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NEPM brings you our annual Spring Music Series focusing on New England musicians.

A Public Piano Sparks An Anthem For A Pandemic — And Another For George Floyd

In downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, inside an atrium near the corner of Main and Harrison, is a public piano. Shamari Stampp comes to it at least once a week. 

People use the passageway as a shortcut, and even in the pandemic, they stop and listen to him play.

Stampp said he loves this piano, and he loves music.

“I just love hearing the sounds,” he said. “I remember the first time I heard jazz, I was like three years old. I was in my parents' Maxima, and I just heard this song…”

As Stampp remembered that moment, he improvised a new piece. 

The 26-year-old musician grew up in Springfield hearing a lot of church music. With his high school friends, they are the hip-hop group Renaisset. As an artist, Stampp goes by the name Shamrok.

With another band, Stampp also plays jazz and R&B, and they were gigging at the MGM casino before the pandemic. Even with all this on his resumé, Stampp never formally studied music.

Playing by ear

“I know where [the key of] C is,” Stampp said, hitting the note on the piano. But even as he played them, Stampp said he doesn’t knows musical scales.

He starts to play Chick Corea’s "Spain," and explained how he doesn’t read musical notation. He listened to the piece, then figured out how to play the complex composition by ear.

At home (his brother is also in Renaisset and his sister sings) Stampp practices on an electric keyboard, coming regularly to the Main Street upright piano with other musicians to work on songs.

A positive pandemic moment

A few weeks ago, Stampp and musician Fabeyon Torres were at the piano, recording what they were doing, when Timothy Paul walked up, tapped Stampp on the elbow, and started singing what was on his mind. 

“Living in the C-O-V-I-D one-nine…” he began, continuing, “It's time for this thing to end.”

Paul is the pastor archbishop at the Christian Cathedral church in Springfield. Paul said the connection he and Stampp made was "divine." Nothing was rehearsed. 

“I felt him playing," Paul said. "I thought about the five funerals I’ve done. I thought about this whole pandemic. And so I just came out with 'living in C-O-V-I-D one-nine, anybody else?’ and the words began to flow.” 

On Twitter, a video of the duo has been viewed more than three million times.

Stampp and Paul have recorded a few studio versions of the song. Other DJs and musicians have done remixes, including Torres. Sony Music wants to publish the song, Paul said, and other companies like Unilever are interested in using it.

May 25, 2020

Two weeks after explaining that random moment, George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking hundreds of anti-racism and police brutality protests.

Growing up in Springfield, Stampp said he's had to deal with racism and he acknowledges his own bias against kids who look like him — black, he says, in hip-hop style with pants sagging. He code-switches when he needs to, depending, Stampp said, on who he’s talking to.

“My life, when I walk around, I kind of have it in my head subconsciously they might look at me a certain way. I try to change that narrative even by the way I speak,” Stampp said. “Obviously, the way I speak within my friends, we all have slang. But anytime I’m around others, I try to speak as professional as much as possible.”

With everyone, though, Stampp describes himself as a man of peace.

“There’s a lot going on right now. Some of this stuff is very depressing,” Stampp said. “It makes you want to be angry. It makes you want to riot, you know? But I feel like that's not the way to do it. So I've just been trying to find my way to speak my piece without doing anything reckless.”

Which brings Stampp back to music, and this week he and a couple of artist friends met up at the piano.

“Regarding George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and everything, I did a little tribute,” Stampp said. “I played a song called 'Wade in the Water,'” his take on the well-known spiritual.

The song may have come out of slavery, but it’s an uplifting melody, Stampp said, that we need right now.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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