Black To The Future: Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony Is Bigger Than Music – It's A Movement

Don't call it a comeback! Composer Darin Atwater on how African-Americans are the heart — and soul — of classical music in American culture.

Darin Atwater is pulling a few strings for his team, and we mean that both musically and metaphorically. 

You may not recognize him right away, but Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony is the face — or rather, the sound — behind Beyoncé's HomecomingThe Lion King 2.0, and other musical efforts that required a more "seasoned" symphonic sound.

For the past two decades, Atwater has placed his veteran musical efforts into reintroducing the classical music genre as that of a cultural "gumbo" of sorts. He has done so through his group, Soulful Symphony, a 75-piece American symphony consisting of a majority of African-American and Latinx musicians based out of Baltimore.

In honor and observation of 1619 — the year that the first Africans were brutally taken from their homes and forcefully brought to America as slaves — BET Digital is recognizing modern pioneers of color in their respective fields who have been inspired by both their tragic and triumphant ancestral background.

Check out Atwater's story on Soulful Symphony, his thoughts on 1619 and much more below:

BET: You started Soulful Symphony back in 2000, so it'll be having its own anniversary pretty soon with 20 years next year! How has Soulful Symphony reinvented itself since the time you started the company to what it has grown to now?

Atwater: The company was started in 2000 from a body of work I composed called Song in a Strange Land. It fits innately into the [theme] of 1619. It really was one of the first works that paid homage to the collision of African and European cultures. It was an amalgamation of spirituals, reintroduced not only to people of color, but to everyone, as most instruments were confiscated on plantations. So this whole body of work has spiritually evolved what is really an acapella, vocal tradition.

As a composer, I wanted to reintroduce this body of work to people in order to pay homage to our ancestors while also reintroducing the music to a full symphony orchestra and to converge and reunite American history. 

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

Photo: Stephen Cherry

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

BET: It's not too often that we hear about Black orchestras, or orchestras that are led by a team of Brown and Black people. How do you feel as far as the Black community really paying attention to this side of our music? Do you feel the interest has grown throughout the years as the visibility of the symphony has grown?

Atwater: That's a great question! We've cultivated the audience in both the Black and White communities. When we first started Soulful Symphony, there was nothing like its kind anywhere in the world. So we were kind of a novelty, in a sense. For one, a Black orchestra was almost like an oxymoron. What is that? And two, where do you find people of color who play classical instruments? 

It all goes back to the future, in a sense, because again, the first instruments that the slaves were able to play, when they were playing in the plantations, were the violins and fiddles and French horns and so forth. So for me, it was a return to something that we lost as a culture.

The most important thing about Soulful Symphony is that our mission was never to pair it to classical music, our mission was to play our music. My music is a repository for everything from Motown to hip-hop to R&B, soul, bluegrass, country and so forth. Soulful Symphony has kind of been like an umbrella for all of American music.

So in the past 19 years, we've cultivated this whole idea of not only disrupting the classical music industry, but also showing what the symphony orchestra could be when we embrace our struggle and intention that has been in American music in terms of African and American and immigrants and this whole American experiment through music.

BET: Even for veteran and experienced orchestral musicians, is Soulful Symphony a new kind of experience for them? Is it the first symphony of its kind that they've played and performed in?

Atwater: Absolutely. It's been really refreshing for the musicians. If you're a classical musician of color, and you come up playing classical music, you might be one Black person of a 50- or 60-person orchestra. From elementary school to high school to conservatory, that's often the case. So the idea of not only being in a community and culture that represents you musically, but then in a community that represents you in terms of who you are culturally, it's a familiarity of things you can engage in in terms of things that happen beyond the stage.

It's like anything in the Black culture. It's like a family reunion. This thing that we're doing, it's more than the music, it's an experience for all of us. It's been enlightening, and it's something that has meant more than just the music.

Our musicians have gone on to perform with everybody from Beyoncé to Justin Timberlake to Maxwell. I mean, Soulful Symphony has kind of been a fountainhead for this new [musical] engagement. Everything from Beyoncé's Homecoming to seeing artists perform with orchestras and string players on the BET Awards. I would say 50 to 60 percent of those musicians come out of Soulful Symphony. 

Another huge example of that is we had maybe about 50 musicians be a part of the latest Lion King movie. That recollective orchestra came straight out of Soulful Symphony. 

So while we've been off the radar in terms of mass American media culture, we're kind of on the front line of supplying this reengagement of orchestral music in those settings. 

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

Stephen Cherry

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

BET: That's amazing! It's almost as if what Soulful Symphony is doing is bigger than music, it's a movement itself.

Atwater: Yes! And movements take time. I get all the time, "We don't know about Soulful Symphony." We're almost like one of America's greatest kept secrets. 

BET: Back to some of your artists going on to perform with the likes of Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Maxwell. Would you consider Soulful Symphony somewhat of a hub for aspiring Black musicians as far as them getting their start and being able to nurse their musical abilities?

Atwater: Absolutely. The other thing that's beginning to happen is, as we enter into the next generation, middle schoolers and high schoolers are starting to see what's possible and reimagine what's possible for them in terms of music as a career. Before Soulful Symphony, your objective was, "Maybe I'll play in a symphony orchestra. The New York Philharmonic, or The National Symphony." Now it's, "Hey, I can play in Soulful Symphony, and not only play music that speaks to my instrument in terms of classical music, but also my culture." 

BET: Did you ever see this for Soulful Symphony 20 years ago when you started off as a composer? Did you ever see this for the classical music genre in general?

Atwater: I absolutely did. I've been saying that for 20 years, and now the industry is starting to sort of bend towards this [sound]. Twenty years ago I said to my musicians, "In 15 years, you guys are going to be playing pop music."

One of the biggest secrets about America is that we are wildly American about everything from technology to sports to fashion, but when it comes to classical arts, we're still tied to European music. Classical music, in its native form, was once considered each composer's — and each country's — "pop music." So all of Mozart's symphonies are really all Austrian folk and pop songs. Same with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff's Russian symphonies, Italian operas, etc. All of that stuff is taken from the soil of each composer's respective country.

So when composers came to America in 1895 and said, "How come you're not looking to your native soil for your national identity?," it was because we had this original sin of slavery, and much of the music and culture came from people that were dehumanized, whether it was slaves or Native Americans. So our classical arts have evolved 99 percent still tied to European music, where every other country has its own native origin for classical music.

With every generation, we get further away from our ancestors, or immigrants, being from Europe and other parts of the world. We've now become "All American." The millennial generation doesn't have any ties to European music; it's been taken out of schools. So in order for classical music to survive, it has to embrace some American culture, and that means embracing Black culture and all the different nationalities that make up this wonderful, musical gumbo.

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

Stephen Cherry

(Photo: Stephen Cherry)

BET: How important is it for you, and for those that are playing in Soulful Symphony, to know African history in order to better play from a pure place of passion?

Atwater: It's important not only for African-American history, but American history overall, because the architect of our music is framed around music that is from that struggle. 

Like I told [some of my players] in last show that we had, "I hear the note that you're playing, but I don't hear the struggle in the note. Or I don't here the joy in the note. I don't hear the experience in the note." It's because, ultimately, we're picking music that comes from spirits, and we're writing it on a piece of paper, and we want to it to connect again to somebody's soul. That's why I call it Soulful Symphony. It's soul music, because we're taking things from the invisible and abstract. 

So if you don't understand the spirit behind the music, the struggles, the joys, the sorrows, the tension in all this music that we've formed and this culture that we're celebrating, at that point it just becomes some music that's on paper.

With each performance, you're breathing life that comes from your own personal experience, or the experiences that we have taken over from those who have come before us that have made it possible for us to have this great treasure of work. Whether it's the spirituals or whether it's Motown, all of this music has been bequeathed to us. So it's up to us to not just commercialize it or benefit from it, but to understand that we are connected to a much larger branch which has its roots, and this whole 1619 experience that we're talking about.

You don't have American history without African-American history. African-American music at its roots is American music and is American culture. It's been highly defined, and our fingerprint is indelibly marked on American culture from our experience. We are American music and American culture. 

BET: As far as the observation around 1619, are you all at Soulful Symphony doing anything intentional with the new music you are composing or the shows that you're doing? Or is it more so like, "We're Soulful Symphony! We do this every day!" 

Atwater: I'm actually composing a body of work that will premiere next year that will have the aspects of 1619 that we weren't able to get to this year, so this will be a spillover into our 20-year anniversary in 2020, since that's also a milestone for us.

But to your point, I think we embody what it means to be the living dreams of what they called, at that point, "20 some odd Negros" from West Africa to arrive in Virginia who have been the blueprint of everything that has come after them. We represent them every time we take the stage, and every time any American takes the stage, they actually are a descendant of that moment in 1619. So it's a sentimental moment in our nation's history. We carry their DNA. So every time we hit the stage, it's a celebration and a commemoration of that. 


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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