Daniel Bernard Roumain, also known as DBR, is a fascinating character. He’s a violinist who accompanies Hip Hop artists and a composer who incorporates elements of classical, jazz, rap, and rock into his music. He’s also a social activist.
Back in May, I spent time with Daniel filming a State of the Arts feature for our first show of the new season, premiering Wednesday, September 13. He’s the New Jersey Symphony’s first “resident artistic catalyst,” a title that needs some explanation. As the Symphony’s music director Xian Zhang told me, “Daniel has strong beliefs in diversity, inclusion and equity, he has very strong beliefs, and is not shy about speaking about it, and that is great!” Social activism is central to his role, as DBR puts it: “We are looking at diversity, we are looking at equity, we are looking at what is the role orchestral musicians can play in healing a community.”
DBR performs with the New Jersey Symphony, curates chamber music concerts at the Newark Museum and other venues around the state, and holds masterclasses for local kids. He also creates new music for the Symphony. In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic and at the height of protests around the murder of George Floyd, DBR wrote I am a white person who _____ Black people. The blank space asks listeners to think about how they truly feel about Black people. The title inspired some hateful messages on social media. He wrote the piece in rage, he told me. The music is intense, percussive and angular at times, and deeply affecting. A stunning filmed version of I am a white person who _____ Black people produced by DreamPlay Films is available online.
DBR’s latest work, Farah, which premiered in May 2023, springs from a wholly different place. “It’s about forgiveness,” Daniel told me. Farah is the Arabic word for joy. The work is for soprano and orchestra and begins with the line, “Remember me a Black girl named for Joy.” The lyrics celebrate the beauty and struggles of a Black woman in America, and the music is tender and deeply moving. You’ll hear excerpts of Farah in our upcoming State of the Arts feature.
The New Jersey Symphony is a cultural gem with a long history of innovation and inclusion. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was the first major American orchestra to have a Black music director, Henry Lewis. The orchestra now has a special fellowship program for early-career Black and/or Latinx musicians and two fellows play with the orchestra for a whole season. DBR’s work builds on this tradition.
Like many other performing arts groups, the Symphony faces serious financial challenges coming out of the pandemic. Attendance numbers haven’t rebounded, the case for most orchestra, opera and ballet companies across the country. I can think of no better reason to venture back to the concert hall than to meet Daniel Bernard Roumain and hear one of his provocative, relevant, inspiring, and beautiful compositions.
Meet DBR on our upcoming season premiere of State of the Arts. See it on local PBS stations NJ PBS, WNET and ALL ARTS, and pbs.org starting September 13!
State of the Arts