there tonight; the concert will be streamed through UNF’s Facebook page. For those who can’t watch the show live, worry not: the event will be archived online, and separate crews will also be recording the audio and video for future commercial release.
These impositions are felt not just by the singers, but also by the conductor, whose own approach had to be refined, as well. “Text is a major element,” he says. “Consonants do not exist with masks. We have to be extra cautious” about pronunciation. “The more protective the mask, the harder it is.” Facial expressions also play a key role in communicating the maestro’s intent to the rest of the talent, so he’s found himself literally practicing in the mirror, making sure his eyes and gestures work in that setting, a laborious and self-conscious process that eventually paid off.
Today, the man we know as Jay Myztroh has become a maestro in full. As debuts go, he carries a substantial load, literal tons of humanity in the form of 65 to 75 singers skimmed from the cream of UNF’s key choral ensembles. One can think of no better way to close out one of the most epochal editions of Black History Month in the nation’s history. “Every time I step into academia, I have a slight chip on my shoulder,” says McKinnies. “I wanted it to be blacker when I left.” And so it is, and so it shall continue to be.