These two young Kansas musicians don’t knock Bach but they want to stretch classical music to include hip-hop and R&B influences.
“Symphonic soul,” said Justin Noel Hall, his reference to the form of classical music the duo wants to share with the world.
Hall, with a master’s degree from Wichita State University, and Da’Kneisha Nikoyle Beard, Kansas City, Kansas, are spearheading a project to bring original compositions and voices of diversity to the classical music stage. With her voice and his skills at piano, as a duo they’ve named Nikoyle Noel, the two are pursuing a vision that goes beyond the stage. They’re looking to make classical music more relatable to Black audiences, foster a desire to study music among young Black students and provide scholarships to those young students to help them pursue their goal.
“We’ve chosen to compose and perform original works of art that share Black stories told from Black perspectives,” says Hall.
Their approach makes them an anomaly in a system that continues to place the music of 18th-century European musicians in the forefront, and where very little music written by Black composers is played by orchestras and chamber groups.
“This is a way for us to reach the minds of Black kids who may have never thought of picking up an instrument, perhaps a violin or piano, but because of the connection to music they listen to and the music their parents listen to, we can begin that dialogue and entertain the possibility of these students being classical musicians,” Hall said.
Hall also sees the possibilities for youth beyond traditional classical music. He hopes to encourage them to learn to improvise, play jazz and R&B, and “use the fullness of their Blackness in their playing and expression.”
Music Video Recorded
As a way to show that classical music can be more than what it is, the duo recently recorded a music video for “Stained with Beauty” – a work revealing the writing, composing, and arranging talents of Beard and Hall.
“The music video is an introduction to our sound,” Hall said. It will demonstrate what they mean by “Symphonic Soul” and “Tupac meets Bach.”
On the night of Oct. 3, contracted musicians gathered under the Chihuly glass sculpture in the then-closed Wichita Art Museum and performed the approximately eight-minute-long song. A professional crew shot a video, with the orchestra performing four takes.
“A tidal wave of exhaustion and fatigue hit me,” Hall said after they wrapped up.
“The lyrics are very moving,” said participant and harpist Jane Hyde, and Hall’s orchestration “is really wonderful,” she said. Of the R&B influence, Hyde, principal harpist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, said, “A little improvisation skills don’t hurt, and I think that’s what we want to do, to have music come from the heart.”
Through the project, the duo hopes to create scholarships for young musicians to provide them instruments, private lessons, funds for college auditions, and other related costs of pursuing their craft.
Their Path to Classical Music
Growing up in a military family, Hall lived in such places as Mississippi and Alaska, singing in the choir and taking piano and percussion lessons. Today, he’s a music minister at Holy Savior Catholic Church in Wichita and teaches the drum line at Derby High School.
Beard and her brothers sang as children, the rare Black family in their church congregation in Kansas City. Beard realized in college she was behind her peers who had benefited from voice training. The classical music tradition seemed to say to Beard, “‘Come on in, but drop your culture. Come in, but sing small,’” she said.
“There wasn’t quite a space for me,” Beard said.
Beard works full time, takes classes at Kansas City Kansas Community College, and has a toddler. She and Hall met years ago at Wichita State University, sharing an interest in music.
Beard said she and Hall are grateful they were exposed to music early in their lives.
“We found music, and we found our purpose,” she said.
While Hall and Beard have both personally invested in the project, fundraising continues to cover the cost of the music video project, Project Genesis. There’s a GoFundMe campaign and patrons can pick a tier of monthly support on Patreon.
“A portion of the revenue we generate from our sales of the music, views on YouTube, and live performances,” according to Hall, will go toward their efforts to financially help youths from marginalized groups gain access to music.
Hall already is eyeing a musical event as a fundraiser in February 2021, where love songs by such singers as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Tank, and Luther Vandross could be performed with a classical vibe.
“We just have to get us to a place where we have enough music to do a full show and also safe enough (COVID-19) to do a show live,” Hall said. “I just want the music to be dope.”