Leah Hawkins

A Celebration of Black Music II

2021 festival: »I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings« – this is the title of the second Elbphilharmonie concert given by Thomas Hampson and his guests. Available until 4 June 2022.

»I know why the caged bird sings« – it sings of freedom in order not to lose hope. It sings in order to feel the life beyond the bars of its cage. To encourage itself and others. And this is how American composers and authors with African roots sing and write to this day: their subject matter is discrimination and injustice, pride and dignity – but love and separation as well, mourning and joy, belief and hope.

In the second part of the »Celebration of Black Music«, several generations of these artists have their say: from Florence Price and William Grant Still to Tyshawn Sorey and B. E. Boykin. The concert presents a panorama of »Black music« in its countless and fascinating facets.

Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.


Thomas Hampson: A Celebration of Black Music

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Teaser »Song of America: A Celebration of Black Music«


Louise Toppin soprano
Leah Hawkins soprano
Ema Nikolovska mezzo-soprano
Lawrence Brownlee tenor
Justin Austin baritone
Thomas Hampson baritone
Howard Watkins piano
Joseph Joubert piano

Members of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Jörg Assmann
Beate Weis violin
Friederike Latzko viola
Nuala McKenna violoncello


»I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings«

Duration: approx. 90 minutes

Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Lawrence Brownlee Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Joseph Joubert & Lawrence Brownlee Joseph Joubert & Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Justin Austin Justin Austin © Sophie Wolter
Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson © Sophie Wolter
Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Hampson & Louise Toppin Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Hampson & Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska Ema Nikolovska © Sophie Wolter
Louise Toppin Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter
Howard Watkins Howard Watkins © Sophie Wolter
Thomas Hampson Thomas Hampson © Sophie Wolter
Justin Austin Justin Austin © Sophie Wolter
Howard Watkins Howard Watkins © Sophie Wolter
Joseph Joubert Joseph Joubert © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska Ema Nikolovska © Sophie Wolter

The Artists

Louise Toppin – soprano

Louise Toppin
Louise Toppin © Romanieo Golphin

Leah Hawkins – soprano

Leah Hawkins
Leah Hawkins © Dario Acosta

Ema Nikolovska – mezzo-soprano

Ema Nikolovska
Ema Nikolovska © Kaupo Kikkas

Lawrence Brownlee – tenor

Justin Austin – baritone

Justin Austin
Justin Austin © Jessica Osber Photography

Thomas Hampson – baritone

Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson © Jiyang-Chen

Howard Watkins – piano

Howard Watkins
Howard Watkins © Dayton Opera Scott / J. Kimmins

Joseph Joubert – piano

Joseph Joubert
Joseph Joubert © Lelund Durond Thompson

»I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings« :About the programme

A breath of freedom

Like countless other African American artists and intellectuals, Maya Angelou left America to get away. First, to Europe, performing in a tour of George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, then later to Egypt and Accra, Ghana, where she lived for years. In her memoir, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Angelou recounts her incredulity at finding herself living in Berlin, Germany in the 1960s as part of a theatrical touring company.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou © Russel Mondy

Germany was both familiar and strange to her. Familiar, because Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, spoke with a strong German accent having been raised by adoptive German parents. Strange, because Angelou felt like she was witnessing a new era in Germany’s long history of racism and antisemitism during the aftermath of WWII. Like other African Americans on tour, she guarded her encounters with many white Germans that she met. The constant refrain, however, in Angelou’s life outside of the United States was that her time overseas afforded her with a freedom unavailable to her at home: a chance to see the world — and, more importantly, herself — in a different light.

Seeking freedom from white American racism

In this, Angelou was not alone. Germany, specifically, has long functioned as a site of Black travel, where many African Americans sought freedom from white American racism. A young and ambitious W.E.B. Du Bois was astounded by how free he felt traveling the German countryside in the 1890s. Harlem Renaissance figures Langston Hughes and Alain Locke wandered around Weimar Germany in the 1920s, attending concerts by the celebrity Black tenor Roland Hayes and going to the opera. After WWII, the African American soldier and later secretary of state Colin Powell described his stationing in West Germany as »a breath of freedom.«

Langston Hughes, 1936
Langston Hughes (1936) © Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

The quest for freedom has defined African American poetry and music from the very beginning. In fact, Angelou’s famous poem is itself an homage to African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1899 poem, “Sympathy,” which begins with the statement, “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!” Years later, composer Florence Price set Dunbar’s text to music in her flighty song, “Sympathy” in the 1930s.

Two of Price’s other songs—“Hold Fast to Dreams,” and “Song to a Dark Virgin”—are just as ethereal. Shawn Okpebholo takes up this centuries’ old theme in his riveting piece, “Freedom,” borrowing from the spiritual of the same name. David Baker’s “Deliver My Soul,” takes on the same theme but in a completely different style, turning to lively gospel music for inspiration instead.

Florence Price
Florence Price © G. Nelidoff / Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries

In contrast, the music of Adolphus Hailstork and Robert Owens are stormy and turbulent, both composers reminding us why Black people have sought freedom beyond America’s shores to begin with. In “Songs of Love and Justice,” Hailstork sets to music the frustrating challenges facing the oppressed. Similarly, Robert Owens’s music most directly addresses racial violence in its stormy settings of Claude McKay’s poetry condemning white supremacy. 

Composers Peter Ashbourne, Samuel Colerdige-Taylor give us art songs that capture a global Black diasporic experience. Ashbourne’s soothing “Liza” and cheeky “Nobody’s Business,” both taken from his “Five Jamaican Songs” give classic Jamaican folk songs a colorful and moving arrangement for piano and voice.

Black British composer Coleridge-Taylor’s art songs showcase his admiration for composers such as Edward Grieg while remaining true to his own musical vision. William Grant Still’s “Songs of Separation” and Valerie Caper’s “Songs of the Seasons” are vibrant examples of how African American art songs both build upon and depart from the long tradition of setting music for piano and voice.

William Grant Still
William Grant Still © Carl Van Vechten

This concert program concludes by bringing together an exciting generation of Black composers – Shawn Okpebholo, Anthony Green, B.E. Boykin, Jasmine Barnes, and Tyshawn Sorrey. Their song settings pick up the same themes of freedom, longing, and social justice that have defined African American art song for over a century and sparked waves of Black travel since the nineteenth century.

Whether turning to the poetry of Maya Angelou (B.E. Boykin), revisiting Shakespeare’s prose (Anthony Green), capturing the beauty of nature (Jasmine Barnes), or articulating what it means to be a Black man in America today (Tyshawn Sorrey), their works provide the deep and lasting comfort that the art song is alive today. Indeed, in these composers’ hands, art songs are expressing the full kaleidoscope of human experiences.

Text: Kira Thurman
German Translation: Özlem Karuç

In collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

Song texts :All song texts, sorted according to the composers’ names

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