Opinion | ‘Never Think That You’re Not Supposed to Be There’

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All right. It’s a real pleasure to welcome Kris Bowers, our composer, who has written a concerto, “For a Younger Self.” Welcome. [APPLAUSE] Can I ask a question? All right, Granddaddy. Can you tell me, just what is a concerto? So it’s basically this piece that has a soloist and an ensemble, an orchestra. The two are having a conversation. And so sometimes that conversation can be this person speaking, and now this person speaking. Sometimes the conversation — It’s a question. — is at the same time. Yeah. And it really depends on how the composer wants to, or how I want to frame that conversation. Did you ever picture yourself doing what you’re doing now? Huh. [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a Black composer, and lately actually I’ve been wondering whether or not I’m supposed to be in the spaces that I’m in, or supposed to have gotten to the point that I’ve gotten to. Well, I can tell you one thing. Never think that you’re not supposed to be there. Cause you wouldn’t be there if you wasn’t supposed to be there. It goes back to slavery. [MUSIC PLAYING] My grandfather, who I found out has cancer a little while ago, I wanted to spend some more time with him and talk to him about his life, about our family, ask him as much as I can before he passes. [BELL RINGING] Granddaddy. Mm-hm? Need a bit of help with this. Do what? Getting this seamed out for the show. OK. Don’t step on the pedals. Push it right in the corner. OK. Wow. OK. We’re going to make it real handsome here. You’re going to be ready to go. Thank you, sir. Growing up in the South was quite a thing for me. Bascom, Florida, as far back as I can remember, I think the plantation was the Bowers plantation. All 13 of you all grew up in that house? Mm-hm. Wow. How all of us stayed in two rooms, I don’t know. We would start on the porch singing. And there were people, I don’t know how they could hear it that far, would come drive in the front yard and listen to us sing at night. People in that area was, the Blacks were Bowers, and the whites was Beavers. Beavers had the grocery store. But when Dad would walk in the store, this kid about my size, small kid — How old were you about this point? Like how old? I probably was 6 or 7 years old. Oh, wow. And he would go up to my dad and say, what could I get for you, boy? That stuck with me forever. Why are you calling my dad a boy? And Daddy would answer him, sir, yes sir, no sir. But it was something that stayed with me because I knew then when I got of age I was going to leave there. I didn’t want no parts of the farm. I didn’t want no parts of that part of the country. I just wanted to leave. Wherever I could get a ride to, that’s where I was headed to. [MUSIC PLAYING] What was that process like, hitchhiking as a Black man in America in the 1940s? I had to be crazy. Now, the first place I remember being is in Detroit. A man picked me up. He was saying that he could get me a job and a place to stay and all this. I asked him, does it snow there? And he said yes. And that was the end of that, because I didn’t want to be any place that was cold. But I hitchhiked from there to Denver, Colorado. And I was in this Greyhound bus station, cause they had two counters, white and Black. So I could get something to eat. And I heard somebody say, Los Angeles, California. I said, that’s where I want to go. Never heard of Los Angeles before. I had $27 or $28. I didn’t know how I was going to make it, but I knew I was going to make it. So I said well, I’m going to pretend to be an employment agency and call around to get a job. Wow. I got the telephone book, started at the A’s. A Cleaners. And I don’t think I made more than five calls, and the phone rang, and it was the A Cleaners, and they said they needed a presser. I got all the information. I said, OK, I’ll send someone right out. And that was me. [LAUGHING] That’s where I met your grandmother. [MUSIC PLAYING] How old were you when you bought the cleaners? I was 20. Wow. So within two years I had gone from homeless to I was in business. [MUSIC PLAYING] But I never could get a loan. And I owned the place. I said, something wrong with this picture. I told them I come in for the loan, and he said no, I don’t have anything. And I left later, and picked up an application, and I mailed it in. A few days later, I got a call, your loan is approved. I said, it’s the color of my skin. I said in the South they tell you. In Los Angeles they show you. From then on we started buying property, I would get things at the cleaner, everything, but nobody ever saw me. Everything was done by mail. People are constantly throwing up things to stop you in life. But you’ve got to know you cannot stop me. [MUSIC PLAYING] My name is Kristopher Bowers, and I want to play “Shining Star in Atlantic City.” My parents decided before I was born they wanted me to play piano. Literally, I think it’s called like “Piano Sampler No. 5” that they used to put on my mom’s stomach every day. Actually, one of the first pieces of music I ever wrote was on this piano. And I remember, you know, just playing around here all the time. But we were up at a restaurant one, I believe it was a Sunday. At Marie Callendar’s? Marie Callendar’s. They had a piano in there, and I asked the guy could you play it. And they said yes. I carried you over there, and you were playing it, and I was proud of you. [LAUGHING] [MUSIC PLAYING] There aren’t that many opportunities for young kids of color to showcase their talents or to interact with other kids of color playing music and doing those things, and you talking about being my manager, essentially, from the very beginning. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have been as confident pursuing music. I remember — where were you in school at that I was up there? What, in New York? At Juilliard? Juilliard? Wherever it was, you enjoyed it. So that’s all I was thinking. If you enjoyed making a living at it. I knew that, boy. And the winner is Kris Bowers. “Green Book.” [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING] What do you think your biggest challenge is today? My biggest challenge today, being honest, is my health. It’s just trying to stay healthy. That would be my challenge today. [MUSIC PLAYING] I’ve got a few more years to go, but I’m almost to the top. [LAUGHING] Ten more years, I’ll be at the top. [LAUGHING] So now I just keep trying to do the best I can. Yeah. And enjoy seeing my children and grandchildren being successful. That’s glory in itself. It’s just something that I hope I had a little something to do with it. [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] (SINGING) Then sings my soul, my savior, my God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art. You did it! You did it! You did it! [LAUGHING] See, it surprised you. [LAUGHING]

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