Picture a concert pianist and your mind will probably conjure the image of a coat-and-tails-clad performer such as Leif Ove Andsnes, Claudio Arrau or even Victor Borge, who played piano for laughs but wore formal attire.
BLKBOK, aka Charles Wilson III from Detroit, sports a ball cap and tattoos. Jewelry adorns his neck and his fingers, which move on the keys with painted nails. But what really sets him apart are the sounds and connections he can produce with a piano.
"There is this air of elitism," BLKBOK says. "My idea, and I know the classical community will not like me forever for saying this, is to turn everything that the classical community holds so tight completely on its head. The stuffiness, the elitism and the points where you're supposed to clap — don't go with that. There should be an entrance ramp for people who want to explore this type of music to explore their own emotions."
BLKBOK uses the piano to express sentiments that have gone unaddressed in classical piano standards, in ways that don't alter the piano's natural sound, on albums including his latest collection of original songs called Black Book DLUX and in live shows like the one scheduled for Saturday, July 23, at the Meyerson Symphony Center on his Mixtapes X Counterpoint Tour.
"The thing about having music with no words is it allows the listener to have their own experience, and I think the part that's missing from classical music is allowing everyone to have that space," BLKBOK says. "Cynicism and racism, it still continues to be a fight. The thing that's wonderful is I'm always down for a fight. They're not gonna make me fold. I know who I am, what I am and what I want to bring to people and to me. That's more important than anything they could ever say about me."
BLKBOK says he started playing piano at 4 and graduated to classical music studies at 16. He experimented and explored his voice in jazz and hip-hop, performing with big names such as Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and Demi Lovato and with Cirque de Soleil's Michael Jackson Immortal show. Then, in 2014, when the Cirque de Soleil tour came to an end, he sunk into a deep depression that lasted two years. Icons + Giants record label producer Billy Mann suggested he explore the possibility of a solo piano album, and BLKBOK was born.
"It was one big experiment and, luckily, the experiment is going well," he says.
BLKBOK says he discovered he could write classical music that fit his voice and style and could also be "accountable" to himself and his audience.
"I never knew what accountability to an audience meant until I was in a workshop where people were expecting daily music from me," BLKBOK says. "I learned how to have a functional working creative practice. I hired [author Seth Godin] to teach me how to get a working creative practice and a working creative voice. More than anything, a lot of people believe you wait until the muse hits you and you do something. What I've discovered is you work and then the music finds you and you get that inspiration. The work comes first."
He spent 100 days in 2020 developing songs and sounds for his first Black Book album. Then, on the 101st day, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, 46, by suffocation while pinning Floyd's neck to the street with his knee. Three other officers guarded the scene and did nothing to stop Chauvin from pinning Floyd down with the full weight of his body for 9 minutes, 29 seconds. This tragic stain on America's history sparked national outrage and a newfound sense of rage in BLKBOK's music. He composed "George Floyd & The Struggle for Equality," which is punctuated by the stirring words of a poem written and recited by Lauren Delapenha.
"At the beginning of the piece, I'm literally banging on the keyboard," BLKBOK says. "It's just raw emotion, and I will say that piece took more emotion because it was happening day by day in pieces. I'll be angry, then kind of sad, and the next day I'm three times as angry because this anger wells up. And in between, there are moments of sorrow and reflection. The whole idea is that the ending of the piece is most important, which is hope. It ends with the theme from 'We Shall Overcome.'"
Every track on BLKBOK's album is personal on some level, as all great music should be. His song "In Memory Of" explores the two years of depression he endured, a struggle that led to the creation of his piano persona.
"That piece really speaks to that time in my life, but the beauty is in the last chord," BLKBOK says. "It sounds like sunshine comes out. It was a journey, and I completed it, and at the end of that journey, there was light and sunshine."
BLKBOK was born only a few years ago, so in the span of Williams' musical career he's got a lot of time and ground in front of him to help grow the rising wave of neoclassical expression into a powerful art force. He says what he relishes most is the challenge to reach more people with his piano.
"The real challenge for me is to connect more, to connect deeper," he says. "There's always a bit of a discovery when I find out how deeply I can connect with other people."
It's a challenge without a clear finish line, but a recent encounter he recalls following a performance in his hometown of Detroit shows him that he's got a good head start.
"This lady introduced me to her four kids, who were all piano students," BLKBOK says. "The littlest one walked up to me and just looked up and stared. He couldn't believe I just performed the way I had done. It was one of the most touching moments. I'm just, wow, I'm that person responsible for inspiring him. It's a good thing to pay it forward and see that in real life, someone can have appreciation, and I hope it carries them into an amazing career like the one I have had."
BLKBOK performs at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 23, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Tickets, available online, start at $26.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune,Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.