In The Meaning of Michelle, edited by Veronica Chambers, 16 writers and artists pay tribute to Michelle Obama. In the following excerpted chapter, “The Composer and the Brain: A Conversation about Music, Marriage, Power, Creativity Partnership … and the Obamas,” the singer Alicia Hall Moran and her husband, the pianist and composer Jason Moran, discuss the first lady and her impact on them and on the culture at large.
I first met Michelle Obama when I was understudying the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess on Broadway. After the show was over, after the curtain call, we stayed on stage in our costumes. She came up to each of us and hugged every one of us, regardless of whether we were the star of the show or a backstage hand. She took us in and we felt the love and support of what we’d done and that was gold.
In New York, on Broadway, many times the celebrities who come to the show, people with much less important things to do than running the world, only want to see the top two stars or three stars in private quarters, in some cordoned off area. I don’t know if they’re germaphobes or fragile, but they can’t be bothered with you. Michelle Obama can be bothered with you.
Both the president and the first lady are so present, so generous. For the groundbreaking of the African-American museum, I played a song. Then after, we all went to the White House. The Obamas came out to meet people and it was a big crowd. Someone from the staff took me by the arm and said, “You need to get to the front.”
Michelle said, “Elizabeth (Alexander) just told us about you and we really love you.” Then Barack comes right behind her and he says, “Yes, I really liked that song.”
He said, “Michelle really does the listening to music, but I’m going to find that song.”
I was thinking, he’s bullshitting me about that song.
He said, “You think I’m lying. I’m not lying to you.” He reached into his pocket and took out this piece of paper. It was just a white card and written on it, very small, is, “Jason Moran, I Like the Sunrise.” He showed it to me and he said, “I’m looking for that song.”
It’s very hard to be genuine all the time, but somehow they shine in these personal interactions.
He also said, “Those kids must be good piano players.” He mentioned our kids and it’s like, they’re really showing you how artful and connected they are.
When we got married, we were lucky that there were a number of couples who could be models for us. Our parents were the easiest and primary examples. My parents stayed married until my mother passed a year after we were married. Alicia’s parents are still married. Once I left Texas and got to New York, I realized it was more common to meet people who don’t stick together. So we made it a point to find other people who we thought were models. One example was Fred Wilson and Whitfield Lovell. I felt they have been great models of partnership, friendship, and being artists together.
One thing my grandmother said when we got married is, Make sure you communicate. That’s what you really learn in a marriage: to admit when you’re lost and when you’re wrong. I’m still trying to learn that lesson.
That’s what makes me cherish Alicia more and more. I can cut off. Alicia is able to pull what really needs to be said out of us.
Isn’t that great? What he’s talking about is me persecuting him with my nagging. But he can make a poem of it.
Like the Obamas, especially when he was a senator and then later on the campaign trail, the distance has always been built in. As a musician, I started going on the road in college. Then after school, I was on the road, too.
We managed it in our relationship, but nobody prepares you for having children and navigating the distance and travel in your work. I was always indebted to Alicia for holding it down at home and raising our kids when I needed to be on the road. So when the opportunity came for her to tour as Bess in the national company of Porgy and Bess, I said, “Yes, I can be here for nine months. I’m supposed to be here.”
My touring life is something that I’m still wrestling with. As our kids get older, I have to build a different system because this won’t sustain in a healthy way forever. One of the ways I’m trying to wean myself off of the idea that I have to be on the road is in considering how potent jazz is for black people and that we need more jazz, here in America.
At each various stage of our marriage, I’ve said to Alicia, “What was I doing before we were married?” The good and the bad, this is so much better than what existed beforehand.
I call Alicia the brain. When we were in Venice last summer, I posted a photo of the two of us and I said, “Plotting with the Brain on Your Behalf.”
The Brain is pretty literal. I met Alicia as she graduated from Barnard. What she brought into my life was an intellectual component that was totally absent. None of my friends were discussing music in a way that brought in place and the landscapes that the music emerges from, what are the codes and meanings. She had this amazingly rigorous comprehension of not only black music, but German music and French music and what it means to culture and society.
I was learning how to do the music, but I wasn’t necessarily concerned with why I was making it. Alicia is the one who said, “You need to turn that around. If you turn this around sooner, you’ll be ahead of nearly everyone else because it’s clear that none of your friends are thinking about this.”
And when I think of the conversations we’ve had over the years, I think about the conversations that Michelle and Barack must have in private. How he applies what Michelle says and how I apply all the things I’ve heard Alicia say. How do people apply the knowledge or criticism they’ve been given privately?
Also, Alicia and I are extremely aware, which I’m pretty sure that Barack and Michelle are too, of the people who took their hand, the people who are not mentioned in any article or book. People who took their hand and showed them something and didn’t tell them how to apply it, but just stepped back and let them transact on this knowledge over and over again.
Their level of achievement doesn’t happen by just being a good student. Somebody teaches you how to learn, somebody teaches you how to be around other people, how and when to be demanding, and they’ve somehow really gotten the lesson and used it.
Something Jason always says is, “You don’t know when it will come back to you.” You give the gift and you don’t know when it will come back. But you give of yourself, and you earn that “time to get my blessings bucket” and someone will smell you. You have the fresh clean scent of having done something for someone else.
I like the way the Obamas represent a reaching towards what I call “the best that is at our disposal.” From the way she dresses to where they send their girls to school, it is a constant reminder of we can and you can. “I’m going to wear this J Crew dress. I’m not going to send my kids to boarding school in the French countryside. They’ll go where other girls in DC go.”
A large contingent of us are still in love with them because they dared greatly. She said, “You could be president.”
I wonder what it was like when they first said it out loud, to each other.
They dared to say it. Then they tried with humility. The humility with which they approached the bid for the presidency was an example to the nation. I wouldn’t call what Donald Trump did daring or trying; it’s like he’s just hurtling with velocity at the highest office in the nation.
You never get the feeling with the Obamas that they are starved for attention. They shine the light broadly on the whole community.
Talk about making room in that House. I have now shaken hands with Michelle Obama and Barack Obama more than I did with the president of my college or the dean of my music conservatory.
Michelle Obama is as good as it gets and that’s a fact.
That is a fact.
She has achieved what we black people have really taken personally, what Maya Angelou called “the dream of the slave.” It makes living in a contemporary society very easy. It’s easier to be brave in our era when possibility is modeled the way that that couple has. Think of what we once endured, just a few generations ago: lashings for just lifting your face when the master spoke, lashings for eating an extra piece of bread, lashings for covering for a sister who has pregnancy pain and can’t lift a chair. The lashings, all those lashings. Our great-great grandparents saw this and endured those and now the dream is here. We have him and her.
They are just getting started.
She’s had three careers in one lifetime and she’s not even an old woman yet.
Alicia and I have understood that our greater power lies in the community being given power. The more people have that power, it would seep out further and wider and become a way stronger wave than anything we might do individually.
Now there’s a history behind what we’ve done and continue to do, this is a wave that can’t be stopped now. It’s building momentum.
The world doesn’t yet know the scope of what Alicia has to offer. But I don’t think she does either. But I know by the virtue of the conversations we have every morning and every night. The potency with which she addresses every thought is almost frightening.
When Alicia is discouraged, I think she thinks, Well, I don’t have a model for what I’m trying to do. While I can look to a Duke Ellington or a Herbie Hancock in the jazz pantheon. She maintains that she’s looking for something that doesn’t exist or been exhibited in the popular world. But I’m watching Alicia, over the past 18 months, sit at the piano and write her songs and find the ideas in these songs.
Which brings us back to Michelle Obama. To accept that you will be judged is actually the job that the first lady signs up for. I see how she threads her power through what could have been a limited role of being judged all day long.
It’s not a small role. It’s an all-encompassing 24-hour judgment on your future, your past, and your present; your children, their present and their futures. It’s everything and you’re always dressing in the mirror of public engagement.
But she threads her power through these things and what she does is, she reverses the gaze. She makes sure that while the world is looking at her, that she extends her gaze to the children and to the elders, to the craftsmen and the artists, to a whole range of people who had never been seen in that way before. She reversed the gaze.
From The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, copyright © 2017 by Veronica Chambers. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
With signature style, humor and irreverence, ALICIA HALL MORAN’S style combines the world of Broadway (starring as “Bess” on the 9-month National Tour of the Tony-winning production), the world of visual art (her musical work can currently be seen in the 56th Venice Biennale) and the languages of classical music and jazz. Since 2010, Ms. Moran’s critically acclaimed chamber music soul revue, Alicia Hall Moran + the Motown Project, has been thrilling audiences at The Highline Ballroom, (Le) Poisson Rouge, as well as at universities across America. Ms. Moran upholds the traditions of her great-great-uncle Hall Johnson (legendary choral director, composer and preserver of the Negro Spiritual) and her greatest teachers (Shirley Verrett, Adele Addison, Hilda Harris, David Jones, and Warren Wilson) while exploring new ways to celebrate the repertoire of the classics and the genius of American song.
Jazz pianist, composer, and performance artist JASON MORAN was born in Houston, Texas, in 1975 and earned a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Jaki Byard. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010 and is the artistic director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center. Moran currently teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Moran’s rich and varied body of work is actively shaping the current and future landscape of jazz. He has collaborated with such major figures as Adrian Piper, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Stan Douglas, Adam Pendleton, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker; commissioning institutions of Moran’s work include the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dia Art Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Harlem Stage. Moran has a long-standing collaborative practice with his wife, the singer and Broadway actress Alicia Hall Moran; as named artists in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, they together constructed BLEED, a five-day series of live music. Moran will have his first solo museum exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, in spring 2018.
From “The Composer and the Brain” by Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran as it appears in The Meaning of Michelle edited by Veronica Chambers. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
VERONICA CHAMBERS is a prolific writer and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl. A contributor to several anthologies, including the bestselling Bitch in the House, she’s been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Newsweek. She is currently a JSK Knight Fellow at Stanford.