Four hundred. In his latest project, that number has radiated through composer and drummer Dr. Mark Lomax II's consciousness, resulting in a 12-album cycle of musical works paying tribute to the past, present and future of Black America.
This year marks the 400th since the beginnings of the Transatlantic slave trade in 1619. In a span of 366 years, 12.5 million African people were taken from their homes and to colonial America, where they were inhumanely enslaved and treated as property for centuries. The weight of this impact has left scars of institutionalized oppression and marginalization felt still today.
Lomax's 400: An Afrikan Epic tells this story through three distinct parts — the pre-colonial history of Afrika, the Ma'afa (a Kiswahili term meaning "great tragedy", referring in this context to the years between 1619-2019) and Afro-futurism, the latter envisioning what Blacks in America can heal toward in the coming 400 years.
"Everything that is Mark Lomax said 'Ahhh! 400,"' Lomax says via phone of how the concert's concept came to him. "And I called everybody I know — every creative, every academic, every anybody that's anybody. And I said, 'What are you doing? It's the 400'...As I continued to sketch ideas each movement then developed four distinct sections, which then evolved organically into four distinct albums per movement, which is how I got the 12 album cycle."
Having first premiered on Jan. 26 of this year — his 40th birthday — as part of Lomax's residency at Columbus's Wexner Center for the Arts, an hour-long excerpt from the suite will be performed in partnership with members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the Freedom Center this Sunday, Oct. 27, from 3-5 p.m. (Presented by CSO's Multicultural Awareness Council, Lomax is also recognized as a MAC Music Innovator.) A short Q&A session will follow the performance.
This project is work he has been striving toward his entire life. His first album, Tales of the Black Experience, is number nine in the 12-part cycle. And the second album, Song of the Dogon, stemmed from a piece that was commissioned by the Wex Center. But music has always been a part of his life.
Both of his parents worked at Virginia Tech when he was born. His mother led a gospel choir there; his father was the chaplain. As soon as he could walk, he says he was running toward the drum set; his mother tells him that he used to tap her ears and his own, already creating rhythms as a toddler.
"And by age six, I was playing in the church," he says. "By 12, I was professional; by 14, I was touring with gospel groups and starting to play Jazz, and I believe I wrote my first album when I was 18 and released it when I was 19 or 20."
Since Lomax has released a total of 40 albums, melding together elements from Jazz, Classical and Gospel. He has sought to create work that challenges audiences and generates conversation. An Afrikan Epic is no different in its end goal.
"The history of the narrative has been negative because of slavery, because of Jim Crow, lynching and the like. What happens when you begin to shift the narrative from a deficit-base to a strength-base that starts before slavery and you see slavery as at best a disruption in our history that goes back tens of thousands of years? You begin to see yourself as more than a slave — or more than a descendant of a slave — and then you begin to see yourself as having a future that's different from someone that had no path," he says. "So the relevance in 2019 is not a focus on the previous 400 years — 1619 to 2019 — in which there is death, destruction, oppression, repression — all that negative stuff — but on how you manifest the reality that you live in now. And for the next 400 years.
"So that's really what the work is about: shifting that narrative and changing the way we see ourselves and each other so the future is much better in the next 400 years than it has been in the past."
With several upcoming tour dates at colleges, Lomax says that he wants to engage young adults in a way that helps them understand that they have agency; he hopes they not only see their power early but before their understanding of the world has been made to conform. Ultimately, he hopes to encourage them to become transformative leaders in their communities.
For more info on 400: An Afrikan Epic visit marklomaxii.com/400-an-afrikan-epic. For more info on the concert at the Freedom Center, visit freedomcenter.org; the event is free to the public with the price of museum admission.