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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Honorable Music Lover

James Ginsburg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2018

Photo by Elliot Mandel Photography

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Honorable Music Lover

GRAMMY.com speaks to the late Supreme Court Justice's son, record producer and Cedille Records founder James Ginsburg, about his mother's famous love of opera

GRAMMYs/Oct 9, 2020 - 09:46 pm

Over the course of her illustrious career, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an icon in both history and popular culture. The second female to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, RBG was known for her gumption, her tenacity and her ability to turn both hearts and minds in the direction of compassion. Lovingly nicknamed "Notorious RBG" after rap artist Notorious B.I.G, the longstanding champion of women was also, however, known in closer circles as a great lover of music—opera in particular.

A sold-out speaker at Glimmerglass Opera Festival, organizer of Opera And The Law talks, and an avid supporter of numerous opera companies over the course of her lifetime, RBG was so fond of the genre that her children would create gifts revolving around opera in one form or another. In 2011, RBG’s son James "Jim" Ginsburg, record producer and founder of Cedille Records, and daughter Jane, a Columbia Law School professor, commissioned three opera songs to be written in their mother's honor for her 80th birthday in 2013. Several years later, to celebrate the 25 Year Anniversary of RBG’s appointment to the Supreme Court, James and his wife, composer/soprano Patrice Michaels, released an album entitled Notorious RBG In Song, which was released in June of 2018. Several individuals involved with this classical compendium, including James and Michaels, spoke with GRAMMY.com about RBG’s love of opera and the story behind the album.

"It all began with one song. I was one of three female composers who were each invited to write a song based on a text that was directly linked to Justice Ginsburg for her 80th birthday," Michaels tells us. Originally intended as a standalone song, Michaels became deeply inspired while premiering the three works in her mother-in-law’s honor. "I thought to myself, wow! This is such a beautiful way to glimpse some of the chapters in her life! I think I’d like to create a coherent chronology of those chapters in song." 

With RBG’s permission, Michaels went to work studying her mother-in-law’s personal materials in the Library of Congress. A good deal of research and many conversations with her biographers later, Michaels had the documents she wanted to set to music. At first, her intention was only to make an archival recording for herself. However, James was convinced that his wife’s song cycle needed to be heard. "My nosy husband had to poke his nose in and say ‘Oh, don’t you want me to come to the sessions?’ and it just grew from there."

Patrice Michaels, Brenda Rae, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, July 2017
Photo courtesy of the Ginsburg family

The final product, Notorious RBG In Song, features a collection of classical songs inspired by the beloved Supreme Court Justice herself. Opening with Michaels’ dynamic and thoughtfully researched 37-minute song cycle, The Long View: A Portrait Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg In Nine Songs, the album concludes with three other RBG-associated songs by women composers—Lori Laitman, Vivian Fung and Stacy Garrop—and an excerpt from the award-winning comedic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang. A rollercoaster of emotions, Notorious RBG In Song is full of both laugh-out-loud and tearful moments. For laughs, listeners should turn up the volume on "The Elevator Thief" and "You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution." For a good cry, turn to "Celia," a tribute to RBG’s mother, and Garrop’s contribution "My Dearest Ruth," the text of which is based on Marty Ginsburg’s final letter to his wife. "When performed live, there is not a dry eye in the house," James says of the latter two songs.

"The convoluted way in which [Justice Ginsburg] had to achieve her brilliant goals affected many people along the wayespecially women."
—Patrice Michaels, RBG’s daughter-in-law

Michaels' song cycle, the catalyst for the album itself, paints colorful micro-portraits of moments in RBG’s life that only those close to her knew about. When asked about their favorite songs in the cycle, Michaels and James have different answers. For Michaels, the one that comes to mind is song number nine, the last in the cycle, which encapsulates RBG’s attitude regarding the qualities a president should look for in a Supreme Court Justice. "It was already very poignant for me to write, and now I don’t know if I’ll be able to even think about it without crying," Michaels shares. As for James, he has a special fondness for "On Working Together," which is told through the eyes of his father. "I hear my father’s voice and humor captured so perfectly in that song," he reflects. The song he speaks of, which happens to be the subject of the 2018 Hollywood film On The Basis of Sex, looks back on the only legal case Ruth and Martin Ginsburg worked on together. "Any remembrances of Dad are greatly appreciated, and music can do it in a way that nothing else can."

When asked if his mother’s love of music had an impact on him becoming a classical record producer, James immediately replies, "Oh most certainly, yes." The Ginsburg household was a musical one, featuring a piano that RBG would play, a record player and a very large vinyl collection. "There was always music playing in the house," he recalls. "We had all of the classical greatest hits, and by age seven, I was already collecting my own LPs." In addition to the household music scene, Ruth and Marty also exposed their children to music outside the home. "Growing up they would take me to orchestras, including the Young People’s Concerts of the NY Philharmonic, which, back then, Michael Tilson Thomas was conducting," Ginsburg recalls. Within no time, young James was taking in the Metropolitan Opera with the same enthusiasm as his parents.

Jane Ginsburg as DJ for University of Chicago’s campus radio station 
Photo courtesy of the Ginsburg family

Upon receiving praise for her heavy research and attention to detail composing The Long View, Michaels immediately gives credit to the Ginsburg family. "Well, think about what family I’m living in!" she remarks with a laugh. "If there’s anybody that brings out this attention to detail and real consideration of bringing your best effort to everything, it would be these people. It was a great gift for me to marry into that attitude." Equally humble are composers Derrick Wang and Stacy Garrop, both of whom also spoke with GRAMMY.com. Wang, whose opera was inspired by the true story of Justice Ginsburg’s and Justice Scalia’s unlikely friendship, was moved by the Justices' shared love of opera when he began the project. "In giving me her blessing to share her friendship with Justice Scalia through the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg changed my life—and I am deeply grateful to have been a part of hers."

As for Garrop, she had one of the most challenging tasks of all: setting Marty Ginsburg’s final letter to his wife to music. "It’s a beautiful love letter from a husband with late-stage cancer to his wife. How could I write something so personal without meeting him?" Garrop remembers thinking. But James had an idea of how Garrop could, in fact, get to know his father. "Jim gave me a cookbook, Chef Supreme, which was created by the associate spouses of the Supreme Court." The cookbook, which had numerous memories and personal accounts about Marty in between the recipes, was exactly what she needed to get a sense of his character. "It was clear what a warm, caring person he was—that there was always a glimmer in his eye."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg with husband Martin Ginsburg in 1998
Photo by Annie Groer/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world."
—Marty Ginsburg, "My Dearest Ruth," 2010

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was truly passionate about bridging the gap between the music world and the legal world, bringing law to the attention of musicians and bringing opera to the attention of lawmakers and judges. In addition to her Opera And The Law talks, which she gave at opera festivals and classical radio stations like Chicago’s WFMT, RBG would bring opera to the courts as well. "She was instrumental in the growth of the song cycle. As Patrice was writing these songs, one-by-one mom would find unexpected occasions for where to premiere them, like at the Second Circuit Judicial Conference," James says, chuckling. Patrice adds, "If anyone had told me 20 years ago that I would be singing for a bunch of lawyers at a judicial conference I’d have said, ‘Really?!'" 

Similarly, Derrick Wang was invited to present excerpts from his opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, at the Supreme Court in June of 2013. "It was an honor…and afterward, I got to visit [her] chambers where she and I had a very enjoyable chat about opera and constitutional law," Wang recalls of his first experience meeting RBG. Later, RBG presented further opportunities for Wang to share his opera in unexpected settings, including at the Library of Congress.

"When I am at an opera, I get totally carried away. I don’t think about the case next week or the brief that I am in the middle of. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, the drama. The sound of the human voice is like an electric current going through me."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, CNN Films, 2018

Over the course of her lifetime, RBG emboldened and empowered women and men across the nation to stand up to gender inequality. Meanwhile, she herself was emboldened and empowered by music. One lesson that all music enthusiasts can take from RBG is that we should allow ourselves to escape from work and into music because it will, in turn, help us thrive. "Mom always talked about how well music—opera—could take her out of her work," James explains. "Her mind was always on her next brief or argument or dissent, but opera would take her out of that." At the same time, RBG’s relationship with opera reconciled some of the empathetic responses generated by her work by giving her room to empathize with the characters through music. "It brings to mind a Peter Sellars quote," Michaels adds with a smile in her voice. "Opera is really about justice; people seeking justice in their own personal relationships, and people seeking justice in the larger world."

How the Loss of Justice Ginsburg Impacts Music Creators

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."