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.