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Terence Blanchard: Music, Social Justice and Raising Awareness About Violence Against Black People

Christine Passarella By

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The masterful song" See Me As I Am" on the album Breathless speaks to preconceived notions, and seems to me like a poem and a prayer. Blanchard tells me "that the promise of America has been a lie. Some people do not want the melting pot to happen. Fear and doubt are created in people's minds." His music is trying to combat that. During his Live tour, he went to the Minneapolis school were Philando Castille, a man killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. The principal said the children still ask about him and loved him. Terence and the band played for the students and staff. Looking out into their faces he was reminded of a Jackson Pollack painting. Kids from all walks of life, all different hues, genders, religious backgrounds attend this school. "They are the best of our country." Terence was so uplifted by these children who were not making biased judgments proving that this school was doing something right.

Blanchard is heartbroken knowing Castille was killed by a police officer who did not see his goodness, and he feels the officer's fear-driven biases led to this tragic death. "Here is a guy who did everything he was supposed to do, he was working, taking care of his family, a role model to the students, he had registered his gun, he responsibly informed the cop he had a licensed gun, and he still lost his life because the cop didn't see him, the cop saw an image, the cop saw something that was told to him his entire life that was threatening. He didn't see the person." A video from the scene exposes the moments before Castille's death in which the officer pointing a gun at Philando during a traffic stop feared he was reaching for a gun. Castille was reaching for his wallet. You can hear Castille in anguish say as he was dying "I wasn't reaching for a gun." The police officer was tried for manslaughter and found not guilty.

The reason he wrote "See Me As I Am" which is on the album Breathless is personal. There are times when he meets people and during the conversation, he can see the moment when their preconceived notions about a black man changes. "It is a terrible thing to go through.." We both agree that a curriculum in which critical thinking on these issues should be mandatory in schools. I was proud to share my Kids for Coltrane program is rooted in that work.

Terence Blanchard is also the musical composer for Spike Lee's acclaimed films since 1991, including Lee's latest film BlacKkKlansman which received the Grand Prix award at Cannes. The film continues the conversation on racism in America. We meet members of the police force, the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan in this true story of an African American police officer who infiltrated the KKK. Spike's film is based on a story from the 70's but artistically ends at a 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We are reminded of the death of Heather Heyer a victim of an attack that chilling day who lost her life while peacefully marching in a counter protest when a car intentionally rammed into the crowd.

Spike has a great trust in Blanchard, and sees his excellence. "I know it is going to sound great and help me tell the story," Spike Lee has said about Blanchard. Terence feels Spike views music as a separate character and considers him a cinematic visionary. "When a person puts that much trust in you, you never want to let them down," Terence said. After viewing the film which includes Black Panthers, I remembered learning about the life of Geronimo Pratt who had joined the Panthers.

He was a kind and loving son, and brother of six siblings. Born Floyd Gerald Pratt, he was a high school quarterback, studied at UCLA and served in Vietnam and came back with a Purple Heart. Like Terence Blanchard, he was also from Louisiana. He was a soldier for his country and a soldier for social justice within his country. He was convicted of a murder in 1972. With unwavering dedication from his supporters, Geronimo was released from prison after 27 years for a murder he said he did not commit. Tried under a system which presented as the main witness against him a FBI informant. This was during a period of history in which there was a government COINTELPRO operation and certain African Americans were considered suspect. Geronimo became of age when America was struggling with race relations. Passionate to help people get along and with a deep love for black people he joined the political Black Panther Party in hopes of a solution in a dangerous, callous and violent world. Following in the steps of Malcolm X who in his later years tried with unwavering love and strength to bring people of all races together.

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