Tamar-kali, who composed the music for Mudbound and Shirley, has a new project: an opera that you can watch online.



Composer Tamar-kali was a punk rocker when the director of the 2017 film "Mudbound" reached out, asking if she could score the movie. She's now behind the music on a handful of films. Her latest project - an opera about civil rights. Tim Greiving has her story.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: When people ask Tamar-kali where she's from, it can be a frustrating conversation.

TAMAR-KALI: You know, they want me to be able to compartmentalize it in this really neat package, like, oh, well, I'm Jamaican or, oh, I'm Nigerian. And it's like, no, boo, my people were literally kidnapped and enslaved and brought to America, and I'm the descendants of enslaved Africans and Indigenous folk, you know? Like, it's like people just don't like the truth. And we're seeing that manifested so aggressively right now.

GREIVING: She used to channel her own aggression into rock music.


TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) Now can you help me remember who I am and what I am made of, what sacrifices paved the way for me to learn to fly? My name...

GREIVING: But before Tamar-kali became a singer, rocker and now a celebrated film composer, she was going to be a teacher. Having grown up in Brooklyn, she studied education at nearby Adelphi University. Music quickly reeled her back, but she remains an educator, especially on tough subjects our country is still grappling with.

TAMAR-KALI: I figured out a little while ago that whether I want to be engaged this way or not, that for certain people, I'm going to be a frame of reference for my people, for who I am - whether it's women, whether it's queer folk, whether it's Black folk. And I can either just lollygag and do it by default or I can do it with intention. And I decided to do it with intention.

GREIVING: Her latest intention is an opera commissioned by LA Opera as part of its digital shorts series. "We Hold These Truths" is a 12-minute work for voice, spoken word and small orchestra. Tamar-kali used the opportunity to teach a musical class on the ongoing fight for civil rights. And to do that, she picked poems by Black intellectuals from a different era. The first is "We Wear The Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which she set to a demented waltz.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We wear the mask that grins and lies. It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.

GREIVING: For the past few years, Tamar-kali has been composing music for films like "Mudbound" and "Shirley." This commission gave her a chance to flip the script and have a director set a film to her music. Dream Hampton, the Emmy-nominated director of "Surviving R. Kelly," is an old friend.

DREAM HAMPTON: I knew that she was thinking about the not-newness of this moment. She was thinking about the ahistorical way that America acts as if each moment of racial reckoning for justice is new.

GREIVING: In the second part of Tamar-kali's opera, a solo violin aspires to patriotism under the words of a poem by Langston Hughes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.

GREIVING: The violin keeps playing as tenor Ashley Faatoalia sings words that Tamar-kali wrote herself.


ASHLEY FAATOALIA: (Singing) Oh, Elijah.

GREIVING: "Elijah" and the violin are her response to the killing of Elijah McClain, a young Black man, by Colorado police officers in 2019.

TAMAR-KALI: It wrecked me. You could be the most innocent, loving person in the world, play violin for stray cats, be a masseuse who's all about this trying to achieve a higher level of consciousness and love, and they will kill you. And I didn't know what I could do, but I could write something.

GREIVING: The final third is a setting of the poem "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay.

TAMAR-KALI: It's a torch song, like, straight up. The thing about Claude McKay is that he so succinctly expresses his love for himself as a man and his commitment to his dignity.


FAATOALIA: (Singing) Then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained...

GREIVING: Like the history of civil rights in this country, the music and the messages in it are complex and evolving, painful and bittersweet and never monolithic. Tamar-kali says she might occasionally tire of educating her fellow Americans about the past - about her past - but she's come to see it as her purpose.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.


FAATOALIA: (Singing) Oh, kinsmen, we must meet the common foe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


An earlier version of this piece indicated that the African Grove Theater was in Harlem. In fact, it was located downtown.