Not many dudes these days think Ludwig van Beethoven’s their dude. But, then again, there’s only one dude named Jason Ikeem Rodgers, founder and music director of Orchestra Noir, Atlanta’s African American orchestra. “Beethoven is my dude!” he raves.
Since he was 11 years old, growing up in the projects of Philadelphia, Beethoven has been Rodgers’ dude. “The music that I heard was Für Elise and it really ignited a whole other side of myself that I did not know,” he says. “It changed my life forever.” It did. For a Black kid, growing up in Meek Mill’s rough neighborhood — a kid who listened to all the latest hip-hop and R&B tracks — Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano, composed by a curmudgeonly deaf German who has been dead for nearly 200 years, changed the kid’s life forever.
That kid grew up and is now a maestro. Rodgers founded Orchestra Noir in 2016. They’ll be performing the tunes he grew up with, with an orchestral twist, on October 15 at Center Stage. ’90s Vibes: The Best of Hip-Hop and R&B promises to showcase what Rodgers’ mission has always been: to celebrate the cultural achievements of African American music pioneers across all genres of music, including classical.
A Black kid learning Beethoven and Brahms, Schumann and Shostakovich, on a middle school piano, is something of an anomaly and something Rodgers wants to remedy. “Even though I have the same degrees and come from the same schools as they do, most of the time I feel as if Caucasians in the field of classical music often see me as a foreigner,” Rodgers says. “I don’t really fit the prototype. Most conductors are older White Europeans. I’m from the hood and I don’t shy away from that.”
He doesn’t. He likes to add a certain amount of swag that reflects where he’s from and where he wants to go. He might conduct an orchestra in Air Jordans and Versace shades. Deal with it. It’s who he is.
And he wants others to follow him. African Americans make up only 1.8 percent of American orchestras. “I wanted to change that,” he declares. After the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, he had a real fervor to do something. “If I could change things, even a little, in the predominantly White, European-based classical music tradition, I would try and do so.”
That’s what he did with the creation of Orchestra Noir in 2016. He’s now been on such programs as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and he’s been on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He’s also worked with the likes of Cardi B, 2 Chainz, Migos and Jermaine Dupri.
He, and the organization, have also been strong advocates for music education. Orchestra Noir does its best to inspire the next generation of minority musicians through various educational-centered concerts, including annual side-by-side concerts with music students in Clayton County. Those concerts, “Clayton Nights,” help raise funds for scholarships for college-bound students. It’s clear that Rodgers loves what he does without losing the love of what spurred it all in the first place — his discovery of classical music.
Even before Beethoven entered his impressionable ears and warmed his heart, music was at the heart of Rodgers’ young life. Most of his family, growing up, comprised the choir in the church he attended in Philadelphia. His mom, and his 11 aunts and uncles, all played instruments. They were all taught how to play those instruments by his grandmother and grandfather. His grandmother taught his mother how to play the piano and his mother taught him the basics.
It was in middle school that he wanted to learn classical piano. He wanted to play, like Schroeder in those old Peanuts comics, Beethoven and all the rest of the great composers. “I begged my middle school teacher,” he says. “I actually showed up every day after school. I even jumped on the hood of her car, wanting for her to give me private piano lessons.” Seeing his passion, and the potential for dents on her car, she started teaching him every day. “She was a godsend and is still my mentor to this day.” His middle school teacher is now 72 years old. “She will be dutifully with me backstage at the coming ’90s Vibe concert serving as Orchestra Noir’s stage manager.”
It was a musically diverse upbringing for Rodgers, to be sure. From hearing “O Come to the Altar” from the church pews to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya’” outside the local burger joint, Rodgers’ ideas to bridge musical genres began to formulate. While getting his Bachelor’s, Master’s (both from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts) and a Professional Studies Degree (from the Cleveland Institute of Music) in classical piano performance and orchestra conducting, he was fusing his inner-city life with the traditions of church music and Western classical music. “I am exposing people who would only normally listen to classical to hip-hop and R&B and people who would normally only listen to hip-hop and R&B to classical,” he says. “I want to build a bridge between both cultures.”
He builds it one concert at a time. “I think the classical music establishment is willing to listen to people like me now,” he says. “We have been through so much strife, turmoil, and monumental events like the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd, and the pandemic,” he says. “The establishment is trying to find a way to incorporate and understand the universality and the connection of all people — especially the African American experience in America.”
It makes Rodgers joyful, hopeful. And the future’s so bright, he’s got to wear Versace shades.
Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Hapeville. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine and Earth Island Journal.