An Editorial by Melvin Twigg Mason

What is it about jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor” that so captivates me?

The iconic 1970 tune, written by Duke Pearson (“Chili Peppers,” “Jeannine“), seems to capture the soul of how it feels to be Black in America. Though Pearson attributed this work to his being inspired by the Brazilian statue of the same name, what his friend Byrd ultimately renders is a heart-wrenching, soul-stirring instrumental declaration of angst and longing. I reason this to be true because of the ways the song has largely been used. It is the music bed for such media as civil rights documentaries, season 1 of Luke Cage (Marvel’s Black antihero), and even Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” movie. It is the backdrop and the soundtrack to this country’s racial divide.

When I hear the opening hum of the singers, I see in my mind’s eye the back-breaking work of the Negro cotton pickers and people of color (POC) builders of America. As I listen to the plinking of the piano, I hear the clink-clank of their hammers and pick axes, and the cutting sweeps of their harvesting sickles. The wails of the female vocalists remind me of the moans of a people desperate to be free.

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham on May 3, 1963. Photo credit: New York Times.

The song goes on, and Byrd’s trumpet begins to tell the story of our struggle to be fairly treated, while my mind envisions scenes of dogs biting and hoses spraying, of dark backs with torn shirts and tight pants racing through thick, muddy bogs in the dead of night, praying not to be seen or heard.

Then the brief refrain of hope is finally heard, and I think of the comfort of Mama’s cooking, or her tucking me safely into my bed at night, which provides a short respite from the ongoing struggle, until the next day’s wickedness quickly dawns.

The whole song, though sad and unrelenting, arguably serves to galvanize a beleaguered people. All POC feel the same struggle, though perhaps experienced in slightly different ways. To me, this is our song of truth-telling, of demon-facing—and much like the killing of George Floyd bonded people all over the world, every time I hear Cristo Redentor I feel bonded to my Black brothers and sisters in a call to action. What action I don’t exactly know, but every time I hear it I feel like I need to DO something. But like the song when it ebbs, I too recede into the chains” of living with racism and await the next sound of hope.

I’ve noticed that the song has no abrupt ending—it just fades off into the audible distance, retracing its themes of pain and struggle and brief reprieve. I pray that Duke Pearson’s tribute to a Savior’s statue will not end up being the ongoing sound of being Black in America.