In roughly 90 seconds, musician Anthony McGill sparked a viral social media response to the killing of George Floyd by police. The first African American principal player for the New York Philharmonic, McGill grew up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
“I had these ideas when I woke up that morning about protest and what it means to be American and to be feeling all these things — feelings of hurt and sadness about everything that’s going on in the country,” he said. Originally, he thought about just writing a statement on Facebook, but McGill realized that, during the pandemic, he has been cut off from his regular means of communicating with the world: music.
So on May 28, McGill posted a video of himself, standing barefoot in his living room, playing a haunting minor-key variation of “America the Beautiful” on his clarinet, then silently dropping to his knees in a nod to the symbolic gesture originated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“Especially as a professional, you’re so used to communicating music and expression and thoughts and meanings to audiences,” McGill said. He invited other performers to post their own responses to the moment of protest and killings of Black men by police and to include the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees.
In response dozens of dancers, opera singers, musicians and youth orchestras posted performances, punctuated by silently dropping to their knees; these videos have collectively racked up tens of thousands of views. (You can find these performances by searching #TakeTwoKnees on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.)
McGill said his #TakeTwoKnees video was spontaneous. “I just literally woke up one day and felt like I needed to,” McGill said. The musician attributes that to having more time to sit with his thoughts, without the constant distraction of attending practices, teaching lessons and performing concerts.These days, McGill, whose parents no longer live here, said he mainly returns to his hometown to see his “early musical family” from the Chicago Youth Symphony and Merit School of Music. He returned recently for a performance — sort of. McGill played a virtual concert from New York on Friday, June 26, as part of a concert series presented by the University of Chicago; the event garnered about 15,000 views on Facebook.
But, McGill still remembers growing up on the South Side in the ’90s and the negative reactions he’d hear about the area. “That things are always as bad as possible and that there aren’t good people,” McGill lamented.
McGill said that’s a very narrow view of the South Side: “If more people were to report the good that was happening, the people who are trying to do good … there would be neighborhoods that were healthier because of that recognition and investment in those communities.”
He believes artists can use their platform to call for justice, or at least show the world how they are responding to this moment. “We do have a lot of power in our ability to express and reach people,” McGill said. “They may be curious about what we feel and how we can help people change and communities move forward.”
Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.
The audio version of this piece aired Thursday, June. 25.