Creating community with Khemist and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Down North Pizza - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

On a Sunny Monday afternoon last September, Philadelphia rapper and singer-songwriter Khemist sat in a brightly-muraled patio in Strawberry Mansion, guitar in hand, playing a song with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A slow and solemn fingerpicked acoustic line mixed with a plucked upright bass by Gabriel Polinsky, while a swirling rhythm from Don Liuzzi traversed salsa and boom-bap; normally, Liuzzi is the Orchestra’s principal tympani player, but here he’s danced between congas, cymbals, and a snare. On an aching viola lead is Chrysyn Harp, a collaborator in the Orchestra’s educational outreach initiatives, and at the center is Khemist’s fervent vocal as he delivered a hushed but hard-hitting treatise on gun violence, religion, racism and the failure of society and its leaders to take care of its Black citizens. The song is called “I’ll Show You,” it’s a subtle-yet-powerful performance, and set at the mission-driven restaurant Down North Pizza, it’s a fine showcase of the connective potential in the Our City, Your Orchestra outreach program.

Speaking over phone this winter, Khemist is still dazzled by the experience; he relishes collaborative settings, whether it be with poets, DJs, producers, or expansive live bands, and this was his first time getting to mix it up with members of the Orchestra.

“I told them what it is that I wanted and they executed like the professionals they are,” he recalled. “They asked me if I had any ideas, I ran through the song and we mapped it out. With me on just the guitar, the drums can go several ways, all the instruments can be played different ways, but we found a place within that everyone liked and went with that.”

Now in its third year, Our City, Your Orchestra is a video performance series that places ensembles from the Philadelphia Orchestra in communities around Philadelphia, playing pop-ups at nonprofits like Prevention Point Philadelphia and Paul Robeson House and Museum, often with musical collaborators like jazz vocalist Laurin Talese and experimental cellist and songwriter Daniel De Jesus.

Liuzzi says this was his fourth time performing for the series, and he describes it as a beneficial setup all around. “Sending chamber groups to meaningful sites that do interesting work, I think it’s great. I think it’s something that keeps the Orchestra related to the community.”

Like Khemist, Liuzzi practically glows when talking about the lively collaboration on “I’ll Show You.” “We had a couple ideas [going into it],” he recalls. “One idea was to maybe take some Bach and have some spoken word over Bach, and I would accompany on hand drums; it could be an interesting way of accompanying Bach. But as soon as I heard Khemist playing guitar and singing one of his tunes, I went ‘oh my God, forget the Bach, how can we accompany Khemist?’ It was so beautiful.”

That give-and-take is underscored by Our City, Your Orchestra organizer Dani Allen, a West Oak Lane native who has run the program since its launch during the pandemic lockdown in October of 2020. She says both the sites, and the collaborators, are chosen with an intent of mutual exchange.

“This isn’t the Orchestra coming in and saying ‘here’s what we want to do with your business,’” Allen says. “We want to see what story they want told. We work together to figure out the music and how we’re going to tell the story.” And that means everyone involved has a chance to speak out in the video – the nonprofit leaders, musical collaborators, and orchestra musicians alike.

Our City, Your Orchestra: Down North Pizza

Khemist is the first rapper to participate in Our City, Your Orchestra, and he was brought onboard as an outgrowth of his job as a teaching artist at KIPP West Philadelphia Prepatory Academy, where the violist Harp is musical director. “It’s a blessing, to be able to collaborate with young minds who have an interest in songwriting and to [help them] understand how it can be a tool for creative expression,” Khemist says.

Allen says the Orchestra-funded program music program at KIPP (shorthand for Knowledge Is Power Preparatory) was a gradual build. “We started with strings,” she explains. “It was so successful it’s grown to a full orchestra, and a jazz band, and once we saw students had an interest in rap, lyricism, and writing, we really wanted to get teaching artists who can speak to those interests. A lot of people have a natural ability of putting words together, but there’s an art and skill to rap.”

Khemist sees writing songs from a hip-hop foundation as a way of building identity and community, as well as a therapeutic outlet. “It feels good to witness the students realize they need the outlet as much as I do,” he says. “We learn from each other in class, and for me it’s energizing. My student who did the shoot at Down North, name is Elijh and he goes by Barz, we practice and we battle and we push each other. He’s very advanced for his age.”

Khemist in Our City, Your Orchestra | still from video

Allen reflects on how the mission for the Orchestra’s education program at KIPP – “giving students the opportunity to do something promising and positive so they can avoid pitfalls they can experience in their own neighborhood” – is simpatico with the mission of Down North. Launched in August of 2020, the pizzeria at 28th and Leigh in Strawberry Mansion exclusively employs formerly incarcerated persons, giving them culinary career experience at a fair wage and in an equitable workplace. Its website refers to it as “the people’s pizza,” and along with serving tasty tasty food (Khemist recommends The Uptown, a mixed veggie pie) and working to reduce rates of recidivism, it advocates for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration, which executive chef Michael Carter called “a rigged system” in a Bon Appetit essay.

Speaking more broadly, Allen sees partnering with organizations like Down North as a way to build connections with the Orchestra that didn’t always exist. “We understand that the history of it has been very exclusive, elitist, and classist,” she says. “A lot of people may not feel welcome in classical music, at the orchestra, at the Kimmel Center. These perceptions matter, and it’s important go out and meet people where they are.”

Our City, Your Orchestra is also a chance for the players of the Orchestra to spread their wings and exercise their musical muscles in a different context. All musicians have a breadth of interests, Allen says; playing sheet music by rote doesn’t mean you don’t have an inkling to compose, or to improvise, or to try your hand at a different instrument. This is an avenue for the players to do it comfortably, and as such it fosters greater creativity.

“They get to program episodes, they might be arranging music for the first time,” she says. “They get to be seen as individuals too.”

Liuzzi says it brings an added layer of meaning to playing music. “This is about more than just ‘what did Beethoven write here? What did Brahms write here?’” he says. “That’s really important, because that’s our job, but to add a social aspect to our work, not only an awareness of what’s going on in our city, but pairing it up with music…I think it’s the wave of the future.”

Don Liuzzi and Gabriel Polinsky perform in Our City, Your Orchestra | still from video

With upcoming monthly episodes releasing through June set at places like the indigenous arts and culture organization We Are The Seeds, at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy, and at KIPP, Allen hopes the continued work of Our City, Your Orchestra begins to inform what the Philadelphia Orchestra does on the Kimmel Cultural Campus main stage to an even greater degree.

“It’s not meant to be a one and done, it’s meant to be ongoing partnership,” she says of the Orchestra’s work in the community. “I’m a firm believer that you belong wherever you are. There are people who live less than five miles from the Kimmel Center who don’t feel they belong.” She hopes the program makes it clear that, yes, they do.

For Khemist, the effort to connect with the community makes him believe the Orchestra is special. “For them to understand it’s more than hip-hop, and for them to have an interest and understand how I want the story told…there’s not enough of that,” he says. “Sometimes when you collaborate with musicians of diff worlds, they want it their way. A goal of mine was always to bend genres and present a style of music that doesn’t fit neatly into any box. [Working with the Orchestra,]  I feel like I was getting my point across.”

For more episodes of Our City, Your Orchestra, visit the Philadelphia Orchestra website. For more with Khemist, head to City Winery Philadelphia on Friday, April 7th for Writer’s Room, his monthly collaboration with songwriters, composers, poets and authors. For National Poetry Month, the April edition of the series is sponsored by Harriet’s Bookshop and features Khemist, Mahogany L. Browne, and pianist Orrin Evans; tickets and more information can be found at WXPN’s Concerts and Events page.

Related Content
View All Related Content

No news added recently