The interdisciplinary artist discusses “A Requiem for Zula,” which she will perform with the SFCM Orchestra on September 25, her new album “Sovereign,” and continuing the legacy of the Black aesthetic.
By Karen Meurer Bacellar
The seeds for interdisciplinary artist PaviElle French’s “A Requiem for Zula” were sown on a beach in Hawaii. French had moved there from her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota to grieve and reflect after losing both her mother and father to cancer a mere five months apart. Heartbroken artistically and spiritually, she questioned whether or not she still wanted to be a musician and what the world would look like without her parents. In her grief, French retreated into composing, creating track after healing track, until she heard her mother Zula Young’s voice guiding her to a once seemingly elusive next step.
“She told me to go home,” French said, “And when I got back to [St. Paul] all these things manifested.” French met her band members, recorded an album, and even later won an Upper Midwest Emmy for a TPT documentary made about her community and work. She had retreated into silence to find her way through tragedy and emerged with a renewed sense of self (listen to her later song called “Me Being Me (Is Revolutionary”), belief in the magic of life, and a determination to speak her truth.
In 2017, she felt compelled to write something that would honor her mother and her community of Rondo, a historically black neighborhood in St. Paul torn in two—literally and figuratively—by a freeway in the mid-20th century and subsequent gentrification. She cold-emailed the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), who went on to feature what became, “A Requiem for Zula” as part of their 2019 Tapestry series exploring the meaning of home.
“‘A Requiem [for Zula]’ was a culmination of all my thoughts—all that time sitting on the beach with my mom in my heart,” French continued, “It was my first symphony, and I got commissioned because I felt confident enough to walk through the door and make a connection.”
On September 25, French will perform “A Requiem for Zula” alongside the SFCM Orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater (who premiered the piece with New World Symphony earlier this year). She is also an artist-in-residence at the Conservatory leading workshops with students as well as participating in a panel discussion at the Bowes Center alongside composer, arranger, and violinist Michi Wiancko called “Musicianship, Artist Activism, and Wellness.”
Activism is in French’s blood and it’s intimately linked to her notion of home, because she grew up surrounded by artists—including her parents and uncle, the latter of which played saxophone in a band with Sonny Knight—who advocated for their people, championed community, and valued expression to effect cultural and social change.
“They encouraged me to be an artist, explore myself as a human being, and speak truth to power,” recalled French, who had a close relationship with Penumbra Theatre Company, the country’s premier black theatre, whose company members included James Austin Willians, Abdul El Razac, and Laurie Carlos. Penumbra Theatre has a strong reputation for launching prominent playwrights such as August Wilson who is most well-known for his exploring twentieth-century black America in his Pittsburgh Cycle of 10 plays (including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences”).
Beyond artists, French’s Rondo community and her mother Zula instilled in her a deep love of black culture.
“I had a very tight-knit connection to the understanding of why it's important to know myself and why it's important to carry the culture and carry the torch of the black aesthetic. I'm all for new art and all that, and also for the preservation of black art in the culture and what it’s brought to America.”
French keeps the Black aesthetic alive in every piece of music she writes whether it’s an R&B track or an orchestral work.
“I like to call my symphonies soul symphonies because they’re different,” she continued, “Everything is typically on the two and four, and for me, everything is on the one like James Brown, where it’s got that feel. Even the way that I count the music, the musicians don't count it that way. You know, they're like, ‘Oh, this is a six, eight.’ And I'm like, ‘where at?’ I hear it like an R&B or hip hop thing.”
For French, the Black aesthetic torch is sometimes heavy. This became especially clear to her during the pandemic and the reckoning with systemic racism spurred on by Geroge Floyd’s murder. Where words fail to encapsulate feelings, music prevails. French retreated once again to process and channeled every emotion into her new album “Sovereign” where she exclaims in each track that she’s done asking for permission to be unapologetically herself (listen to “Code Switch,” which talks about no longer changing to make white audiences more comfortable).
“The things I’m saying on ‘Sovereign’ are what I would have said if I was in politics,” said French, who studied political science. “But this way I can say it, and it’s got a beautiful song behind it and it’s a little easier for people to hear and to understand that we need to move forward.”
On ‘Sovereign’ French goes in the direction of Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha Franklin, and made music that speaks truth to power and lifts up her community. Messages that encourage self-worth and understanding the economic and cultural power of black people fill her art. She hopes it inspires people to do their own self-introspection and get the healing they need to effect positive change in their lives and in the world.
“Using music as a force to build your people up, so they can liberate themselves is what I’m supposed to do,” French declared.
That message was one she shared with SFCM students during this week’s residency—to let them know that they don’t need to be afraid of retreating, doing the healing work, and creating music that says exactly what they want to say.
“You’ve got to let go of fear if you’re really going to do this work and be in service of people,” French added. “For me, on ‘Sovereign,’ nothing stands in front of my truth. Not your opinion. Not your anger. Not your fragility. Not your money. You can’t move me. Once you really start working like this, fear moves on.”
With that lesson instilled in her work and her community, as she continues as an artist PaviElle is fulfilling the promise of “A Requiem for Zula”—that her mother, her community, and her people will always move forward, and continue to honor the legacy of great art, artists, and mentors that helped shape American culture.