Poster Julius Eastman
Composer and pianist Julius Eastman’s music challenged racist and homophobic stereotypes.
Ron Hammond
Rhapsody in Black

Julius Eastman composed music that challenged oppressive stereotypes

Rhapsody in Black - Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman’s personal philosophy was “to be what I am to the fullest — Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.”

He rose to prominence in the New York music community as a pianist and composer. His debut recital was mostly his own music and he also had a beautiful baritone voice. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see him perform with Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

Eastman’s music is brilliant, mischievous, sometimes irreverent and frequently challenging. Music he wrote in the 1970s is considered his most controversial. He created thought-provoking compositions that don't match the titles at all. Words like “crazy,” “dirty” and “evil,” followed by the worst slur for a Black person you can use. By leaning into stereotypes and slurs, he engaged questions of racism and homophobia head on.

While Eastman was unleashing his unabashed music to the world, his personal life began to spiral. His behavior became more and more unpredictable and erratic. Some suspected that drugs were involved, or perhaps it was the development of mental illness.

It’s impossible to know just how much music Eastman wrote, since most of it was literally thrown into the street when he, and all of his belongings, were evicted from his East Village apartment.

After living in homeless shelters and then drifting for some time, he died alone in a Buffalo hospital. Cardiac arrest was given as the cause of death.

Today, there's renewed interest in his music because of his views on music and its role in social justice.


Host: Vernon Neal

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher

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About Rhapsody in Black

Where we turn up the voices of Black artists in the world of classical music, with host Vernon Neal.

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About Rhapsody in Black