PaviElle French was only 5 years old when she sang in front of an audience for the first time. It was at Maxfield Elementary School, in the heart of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where his mother, musician Zula Young, worked as a teacher.
“I remember singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, you know, the black national anthem, and the applause was so great at that moment,” French recalled. “My mom was beaming with pride and I thought, wow, this was for me!”
A few years after that promising start, she performed for Maya Angelou at St. Mary’s Basilica with the City Songs youth choir (she remembers Angelou turning around and blowing her a kiss) and received a scholarship for studying piano and voice at Walker West Academy, where she learned from one of the school’s founders, Grant West.
Looking back now, French realizes how instrumental those early opportunities were to his artistic journey. Now 37, she has been performing for over 30 years and has established herself in the Twin Cities as a powerhouse singer, poignant songwriter, respected entertainer and actress, and aspiring songwriter.
This summer, it comes full circle with an audacious and unprecedented series of concerts and workshops for young people. She will kick off on Sunday with the premiere of her latest composition, The SOVEREIGN Suite, commissioned by the Schubert Club. She will be accompanied at the Fitzgerald Theater by musicians who have supported her throughout her career and a string ensemble from her alma mater, Walker West.
“I’ve always held Walker West near and dear to my heart,” she said over dinner between rehearsals. The SOVEREIGN sequel is inspired in part by French’s own experiences growing up in Rondo’s rich black cultural community and her hope for the generations to come behind her.
“I wanted the kids to be able to play in there because I’m talking about the kids in this room,” she said. “And I wanted to have that extension where I come from.”
The commission builds on French’s powerful and poignant album “SOVEREIGN,” which she self-released last fall. In songs like “Hard Truths”, “Rights” and “Code Switch”, she easily switches between soul, jazz and hip-hop, and takes an unflinching look at the racism and oppression she faces. as a black woman navigating predominantly white art. community in the twin cities.
“I’m tired of being used and symbolized,” she said with a sigh. She sees her summer residency, which she calls “Liberation! Lifting Up Our Youth,” as a way to reinvent how white-led organizations can collaborate with black artists — and how her own funding can be fed back directly into the community that has supported artists like her.
The residency is a unique collaboration between seven different cultural organizations. French came up with the idea for “Liberation” while meeting with the American Composers Forum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Schubert Club in late 2020, while simultaneously learning that she had been awarded the prestigious Artist Fellowship. Jerome Hill for 2021-22.
At this meeting, she shared her vision for hosting a residency that would not only allow her to unveil ambitious, genre-expanding new works, but to organically collaborate with three arts organizations she believes in – Walker West, the prince inspired the Purple Playground youth music camp and the spoken word and hip-hop incubator TruArtSpeaks. Each receives seed money from French to fund their work, and students in each of the three programs will receive free tickets to their performances this summer in addition to having the opportunity to collaborate directly with French in workshops and concerts.
She said the past two years of pandemic-fueled social upheaval has helped clarify her mission.
“Especially with the racial unrest, and the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all these things that keep happening here, I was like, there’s gotta be something we’re doing that’s not just me coming in in the community and put on a show,” she said. “Because babies can’t eat art, you know?”
French hopes to facilitate conversations with students in addition to collaborating artistically with them.
“I want to have a real dialogue with babies of all ranges, from elementary school, middle school through high school, all the way to adulthood,” she said. “I want to assess their thoughts and understand what they’re feeling and thinking right now in our cities. Because no one is really talking to them and giving them the opportunity to be heard.”
In addition to completing his own new compositions, French is also working closely with the American Composers Forum to create programs that may help other artists replicate this type of work with young people in the future.
“These big organizations always want to do something new, something to reinvent the wheel, but people are already doing the work,” French said. “No matter how you want to present yourself as an expert in the room, you are not. And so the best way to give is through the resources you have.
“To be able to launch this residency and have these young people all meet, come to one of my shows, be able to hang out together and be able to connect with the real people who run these programs for additional resources for additional financial assistance – I think that could very well change the way these organizations launch these residencies with artists,” she said.
French’s residency lasted a year and a half, but she said it was actually the culmination of her decades of creative evolution.
“I’m coming into my true nature,” she says. “As black people, we have been fighting for so many things for so long. And we can do it – we can build a life of healing from atrocities and do something different, so that our daily lives are not flooded with racism and classism.
“COVID has taught me a lot about self-reliance, and I’m in a different spirit now,” she said. “I feel like I’m starting not only my work, but how serious and real I am about the release.”
PaviElle French and Friends debuts The SOVEREIGN Suite
7:30 p.m. May 22, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul, $27.50-$32.50, all ages.
PaviElle French and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra debut Sands of Time
8 p.m. June 10, 8 p.m. June 11, 2 p.m. June 12, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul, sold out.