From scoring Pixar’s Soul to bandleading on The Late Show, Batiste is a fixture of American pop-culture. Now he wants his ‘social music’ to spark genuine political change
In June 2020, the composer and pianist Jon Batiste was on the move. During the week, he was scoring Pixar’s first Black-led feature, Soul, from his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he works as the bandleader for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. He was finishing the music for his eighth album, We Are, while also composing a 40-minute symphony that will be performed by more than 200 musicians at Carnegie Hall next May. And on the weekends, he would then assemble a group of fellow players and march on the streets of New York, singing songs such as We Shall Overcome and Down By the Riverside to protest about the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police.
“We were protesting to reaffirm our humanity,” a baritone-voiced Batiste says over a call from his New York home. “When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed, Black people started to feel like our value as human beings was being stripped away – and we needed to speak to that in our own way, through music.” On Juneteenth – the date that commemorates the emancipation of African-American enslaved people – Batiste’s marches came to a head as the 34-year-old led a crowd of more than 10,000 people to Brooklyn public library, only a day after police had clashed with other protesters in the area. “There was a lot of tension in the air, since people had just gotten nailed by the authorities, but we showed up and it was the songs that brought us together, rather than to fight,” he says. “That is the power of social music.”