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Smoke was still rising from Lake Street when Garrett McQueen started his shift hosting “Music Through the Night.” He settled into the Classical MPR studios, readied his notes and introduced a choral piece that mourns seven unarmed Black men killed during encounters with the police — setting to music the last words they uttered, gasped, pleaded, cried.

A piece of music meant for that moment. A piece that changed McQueen’s own life.

“Those were Eric Garner’s last words: ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” he told listeners across the country over a snippet of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” He paused. “As the protests continue here in the Twin Cities, those same words are being repeated in memory of George Floyd.”

His voice didn’t reveal that he was holding back tears — not only for Floyd’s family. Days after Floyd’s killing, a Black classical music host was playing a work by a Black composer centering the voices of Black men.

“It’s one thing for listeners, for the first time ever, to hear the voice of a Black person as it applies to these conversations in classical music,” he said later. “But for that to be centered in a piece of music that directly addresses police brutality is such a huge moment.”

The 33-year-old bassoonist turned radio host has long been calling for the conversation erupting in classical music around who plays — and gets played — in the concert hall and on the radio.

On his show, syndicated by St. Paul-based American Public Media (APM), and his podcast “Trilloquy,” McQueen spotlights Black composers and musicians, inviting them to tell their stories. He shakes up the typical repertoire, refusing to play pieces by “old, dead white men” who profited off the slave trade. He questions the very term “classical music,” prefacing it with “so-called.”

“Because of imperialism and white supremacy, that phrase ... sets the art music of western Europe on a higher pedestal,” he said. But other countries have centuries-old instrumental traditions that count as classic, he noted. “If you do that here in America, in my opinion, truly American classical music is the Negro spiritual. That is the music born purely from here.”

That conversation — about what music gets labeled “classical” and why — illustrates one of his main points: “You can’t talk about classical music without talking about race.”

Some listeners, who tend to be an older, whiter bunch, disagree. When McQueen wrote an essay this month about “the power (and complicity) of classical music,” pointing out Handel’s ties to the slave trade, they appeared in his inbox. “Why don’t you keep race and ranting out of classical music,” one note began.

But McQueen is unafraid.

Friends in this fight describe him both as a professional with a perfectionist streak and an agitator unbothered by the norms of classical music.

A Memphis native, he came to Minnesota two years ago to become host and producer of “Music Through the Night.” On his podcast and on Twitter, where he goes by Bassooncé, he’s become known for challenging the status quo — the Minnesota Orchestra included.

“He doesn’t care if you’re not comfortable,” said Scott Blankenship, a fellow APM classical announcer who co-hosts and coproduces the Trilloquy podcast. “That’s his charge — having people look at and deal with the uncomfortable issues that have been sidestepped or ignored for way too long.”

One of their early guests, composer and multi-instrumentalist deVon Russell Gray, said McQueen’s “influence on me was immediate. As soon as we finished the interview, he said, ‘Man, I really wish you had named names.’ ”

McQueen came to Minnesota “pretty bold and, if anything, has only gotten bolder,” Gray said. “He’s not letting this place soften him.”

His ‘authentic self’

Too “fabulous” for choir, McQueen joined band in seventh grade, taking up the bassoon.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in performance at the University of Memphis and a master’s at the University of Southern California. The plan was to move back to his hometown, become a teacher. Nabbing an orchestra spot felt as likely as making the NBA or winning the lottery. But an instructor encouraged him to audition.

“That bit of affirmation became the turning point of my education and my career,” McQueen said.

After a two-year fellowship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he won a permanent position with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, rare for a Black musician in a field still stubbornly white. African American musicians accounted for less than 2% of players in U.S. orchestras in 2014, according to the League of American Orchestras.

That performance background adds credibility to his criticism, said Lecolion Washington, a bassoonist and music school administrator with whom McQueen studied at Memphis. “He’s someone who has clearly shown he has the chops.”

While many Black classical musicians get assimilated into the system, then have to find their way out, McQueen “stayed true and kept his authentic self,” said Washington. “He stood up even in places in which the power dynamic was such that many people wouldn’t have.”

Four seasons in, Knoxville’s public radio station, WUOT-FM, reached out, looking for a sub for its afternoon classical music show. McQueen was tending bar to make extra money. Radio felt more relevant. For a while, he split his attention between the gigs.

But then he heard “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, and his calling became clearer.

It was at a concert in 2017. McQueen had performed earlier, then ran into the audience and found a seat. “I didn’t even grab a program, so I didn’t know what was about to happen.”

The piece begins with piano, a touch of violin.

Then, a swell of voices: “Officers, why do you have your guns out?”

Sitting in the hall, McQueen sobbed.

Going into battle

On a muggy, mid-June afternoon, he helped ready Blankenship’s basement studio. As Blankenship flipped off the fan and the fridge, McQueen adjusted his dreadlocks and his microphone, then pressed open his notebook.

There was a lot to cover.

“With Black artists, the tokenization has just multiplied,” he told Blankenship before they pressed record. “Let me write that down, so I don’t forget.”

Each week, the two prep, record, edit and publish a podcast featuring “true and real stories from the fringes of classical music,” as the tagline goes.

They met when McQueen took over Blankenship’s radio shift. McQueen was listening to a lot of podcasts while commuting via bus and train. (“Driving in the snow was not something I was interested in,” he laughed.) The podcast he wanted to hear didn’t exist. So they started “Trilloquy.”

“Trill” is both a musical term and a colloquial one, a combo of true and real. “If I can be extra trill,” McQueen likes to say, before posing a tough question or launching into a hot take.

Here, sipping Blankenship’s home-brewed beers, McQueen is as likely to profess his love for Beyoncé or Nas as Dmitri Shostakovich or William Grant Still. He quotes both Nina Simone and hip-hop’s N.W.A. (Yes, that lyric.)

There’s an odd couple quality to their early episodes. Blankenship is 50 years old, white, Nebraskan. A Steely Dan fan. They trust one another and check one another, modeling how to dig into issues around race with honesty and grace.

McQueen welcomes a knotty topic. Last year, he took the Minnesota Orchestra to task for programming Aaron Dworkin’s “The American Rhapsody,” which features the writings of George Washington. Clad in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, he left at intermission.

He invited orchestra violist Sam Bergman onto the podcast, and the two hashed it out. McQueen met, too, with an orchestra executive. “I felt, as an audience member, I was supposed to walk away forgiving George Washington for his proximity to American slavery,” he explained.

“We’ve had more conversations in the wake of that concert,” Bergman told him, “than just about any previous concert I can imagine.”

McQueen isn’t just agitating from the outside. He’s now a board member of the American Composers Forum and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

When the SPCO asked him to join, Gray remembers McQueen saying: “If I take the gig it’s mostly because I want to battle the Minnesota Orchestra.” Gray promised to go into battle beside him.

Feeling hopeful

As a Black man in an overwhelmingly white state and field, Gray knows well what McQueen is combating.

“It’s based in fear — people are afraid there’s not enough airwaves, not enough time,” he said. Before McQueen, Gray never listened to Classical MPR, “because they don’t program for the me’s of the world.”

But tuning into McQueen’s show makes him hopeful. “I hadn’t really realized what radio needs for that change to happen is to have folks like Garrett,” he said. “I have hopes that someday he will inspire others to take up that task and not just be on air ... but be running the stations.”

McQueen, too, sees reasons to be optimistic, though he hates that it took a man’s death. After the killing of Floyd, the Minnesota Orchestra cut its ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. “I’m not sure that orchestras would have done that six months ago, much less six years ago,” McQueen said.

On Juneteenth, a handful of Black composers, musicians and activists gathered in a Zoom room for a Composers Forum roundtable to discuss what’s changed and what hasn’t.

As usual, McQueen was direct. “You are complicit in racism every time you listen to Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” he said, noting that moral gray areas are only afforded to “old, dead white men.” Each time he spoke, the group nodded emphatically.

When another panelist mentioned a revolution, McQueen jumped onto that point and delivered a sermon.

“I agree that the revolution is happening. When I saw the police run from the Third Precinct in Minneapolis as it burned down, that reminded me Nat Turner and his crew taking over their overseers ... When I see Black folks with platforms who are telling the truth, I see the revolution ...

“The revolution is here ... The fire is burning. We have to make sure we keep the fire going.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna