Essay of the Week: “Blending Mozart, Lamar, NWA and Vivaldi”

 By: Zoe Hopkins

I opened my bedroom window and let the Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro pour out onto the street. I began humming the first punchy lines, as I have so many times since my Mom introduced me to Classical music on road trips during my childhood. The opera recalls idyllic moments from my life: driving through the Catskills, sitting on the Great Lawn in Central Park for the New York Philharmonic’s summer concerts, or cooking breakfast on a Sunday morning. But, to most people’s surprise, the artist adjacent to Mozart in my music library is Kendrick Lamar. Almost as often as I wander amongst the melodies of concertos, symphonies, and arias, I nod my head to the rhapsodic beats of rap music. I listen, almost reverently, to the charged verses about the black experience in Compton and Chicago, and find myself grounded in the reality of American race relations.

It’s a dichotomy that confuses most people, and used to confuse me. “Zoë thinks she knows rap because she knows a couple of bars of Logic,” joke my friends, “but we all know she listens to Mozart.” What is perceived as a conflict within my taste in music is largely driven by an expectation of what black girls are supposed to listen to. When people see the melanin in my skin, they don’t expect to hear Vivaldi, Corelli, or Rachmaninoff playing in my earphones. And it might not be entirely expected that I listen to rap music, given the predominantly white environment of my Upper East Side high school.

Three years ago, when I started listening to rap, I tried to eschew Classical music, convinced that the two genres simply couldn’t coexist. In embracing this one part of my black identity, I thought, I had to shun the part of my identity that seemed so wildly un-black.

But more recently, I’ve come to reconcile this “conflict.” My knowledge of the two genres has given me fluency in two different tongues. Classical music connects me to the past and to the European tradition, the study of which I have developed a love for. Meanwhile, rap connects me to the more present narrative of the strife for justice and equality, one that relates to my experience within the context of contemporary black culture and politics.

Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, which emerged as the black national anthem of my generation shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, ignited my passion for rap music. The liberating and empowering song lyrics were seemingly ubiquitous:  I heard them played blasting from cars, at protests broadcast on the news, and while spending time with my friends. In unexpectedly beautiful ways, Alright and other politically charged rap music forces me to think about and confront the pain of race relations, no matter how uncomfortable it may make me. Within and beyond my school community, I have grown into a constant advocate for social justice: going to protests, tutoring under resourced kids of color, and engaging peers in honest and eye-opening conversations about race. Rap music, while it may project a certain drama on the surface, has also been a tool of introspection for me. It is an outlet through which I can contemplate hope for the future. As J. Cole wrote “My intuition is telling me there’ll be better days…I sit in silence and find whenever I meditate/My fears alleviate, my tears evaporate/My faith don’t deviate, ideas don’t have a date.”

As a strong voice in my school’s conversations on race relations, I use the traditional, ordered style of Classical music to communicate my thoughts in a way that students and teachers alike find approachable. My sensible speech is like the measured, graceful rhythms of a Brahms overture. But at the same time, I keep the rhetoric and message of rap music in mind, trying to remain authentic to the topic itself. To forgo this language would devalue the community from which it sprang, and devalue my arguments along with it. During a conversation in my school’s Political Awareness club, I cited an NWA song as primary source to underscore my point about the history of injustice in the so-called criminal justice system.

While my music taste at first glance seems an abnormal amalgam of two disparate genres, it empowers to express myself more completely through two different languages. Rather than being mutually exclusive parts of who I am, I have found that they can peacefully coexist.


Zoe Hopkins, a 2018 graduate of The Brearley School, just completed her first semester at Harvard University.