Two musicians, Alastair Moock, Williams class of 1995, and his friend and collaborator Reggie Harris play guitar, seated, on stage.

Opening Doors

Opening Doors

Alastair Moock ’95 is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter. He’s toured Europe and Asia, performed at the famed Newport Folk Festival, and shared stages with Arlo Guthrie and Taj Mahal. But to the elementary school students at a recent assembly in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Mass., he’s a guy playing a jaunty guitar tune and sharing this advice:

If you see something wrong, be a pain.

“Don’t be polite/ Raise your voice and do what’s right/ Be a pain!” he sings, paraphrasing into kid-speak the late Congressman John Lewis’ call to pursue “good trouble” for social justice.

The performance, in which he’s joined by Black folk singer, songwriter and storyteller Reggie Harris, is one aspect of Moock’s Opening Doors Project, an initiative co-founded in 2021 with producer Stacey Babb. The program uses musical performance and storytelling to encourage interracial conversations about race, gender and class. Moock, who is white, partners with an array of performers, most notably Harris, a longtime friend.

At educational concerts for children and public shows for adults, the performers share historical context and experiences from their own lives to encourage listeners to consider different perspectives. “We don’t see a lot of interracial conversations about race in the American landscape. Not really open, honest and vulnerable ones,” says Moock, who has been a folk performer for nearly 30 years.

Married to author Jane Roper ’96 and based in Melrose, Mass., he began composing music for children following the birth of their twins, Clio and Elm, in 2006. While teaching kids about social justice has long been part of his work, Moock says he didn’t fully appreciate how music could touch individual lives until his daughter Clio was diagnosed with leukemia as a 5-year-old.

His upbeat song and companion video with her, “When I Get Bald,” led to performances at hospitals from California to New Hampshire. The song appears on his 2013 Grammy-nominated album, Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids. Now 17, Clio is a thriving and healthy high schooler.

Black and white photograph of Alastair Moock, Williams class of 1995, seated on a chair on stage
Alastair Moock ’95, photo by Barry Schneier

Another turning point for Moock came in 2020. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer ignited nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black people, a group of children’s music performers, led predominantly by musicians of color, came together to find ways to center their experiences. Among other projects, the group produced an online children’s music concert series called Kukuza Fest. The first concert, in September 2020, featured performances by Black artists. In April 2021, the group highlighted performances by Black women.

As the projects developed, Moock reached out to Harris to discuss anti-racist efforts within family music and other genres. That led the pair to jointly create a school program, “Race and Song: A Musical Conversation.” Since they couldn’t visit schools during the early years of the Covid-19 pandemic, they recorded themselves having a frank conversation and wrapping it around songs they love.

In 2021, Moock launched an online concert and conversation series for adults, highlighting live music and discussions about race. Nationally recognized musicians including American songster Dom Flemons, country singer Rissi Palmer and classical violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins took part.

The Opening Doors Project came next, moving to in-person performances when Covid restrictions eased.

A typical school program covers a lot of territory. At the Dorchester school, the performance opened with the Rev. Robert Wesby’s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed on Freedom),” a Civil Rights-era anthem based on a popular spiritual. Harris asked, “How many people woke up here thinking about freedom today?” Then he played and discussed “Wade in the Water,” a song associated with the Underground Railroad.

Harris told the young audience about his family in Philadelphia. They had been part of the Great Migration of Black Americans who moved away from the South starting in 1910s to the 1970s, seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunity. He described trips to Virginia where he experienced “many of the indignities of the Black experience,” including segregated beaches and swimming pools, restaurants that excluded Black diners, and gas stations that made Black families wait in line while white families were served first.

Moock’s “Be a Pain” honors contributions from Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King and student survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting who launched a movement for gun control. “A key takeaway,” Moock says, “is that kids understand we’re talking about history because of the way history informs the present.”

When it comes to conversations across racial differences, Moock has learned a lot from extensive reading, his work with Harris and other performers, and insights from trusted mentors. But he readily admits he’s still learning. White families, he observes, “talk about race a lot less than Black and brown families. One of the privileges of being white is that the subject doesn’t come up nearly as often. So we’re not trained in how to have these conversations.”

Harris says Moock is “about as fearless an ally as anyone I know. He stirs things up and is willing to start ‘good trouble’ in situations of injustice.”

One example Harris cites: Moock declined his second Grammy nomination in 2020 for the album Be a Pain because all the nominees were white. He adds that Moock is “passionate but also continues to stretch and learn as he goes. He’s thoughtful and a good listener. He doesn’t try to speak for others.”

For his part, Moock hopes to bring Opening Doors concerts into more communities and expand the number of performers who can do school shows. He discovered early on, though, that the model is “rooted in deep trust,” which takes time to develop. Once it does, he believes, music and storytelling can open hearts and lead to change.

Andrea Cooper has written for The New York Times, Vogue, NPR and other national media outlets.

At top: Alastair Moock ’95 (left) and collaborator and friend Reggie Harris during an Opening Doors Project performance. Photograph provided.