Anyone who has heard Top 40 radio in the past half-century knows his work, although few know his name. The soaring strains of Kirk Whalum on saxophone have backed up countless radio hits for decades, notably Whitney Houston’s No. 1 single “I Will Always Love You.”
But the Memphis musician would rather be known for how his melodies originate in the church. With his new album Humanité, Whalum embarks on a project to bridge cultures and connect countries, with his Christian faith and free-flowing music as catalysts.
“Our efforts with these songs and words tie intrinsically to what the gospel is actually about,” said Whalum, the son of a pastor. “The gospel has always addressed really important things that people say are ‘not related’ to it. For instance, writers of Scripture addressed oppression, current political situations taking place, and prophecies that had to do with politics.”
Released in October, Humanité features over a dozen emerging and established music artists who were recorded in nearly as many nations. Listeners encounter superstar vocalist and guitarist Zahara from South Africa, Japan’s jazz pianist Keiko Matsui, then premier U.K. jazz singer Liane Carroll — and that’s in just three of the album’s 14 tracks. A documentary crew followed Whalum’s globe-trotting recording sessions, with a film about his journeys premiering online and available for purchase December 3.
The film, titled “Humanite: The Beloved Community,” reveals the progress of Whalum’s vision from three decades ago. “As part of that Promise Keepers movement during the 1990s, I toured with one of their worship bands,” he said.
“At that time, I thought the concept of reconciliation was the ultimate thing — to be reconciled,” Whalum explained. “Now I look back on that and think: I’m glad we did those gatherings. But there was some work we needed to do before we ever get to the point of endeavoring to ‘reconcile.’ The first thing is understanding.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Whalum discusses the racially motivated violence he experienced as a child, why racism persists, and how his new project brings illumination amid dark times. It has been lightly edited for length.
WHEN MEMPHIS MADE HEADLINES
Your new project harkens back to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated during your childhood. In what ways did that event mark your life?
The primary thing is I had to try and process all of that as a nine-year-old. It was difficult for me to actually process. This violence happened right in front of us.
For a Black person, the killing of Dr. King was traumatic no matter where you were living in this country. But to be here in Memphis — in that moment, our city was at the center of the world. We knew the world was not well, and that spiritual earthquake happened right here.
To me, it was devastating in ways that presented problems for my own emotional development in years to come. I’m talking about the next 40 years or so. I went in for some emotional counseling at age 48. I discovered after quite a few weeks and sessions that the issues I was dealing with were directly related to that.
Did you personally experience prejudice? And where was faith in the midst of this trauma?
Even as a nine-year-old, I experienced the fear and instability of racial oppression from the bottom side. You’re dealing with life-or-death incidents. For a Black person living in the South, it was actually terrorism.
I grew up kind of middle class and we had a nice house — disproportionately nice for the street that we lived on. Walking down the street when I was age 10, I remember a group of White kids passing by in a pickup truck and throwing a big bale of hay at me. There was nothing I could do but run. It could just as easily have been them grabbing me and dragging me behind the truck, or if they had shotguns… Use your imagination. The existential threat of violence colors one’s perception of a given cultural moment.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, literally there was the Black church and the White church. Every church building I’ve ever gone to is one that was handed down by a White church — who, by the way, decided to leave the community because there were too many Black people.
More than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, some people see issues of discrimination and injustice as entirely in the past. How would you respond?
It’s unfortunate but it’s also human to make an opinion of something so important without experiencing the thing — from the standpoint of being vulnerable to it. That’s a terrible way to make an opinion about something.
Have you experienced oppression or discrimination because of skin tone? If not, it’s probably better to consult with someone in that position — two or three people would be nice. Maybe even do life with someone and spend quality time with them and get to know them. Then, make your opinion.
It came to me in reaction to the visceral realization that I was turning 60. I said: What are you going to do with this moment? The last time I was at a milestone like that was at 40, and those twenty years happened in the blink of an eye.
THE HEART OF HUMANITÉ
Your new album is such a reflection of that — venturing out from your own hometown of Memphis to cities across the globe. Why was it important for you to travel beyond your borders to create this diverse work?
My affinity for the music I love comes from some of everywhere. You have to start with the perspective that musicians live in that world. Even a studio player who doesn’t get to experience that on a regular basis, physically, they will tell you their influences are all over the place. Those of us musicians who are privileged to make music across cultural and all these other borders, it’s where we love to be. There is nothing like it — being able to mix it up with different creative streams. For me to actually do that cohesively in a record is both a natural thing and a real joyful experience.
It came to me in reaction to the visceral realization that I was turning 60. I said: What are you going to do with this moment? The last time I was at a milestone like that was at 40, and those twenty years happened in the blink of an eye. When that happens again, I’m going to be 80—and that really hit me hard. My dad only lived to be 73. I said: I need to go for it. Because there are all kinds of impediments and restrictions that factor in when you’re talking about checking things off your bucket list and all of that.
At that point, I became risqué — in the truest sense of the word. I started buying airline tickets, because the connections I had made with these emerging and established artists globally had inspired me already. But I was a little skittish about collaborating, until at this point I thought: What’s the worst that can happen? I go into debt, and they take me to prison for it? Even then, maybe they’ll let me borrow a CD player to listen to this record. I felt it needed to be made.
How many other artists are included on Humanité, and what nations and nationalities do they represent?
It won’t be exhaustive because I’ll probably forget someone. Suffice to say, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, France, England, and the U.S. We recorded in each of those places except in Nigeria — but the artist I worked with was from there, though she lives in Paris, France now. One artist from New Zealand, Andrea Lisa, came to Memphis and we recorded her here. She is touring with me now.
These diverse artists are only a thumbnail of what’s available. If I have my way, before I’m done, that list will be off the page. That is something we have in mind and we’re wanting to pursue. The documentary of this project takes me to just about all these places. We’re wanting to do a TV show similar to Anthony Bourdain, where we use music instead of food.
The value is inherent in the sound of the music. We weren’t making a ‘world music’ record, because you have to be so authentic to those various styles and genres. We weren’t trying to do that because that’s more of a musicology-type thing and better done by people who do research. We were just having fun and including the essence of those cultures in the midst of a pop-jazz record.
FROM PAST TO PRESENT
You have pop, soul, gospel but especially jazz reflected on this album. How does Humanité reflect a larger cultural heritage?
Geographically, Memphis was definitely the place where a lot of roads came together both culturally and musically. You could say the Mississippi Delta area, almost like the river, the tributaries fed into Memphis which is where it all coagulated.
It could be said New York is the jazz town, though certainly Chicago and New Orleans have had active scenes. But Memphis was the New York of the South. Everybody who wanted to be anybody in music — at the time, pop music was blues — it had to come through here. I am more of a gospel and R&B musician than jazz. While New Orleans was the incubator of jazz, Memphis was that for R&B.
One of the songs is called “Wake Up Everybody.” What are the realities that many Americans need to wake up to?
Part of it I already spoke about — trying to understand empathetically, instead of just using your reasoning. You are always missing something when you try to understand something according to only how it makes sense to you, in whatever bubble you live in.
We all live in a bubble of one kind or another, these concentric circles. This record is about those concentric circles touching one another and, when it works right, those circles become a part of each other. That’s the thing I’m hoping that people will see in this project and maybe adapt that as a life goal: to understand more completely.
IGNORANCE AND HOPE
Why do you think racism and discrimination are still prevalent — in our nation, and in many parts of the world?
Our country is unique in a sense. When you visit Italy or France or Kenya or wherever, the U.S. is the only one that — from the ground up — was about being a melting pot. It’s also the only one that began with violence. So it’s really important to get your head around that first.
Many people, especially many Christians, come up with their opinions about race, prejudice, segregation, and these topics without actual knowledge. They don’t know because they haven’t asked a person of color — and not one who goes to your White church. …
Holistic initiatives are going to have to happen. What the South Africans had in 1994-95, the Truth and Reconciliation Conference, having that here in-depth would allow us to go back and see what got us here, address those things, and make a plan going forward.
When I moved to France to study, with my wife and four kids, one of the first words I learned a new meaning for is ‘ignorance.’ In French, the word ‘ignorant’ is not a pejorative. It simply means: I don’t know. A person called ignorant is one who just didn’t know. It’s not a crime not to know. But what is unfortunate is to not know that you don’t know.
Many people, especially many Christians, come up with their opinions about race, prejudice, segregation, and these topics without actual knowledge. They don’t know because they haven’t asked a person of color — and not one who goes to your White church. I mean going in and making relationships with people who experience this daily, and have seen it in their communities for generations. When you do that, you get a completely different understanding.
So it’s not a crime to not know. And it’s unfortunate to not know that you don’t know. But it is a sin not to care, once you know that you don’t know. At that point you are culpable for what’s taking place, and your passivity is keeping our nation from moving forward.
Do you have hope for people of faith to lead in this needed work of building bridges across race and ethnicity?
I do have hope that the Body of Christ will again take the lead in these areas of racial understanding and racial reconciliation. Hope is inherent in the gospel, and we have the tools with which we can make this happen. But that hope has been tested recently more than ever.
It is absolutely going to take a lot of disconnecting from certain things and people, and then connecting to certain people and ideas. It’s connecting with the Scriptures in a different way. For instance, right now we have so many Christians who support our president — who began his campaign by disparaging people of color. That didn’t seem to matter to those Christians. They found a way to support and endorse him anyway.
So people of color are left, once again, to say: “I really don’t matter to them. No matter what Scripture they quote, no matter what clichés they use, they have shown me that they don’t care.” We are left once again to commiserate and figure it out.
But thank God for the White Christians in my life who will not countenance the kind of stuff coming from the White House or from other sectors that masks itself as Christianity. I am so grateful for those salt-of-the-earth believers who aspire to change.