About Many Messiahs

The diverse collaborators on the Many Messiahs team create new songs using material from Handel’s Messiah, amplifying the work’s powerful themes of awakening and activism. As a first step toward a full concert production with chorus and orchestra, Many Messiahs is releasing a mini-documentary this holiday season, produced by IndieFlix with support from Early Music Seattle.

The artists gathered for a live panel discussion and Q&A hosted by music critic Jordannah Elizabeth.

Watch Panel Discussion below. Recorded December 5, 2021

Early Music Seattle was proud to host a panel discussion with the talented and diverse artists who are creating Many Messiahs, a collective reframing of Handel’s Messiah in service of racial justice. You watch this fascinating discussion below, and also be sure to check out the new mini-documentary about the project, created by iNDIEFLIX. Early Music Seattle looks forward to the continued growth of Many Messiahs, and we encourage you to learn more about this important work.

The Artists


Taína Asili
Singer/Songwriter, Albany, NY

 


Darian Dauchan
Hip-Hop Artist, Los Angeles, CA

 


Michiko Egger
Singer/Songwriter and Guitarist, Brooklyn, NY

 


Jordannah Elizabeth
Moderator, Baltimore, MD

 


Aaron Grad
Artistic Director and Arranger, Seattle, WA

 


Stephanie Anne Johnson
Singer/Songwriter, Tacoma, WA

 


Sonny Singh
Singer/Songwriter and Trumpet, Brooklyn, NY

 


Rob Jost
Music Director and Bass, Brooklyn, NY

 


Curtis Stewart
Violin, New York, NY

 

Part III: Many Messiahs and Little Lights

By Aaron Grad

 

We need eight billion little lights shining at once.”
-Stephanie Anne Johnson, from “I Know” for Many Messiahs

 

 “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” the bass soloist sings near the end of Handel’s Messiah; “We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” In its original Christian context, this bit of prophecy envisioned what would happen after the coming of the Messiah, when the dead would rise again, pure and incorruptible. In the framework of Many Messiahs, we strip away the religious specificity of our source material and take the words at face value. And so we ask: What would it mean for all to be changed, and what if it could happen just like that, in the twinkling of an eye?

Many Messiahs has a plan to transform concert halls into spaces that embrace all people and invite them into a community of hope and peace. The centerpiece of our work will be a concert experience, featuring our artistic team in collaboration with choruses and orchestras. We envision taking our touring company into high-profile venues in the U.S. and beyond each holiday season, spreading our gospel of activism and awakening. All the ingredients for this concert program are in place, and now it’s just a matter of funding the process, writing the music, and convincing the gatekeepers of these spaces to take a chance on our vision.

We also recognize that structural injustice requires structural change, which takes more than a single night in a concert hall. When Many Messiahs comes to a city, the work will start months in advance, as we train local teaching artists to fan out across their communities. One branch of the work will take place in schools, especially those that are under-resourced; our teaching artists will bring a curriculum to middle and high school students that will allow them to use cutting-edge music production tools to sample and loop their own remixes of Handel’s Messiah. By exploring the beauty of the music and the meaning of the words, and by empowering young people to craft their own messages of truth and reconciliation, we offer a pathway to the concert hall as a sanctuary of personal expression, where all viewpoints count.

The other branch of our community work will happen when our teaching artists gather with communities and affinity groups for workshops on listening to each other and singing together. Sing-along portions of Many Messiahs will serve as conduits for the work of healing old wounds and creating unity and connection across seemingly intractable divisions. These workshops will meet people where they are, and where they already gather, in an effort to invite them into the fold of the Many Messiahs. By the time the concert arrives, they are already part of it, ready to add their voices to the chorus of activism.

We want to spark a movement that can be bigger than any of us. The artists of Many Messiahs will use their talents and platforms to get this music established, but after a few years we plan to turn it over to the people, publishing the sheet music so any local chorus, orchestra or school can mount its own production, collaborating with local creators from diverse backgrounds. A staggering number of Messiah performances that take place each year in all sorts of venues, and if even a small percentage of those switched over to Many Messiahs, the impact would be enormous.

Our vision is also bigger than this one project. Many Messiahs is just the first in a series of offerings from Many Masterpieces LLC, the entity that will produce and publish transformative works rooted in the classical canon. We’re already planning a piece on climate change, One Mother, drawing on maternal themes in the music of Pergolesi and others. We also envision a celebration of LGBTQ+ rights in Many Marriages (riffing on Mozart’s gender-bending comedy The Marriage of Figaro), and a meditation on domestic violence drawn from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” song and string quartet.

We don’t know how the mystery of this process will unfold, and so we proceed on faith that the day will come when our collective work can reach people and change their hearts. It might happen in a moment—a moment reached after years of toiling—and it will fuel us until the next moment, and the next. This is work that will not be finished in our lifetimes, and it is more than anyone can do alone. As Stephanie Anne Johnson sings, “We need eight billion little lights shining at once.”

Part I: Why We Need Many Messiahs

Part II: Many Messiahs in the Wilderness

Learn more about the project and get involved at manymessiahs.com

Early Music Seattle is proud to support the development of Many Messiahs, and we will be hosting a panel discussion with the artists on Sunday, December 5 at 2pm. We have invited Many Messiahs artistic director (and frequent EMS collaborator) Aaron Grad to share a series of guest posts about the project.


Photo: Mike Morgan

Seattle-based composer and writer Aaron Grad is the artistic director of Many Messiahs. He previously composed Strange Seasons for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and his feminist reframing of the Sirens myth appears on an upcoming Early Music Seattle program, For All Our Sisters.

Part II: Many Messiahs In the Wilderness

By Aaron Grad

 

“Let’s build the Zion of our dreams.”
-Michiko Egger, from “Our Zion” for Many Messiahs

 

At the beginning of Handel’s Messiah, the tenor soloist tells us of a voice “that crieth in the wilderness,” urging us to “prepare the way.” There’s a recurring theme in Biblical mythology about being cast out into the wilderness or wandering in the desert—because transformation doesn’t happen from a place of comfort. It requires venturing into the unknown.

Many Messiahs has come a long way from the first spark of inspiration that came to me on a sleepless night in June 2020, less than a month after the murder of George Floyd. I originally envisioned a collaboration with a hip-hop artist that oscillated between intact movements of Handel’s Messiah and new songs that amplified the oratorio’s deeply ingrained themes of activism and awakening. After all, isn’t Messiah simply the story of a man whose very existence was seen as a threat by the state, and who suffered gravely for daring to speak up?

By July I had already found the hip-hop artist and poet Darian Dauchan, a multitalented and socially conscious creator who had formed a genre-bending trio with violin and acoustic bass. I emailed him out of the blue, and he was game to explore the idea. We met over Zoom for months to shape our vision, and took our first strides toward creating music about a year ago.

This project almost fell apart the day Darian and I first shared musical sketches with each other. There was a huge gap between our musical perspectives (which was always the point), but how could we coalesce around a single perspective that honored our differences?

We couldn’t. But one thing I could do was give up the control that I was so accustomed to claiming as a privilege and birthright. I committed to Darian what I wish I had known to do from the beginning: that I would trust his immense musicianship and do all I could to provide a platform for him, without needing to make him conform to my idea of what it would mean to do this right.

Our collision of musical values and the honest conversations that followed revealed to me that there is no one right way to process the truth of racism and the hope for the future, let alone a right way to do it in dialogue with a 280-year-old musical masterpiece rooted in sacred texts that go back thousands of years. To have any shot of getting at a universal truth, we needed to dream bigger. We needed Many Messiahs.

I began 2021 on a deep dive into the intersection of music and activism, researching artists who were already doing the work that might align with this project’s vision. I was floored when the ones I was most excited about actually answered my emails and agreed to meet! It helped to be doing this at a time when successful touring artists were all stuck at home; Many Messiahs likely would never have happened if not for a pandemic that opened creative bandwidth for artists who were used to driving hard and fast in their own lanes, myself included.

It was clear from the start which artists possessed the deep musicianship and human sensitivity to say something profound in this meeting of worlds. The process we developed was to write a trial song together, based on material from Handel’s Messiah. In the collaborations, I functioned something like a representative for Handel himself, suggesting source material, weaving related ideas together, and arranging and orchestrating songs to work for the same sort of chorus and orchestra that Handel used. A number of these collaborations turned out to be dead ends, which was to be expected. And none of them were easy, as we met on Zoom as total strangers from different worlds, trying to heal the wounds of racism through song. But when the process worked, it was electrifying, and I knew then that we were at the start of something transformational.

We’ve come a long way, having assembled most of the team of Many Messiahs and written about a quarter of the music that will eventually fill a concert program. Friends and family stepped up early with funding so the artists could be paid to write and record their demos, and generous donors heeded the call to sponsor the first gathering of the artists in Brooklyn. I serendipitously connected with IndieFlix, a Seattle-based organization that makes and distributes films for social change, and they have taken Many Messiahs under their wing, even producing a mini-documentary about our origins. Early Music Seattle stepped up with substantial support when we needed it most, a gift offered with trust and openness that has allowed us to follow our own long, winding process.

We are still deep in the wilderness, probably two years out from being ready to perform in great concert halls with major symphony orchestras, with no certainty that they will even give us a shot. But I know that I am not alone, and I cannot wait for the world to know more of the artists who are the lifeblood of Many Messiahs: Taína Asili, Darian Dauchan, Michiko Egger, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Rob Jost, Sonny Singh, Curtis Stewart, and others whose roles in the work are still coming into focus. We are preparing the way, and we can see what Michiko sings of as “the Zion of our dreams”—distant but reachable.

Part I: Why We Need Many Messiahs

Part III: Many Messiahs and Little Lights

Learn more about the project and get involved at manymessiahs.com

Early Music Seattle is proud to support the development of Many Messiahs, and we will be hosting a panel discussion with the artists on Sunday, December 5 at 2pm. We have invited Many Messiahs artistic director (and frequent EMS collaborator) Aaron Grad to share a series of guest posts about the project.

 


Photo: Mike Morgan

Seattle-based composer and writer Aaron Grad is the artistic director of Many Messiahs. He previously composed Strange Seasons for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and his feminist reframing of the Sirens myth appears on an upcoming Early Music Seattle program, For All Our Sisters.

Part I: Why We Need Many Messiahs

By Aaron Grad

 

“May we slay the iniquity.”
-Darian Dauchan, from “The Calling” for Many Messiahs

 

 Unlike most oratorios that tell a straightforward story with voices and instruments, Handel’s Messiah features a unique libretto cobbled together from Old and New Testament texts that meditate on sin, redemption and hope. One distinctive word that appears three times is “iniquity,” an archaic term for the worst kind of sin—a gross moral failing, without ownership or repentance, inflicting grievous harm on another. Much of the oratorio explores what it might take to cleanse society’s iniquities, and what glory would await in that peaceful paradise beyond.

In the summer of 2020, sickened and heartbroken over the murder of George Floyd, I took a harder look than ever at my own participation in the systemic racism that is the foundational iniquity of our nation. An area of my life that made me especially uneasy was my devotion to concert music, which I had always seen as a bastion of tolerance and fairness. I watched classical music organizations agonize over their statements in support of Black Lives Matter, and I saw plenty go beyond performative hand-wringing and actually put more resources than ever before into diversity, equity and inclusion. Much of what this has looked like is having the same tastemakers find space on traditional programs for concert music by Black composers. All the better if the pieces were short, easily digestible, and well-aligned with the norms of classical music. After all, it’s an article of faith in this industry that classical music is a universal language and relevant to all; never mind the glaring bias and elitism that go along with the belief that our music is special.

One of my great privileges is that I grew up in an environment that primed me to love a huge range of music. I watched one older sister dance The Nutcracker so many times I had it memorized; I watched the other belt out showtunes that I love to this day; I tried and failed to learn violin and piano, but fell in love with the guitar; I spun our eclectic record collection on the family turntable, discovering the joys of Janis Joplin and Donna Summer; I goofed around on recorders and autoharps; I made my friends play in rock bands with me. I even remember being about nine years old and sitting with my Jewish family in a church for a Messiah sing-along, flubbing my way through the alto part that I was sharing with my Bubby (grandmother). This background gave me the gift of access to classical music. It also allowed me to see the equal value of any great music, regardless of style.

Many Messiahs was born out of a desire to transform the concert hall into a space that welcomes and values all people for whoever they are and for whatever music they love. More than a year later, the idea has grown into a collective of musicians from a wide range of backgrounds, all doing incredible work in their own idioms. The glue that binds us together is the source material: the artists are writing new songs that take snippets of Handel’s Messiah as points of departure for powerful meditations on race, justice and healing. We are creating a concert program that will be performed by a genre-bending ensemble along with chorus and orchestra, marrying the splendor of the classical concert hall with the excitement of a pop act.

Handel’s Messiah, rooted in Judeo-Christian prophecy, assumes that one person is coming to fix everything, but Many Messiahs starts with the premise that it takes all of us to create change. We’re excited to expand the limits of what can happen in concert halls, but our real vision is much bigger: we want everyone to see how they are part of the “Many Messiahs” who will heal our deep wounds. To quote a line that hip-hop artist Darian Dauchan wrote for Many Messiahs, our calling is clear: “May we slay the iniquity.”

 

Part II: Many Messiahs in the Wilderness

Part III: Many Messiahs and Little Lights

Learn more about the project and get involved at manymessiahs.com

 

Early Music Seattle is proud to support the development of Many Messiahs, and we will be hosting a panel discussion with the artists on Sunday, December 5 at 2pm. We have invited Many Messiahs artistic director (and frequent EMS collaborator) Aaron Grad to share a series of guest posts about the project.

 


Photo: Mike Morgan

Seattle-based composer and writer Aaron Grad is the artistic director of Many Messiahs. He previously composed Strange Seasons for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and his feminist reframing of the Sirens myth appears on an upcoming Early Music Seattle program, For All Our Sisters.