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Anthony McGill, kneels, pleads and plays for justice / NPR Q&A

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When the story of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police began making news last week, Clarinetist Anthony McGill felt something roiling up inside him. The clarinetist, a veteran of the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras who now holds the principal clarinet chair at the New York Philharmonic - making him the first African American to hold a principal position in that 178-year-old ensemble - began to write down some thoughts. Then he grabbed his instrument.

On May 27, McGill posted a solo performance of "America the Beautiful" to Facebook. Tweaked achingly to a minor key, his rendition hovers in the air with a combination of beauty and sorrow. At the end of the short black-and-white video, he tucks his clarinet behind his back and sinks to his knees. In the accompanying statement, he challenges fellow musicians and Americans to shine a light on racism in their own way using the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees - which he says is a tribute to Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protests of police violence.

"The issue got clouded and disregarded and dismissed by so many people, because it was in the middle of a football game," McGill says. "And so I started writing about how people aren't allowed to protest. They're never allowed to protest quietly or loudly, and they're never allowed to protest peacefully either, because people always say you shouldn't be protesting. So part of what I talked about in my statement was this problem: When is it okay to protest? How about now?"

From his home in Riverdale, the Bronx, McGill spoke to NPR about creating the post, the responses it has inspired (including videos by the Met's principal trumpeter Billy Hunter and opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee), and why he believes even small gestures of protest can have a real effect.


This conversation, which was candid and not without its emotional moments, has been edited for clarity and length.