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Meet the composer behind 'X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X'

A portrait of composer Anthony Davis wearing a blue sweater and a leather jacket.
Emil Moffatt
Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Davis drew on several musical styles, including jazz, in composing the music for "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X"

A 40-year-old opera about the life of Civil Rights leader Malcom X, has made a comeback

X: The life and Times of Malcom X recently had a run at the Metropolitan Opera and starting Saturday, it will be performed at the Seattle Opera.

The opera’s Pulitzer Prize winning composer Anthony Davis recently visited the KNKX studios to talk about why the opera has become popular after all these years. Davis’ first exposure to Malcolm X came at the height of his influence in the 1960s.

“He was almost like a dangerous figure when I was a teenager,” Davis said. “I was very excited and interested in his message”

But the life of Malcolm X was cut short. He was murdered in 1965 after he’d left the Nation of Islam and formed his own organization

Davis was still a teenager at the time, pursuing a career in music. He played classical music on the piano. But his father’s jazz collection also caught his attention.

In the 1980s, Davis’ brother Christopher came to him with the idea of creating a musical based on Malcolm X’s life. Davis took it one step further.

Actors from the opera "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" stand on stage during a rehersal
Sunny Martini
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, center) with dancers (from left) Cordé Young, Jay Staten, Dorse Brown, Rex Walker (Young Malcolm), and Christopher Jackson at a staging rehearsal for "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at Seattle Opera.

“I felt that it was really a story of a tragic hero,” said Davis, “So it should be done as an opera”

Davis would compose the opera, his brother Christopher would be the author and their cousin, Thulani would be the librettist. They set out to capture a particular time in American history, with Davis drawing on his classical and jazz influences.

“I thought it became kind of natural for me to combine the idea of improvisation and music from the African-American influence and [my] experience with classical music and this was sort of the genesis of my conception of opera, was merging those two,” Davis said.

X: The life and Times of Malcom X consists of scenes from different parts of Malcolm X’s life, including his time in Boston, running with some unsavory characters, something that eventually landed him behind bars.

“I intentionally tried to make the music so that in the Boston scene you feel like you can understand the attraction, you understand how someone could gravitate towards something like that,” Davis said.

The opera also features scenes depicting the chanting of prisoners and Malcolm X’s first exposure to Islam.

“How liberating that must have felt for him at the time,” Davis said.

While this opera was critically well-received when it made its debut in the 1980s, it wasn’t seen by a lot of people. The country, it seemed, wasn’t ready to hear Malcolm X’s story. Then things began to change, Davis said, after the 2020 social justice movement.

“You can't imagine Black Lives Matter or any of the movements today without Malcolm X. Malcolm X was a visionary, because he looked at the Civil Rights issue as also a human rights issue."
Anthony Davis

Last November, 40 years after X was created, it was performed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and Davis became just the second Black composer whose work was featured there

Davis said he revisited the opera during the pandemic and had the chance to make some slight adjustments to what he created four decades ago.

“What I discovered looking at the opera again was the idea that the inspiration that was behind it, and being true to that,” said Davis. “I was like 34 when I completed X so, you know, what that 34-year-old me was thinking about the time, and so being true to that.”

“But also trying to clarify things that maybe weren't as clear when I was in my 30s is that would be now," Davis continued. "I actually wrote an additional scene that was done with Malcolm and Betty that was not in the original production.”

That scene – a conversation between Malcolm X and his wife Betty, is one of the few alterations to the original opera. A piece of work that’s at last, reaching a wider audience.

“I think that it [the opera] still goes through the whole Malcolm story as a kind of Odyssey that you can experience,” Davis said. “And you're introduced to a really different world and different world’s perspectives, too, as Malcolm's views of the world change and we're transformed”

X: The life and Times of Malcom X, presented by the Seattle Opera, runs Saturday through March 9 at McCaw Hall.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at