Author: Nebal Maysaud

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

A photo of a skeleton with left arm raised so that the left hand is close to the mouth

Introduction

There comes a point in some abusive relationships where the victim wakes up out of their Stockholm syndrome and learns that they need to plan an escape. As you communicate with others and you get a taste of freedom, you learn that the force you thought was protecting you is in truth keeping you in danger.

For those who haven’t encountered abusive relationships, you may support the abuser, or wonder why the victim doesn’t just leave. But you don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where you can’t tell truth from myth.

For the victims who aren’t ready, you may have an urge to push away those of us seeking to help you and stay with your abuser, believing them to be a source of protection.

Unfortunately, not everyone can escape. But having the knowledge that your abuser is an abuser itself can be freeing. It can help you find the next step in your journey towards liberation. But you need a community to fall back on. You need people to talk to so that they can keep you safe, so that they can help you understand the truth, and so that they can teach you the abuser’s techniques and how to fight them.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

Classical Music is Inherently Racist

In my previous articles, I laid out my experiences and reasoning for coming to this conclusion. I started with “Am I Not a Minority?” to explain the everyday racism people of color experience and how it manifests on an institutional level. If you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to explore how institutions uphold their power by choosing which minorities to give access to.

The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly white–occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.

And that led me to my second article, “Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy“–a personal history of isolation and colonization, of how Western classical music participates in the act of destroying culture and replaces it with its own white supremacist narrative.

Finally, I shared my attempts at reviving my culture and my tradition, along with the barriers I faced on this journey. My third article, “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way,” chronicles the difficulties (and the near impossibility) of engaging with my own cultural musical practices in a proper, authentic way.

From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.

A screenshot of an Instagram image from @Nikyatu with the caption "Diversity panels be like:". The image shows a series of folders and in front of it is a label that reads "TRUSTWORTHY WHITEStm 40 of our best whites"

What to Do About Our Love for Classical Music?

It’s not uncommon to love your abuser. I know the experience, and can understand how hard it is to leave. Despite all that classical music has done to me, I still can’t help but marvel at the religious splendor of Bach’s works for organ. Nor can I help but weep at Tchaikovsky’s raw expressive power.

I will forever love my favorite composers. It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time. I am not making a judgment call on specific works in the canon, but instead their function in modern classical music institutions

It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time.

And there is still the question of what to do about the skills these composers taught us.

I would like to return to the analogy of the abusive relationship.

Many of us have learned a lot from our abusers. Some abusers are even our parents. Their abuse can follow you wherever you go, and escaping them entirely may be impossible. Whether we like it or not, we are forever changed by our abuse.

This abuse can appear as a scar. We will need each other to heal from the trauma. But we also need to survive and nurture the spirit which requires us to create.

While most composers of color are responding to a calling, that calling is to create artwork in our own voices not to behold ourselves to the social construct of Western classical music.

We can do that using the tools we learned as classical composers without contributing to our own abuse. As I shared in my previous article, we can get to a better understanding of our own cultural traditions little by little if we just start exploring.

In order to leave our abusive relationship, we need a community.

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Western classical music depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers are by playing the game of these institutions.

It’s time for us to recognize that engaging with these institutions, that contributing to the belief that our participation in composer diversity initiatives is doing anything to reshape the institution of classical music, and that classical music is an agent of cultural change instead of a placeholder to prevent composers of color from forming our own cultures, is ultimately furthering colonization and prevents us from creating artwork capable of real, genuine expression.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine. Instead, I want to create music for my community. Instead of contributing to white culture and helping them erase my own narrative, I want to use my ability to create art to keep my culture alive.

As long as people of color are making art, culture stays alive.

This mission is entirely against the nature of white supremacy, which seeks to replace non-white cultures with their own fantasies. Therefore, I will not find support in this endeavor.

Let’s Create Art for Our Own Communities

My fellow musicians of color, we need each other. While I wish to break away completely from this system that I have poured my soul into only to be diagnosed with PTSD in return, I admit that we can never fully break from classical music as long as capitalism exists.

White gatekeepers still control funding. And we are fortunate enough to have a few allies in these positions. We will need to cooperate in order to stay afloat. It is possible to engage without inflicting cultural harm. Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

But while we’re getting our funding, we need to create our own communities. We need to find each other and make music together. We need to ally ourselves with artists from all walks of life in order to create the cultures whiteness has tried to take from us.

We have a massive task ahead of us. It’s not easy to connect ourselves, much less to connect our art and experiences to our own communities. But I believe that we were called to music for that purpose, not to entertain elite guests.

What Does a Post-Classical Community Look Like?

I am not advocating for the formation of a formalized group. Formalizing ourselves runs the risk of trapping ourselves within the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s essentially using the tools of our oppressors to try to liberate ourselves. Instead, we need to look at how our cultures have historically gathered, and use active decolonization as a larger community to decide how we want to organize ourselves.

I have no clue what that coalition will look like. If it were possible for one individual to organize it, it would have been done already. But as the creative minds of our generation, I am sure we can find a solution so long as we start the conversation with the belief that a future free from the constraints of classical music is possible.

Imagining a Post-Classical World

Instead of stealing from other cultures to create a facade of white supremacy, cultures from around the world are able to present the endless beauty and infinite histories of our traditions.

This freedom will extend to everyone, including white musicians who will be more prepared to handle the traditional music and practices of their own ancestors. White musicians will come to realize that they have given up a lot to be white, and that they have a culture too that they can explore. White composers can spend time analyzing their own history and influences on that history – i.e. Gregorian chants and their influence from the Middle East; Pagan and other minority religions; minority histories within Europe; or traditional Celtic, Greek, and Italian music. A lot of has been explored in European tradition, but since the Romantic era, too many works have been explored from the belief that white Western culture is superior to all others. Abandoning this vantage point can lead white composers to explore a more nuanced, more accurate history than the one presented to us.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures, they can go back to the point before they came to be known as white and collaborate with other composers to explore a more accurate history and culture of their own people.

This community, this coalition based on ideology, will be run as it always has: not by the ones with the most institutional power, but those with the least. We will no longer depend on white elites to fund diversity initiatives and hope it trickles down. Instead, we will be guided by the belief that when our most oppressed are liberated, we are all liberated.

I am referring specifically to LGBT+ Black women, who manage to successfully create these spaces every day. Everything I have learned about social justice is rooted in Black liberation work by LGBT+ Black women, and it is time that we as non-Black people of color and other allies recognize that our liberation will not come without theirs.

My Plan

I have pondered on how to bring this community to fruition. It is something I have struggled with, and I want to share ways I am personally and professionally mitigating it.

Not much action needs to change upon this realization. I am still accepting commissions and am still looking for a future learning with other composers and even applying to graduate school.

By knowing how Western classical music treats me and composers like me, I do not want to limit myself and my opportunities, and I don’t think I have to. I believe you can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

You can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

I have gotten through the cognitive dissonance of calling for a break from classical institutions and working with them through viewing myself as someone who is outside of their system and viewing other gatekeepers in classical music not as friends or peers, but as clients who can help me in my career.

This way, I get what I need from them to further my career without putting myself in danger.

This way of thinking is a stark departure from a practice of making your clients your best friends. Many of the musicians I know interact with no one else but their circle of colleagues. I personally find that practice to be a way of implicitly making people of color feel unsafe and unwelcome. By keeping my distance, I not only keep my mental health under control, but I also get the chance to connect with my own communities and give them access to an art they never thought they needed.

Other musicians have taken different paths. Some people create community in their universities, some manipulate their positions of tokenism, and others work to find and heal with as many musicians of color as possible. You need to find what is best for you, and work with your community so that everyone is working to build and defend this coalition with their strengths.

Conclusion

Our movement will still have white allies present. There are those (although very few) who are willing to put themselves in danger and go against the institutions. Others are willing to work within institutions to protect and defend us people of color as we create our coalition. There are already those ready to leverage their privilege to establish a more equitable future. Because they too have learned that they will not be liberated unless everyone is liberated.

While some might argue that this coalition is impossible, that it will be stopped or that change from within is more likely, I would like to point out that this process is already happening.

People of color are done being tokens and our calling to create is not being fulfilled. We are already connecting with communities and building a future free from the confines of our boxed-in genre. Every day, people of color are conversing with each other about possible ways to combat racism in the field of music, and these coalitions form as a natural result.

In a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth.

My hope with this article is to put a name to this process. I want to use whatever platform I access to connect with musicians of color. Whiteness gentrifies, and that means that we will have white ears in the room. This article, for example, is going to be read by many white people before other people of color have a chance to read the message. But in a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth no matter how much the white institutions disapprove of our message.

If just one musician of color finds hope and inspiration to work towards a future independent of the institutions they now recognize as their abusers, I will have done my job.

So my fellow musicians of color, please reach out to me, and let’s build a future where we are liberated.

I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

An historic drawing of a group of five Aleppo musicians performing on (from left to right) a daff, a saz, a ney, a kamancheh, and a pair of naqqāra

Introduction

On March 21, 2019, Google released their first ­­­­AI powered doodle to celebrate the birthday of J.S. Bach. The AI was charged with the task of recreating a Bach harmonization of any given melody through analyzing over 300 Bach chorales. A learned musician might scoff at this idea on the premise that this is now how you learn music. But in the arrogant scoffs toward the machine’s ignorance, the musical elite forget the magic of what happened. Something which had no way to learn Bach previously, now has the ability to create art.

Do all the results sound like Bach? No, it still wasn’t the “right” way to learn and technology doesn’t have the capacity to learn functional Baroque harmony yet. But the machine knew its goal and every so often, it got close.

I spent my whole day on that machine–testing its abilities with a wide array of melodies. I spent hours exploring how the AI handled themes from Die Kunst Der Fuge and comparing its results to my own melodies. I witnessed a machine become a composer at its first opening of opportunity. Technology, which never had the option to compose in the style of Bach before, made its first steps into creating art in a style of its choosing.

I relate more to this AI than I do to theorists and academics who laud pedigree, process, and a more perfect pedagogy. I too am collecting information about an artform I cannot learn “correctly” and am creating new, more “incorrect” art by learning through whatever bits and pieces I may find.

Moving Away From Classical Music

I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I was never fond of the New Music scene (or whatever semblance of a scene it may have). I already discussed the racial violence and orientalism/otherism Middle Eastern and North African, along with Black and other PoC, musicians face. I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I started to realize in college that I was limiting myself and my potential by staying in the classical field. Instead of wasting my time educating others on the basics of inequality, I could instead collaborate with like-minded artists to create artwork that best expresses what we want to share.

I needed to be around individuals who challenged me to be better, and surrounding myself by musicians who don’t know how racism works or how to even communicate with a person of color wasn’t doing it. I needed to find artists I can work with outside the realm of Classical music.

As the realization that Classical music has and always will be racist in its core sat in, I admit that I felt weak. My love for Classical music was one-sided. If I wanted a future as a musician, I couldn’t be loyal to that one genre. I realized that my relationship with the field was abusive. I gave it all I could, and was spat on in return.

Classical music has and always will be racist in its core.

I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.

A score sample showing a melody transcribed into Western staff notation.

Reconnecting with My Culture

I am one of the lucky immigrant children. We still had family in Lebanon who we would visit. We stayed connected to our roots. While I’m not fluent in Arabic, nor can I read it well, I at least know the basics and can hold a conversation. Barring the language barrier, I managed to learn the basics of oud in Lebanon, and heard a concert there.

My ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited.

But my ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited. I was the only artist in the family, everyone else being working class folks who only knew baladi. There were songs I grew up with, sung by Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. I knew the Rahbani brothers, but didn’t know the names of any other composers. After all, it’s the singers we talk about in conversation, rarely the composers.

And while I was connected to people through my family, I cannot say that I feel welcome or comfortable speaking to everyone. Lebanon, like anywhere else, has a spectrum of beliefs between leftist, liberal, and conservative. And these beliefs also tend to vary depending on the region. Navigating those beliefs while growing up in a different culture means that I’m not as able to connect as quickly and easily as I would like to others in my community. Navigating issues like homophobia, language barriers, and religious differences in a manner that is safe is necessary before building community.

As I said in my previous article, colonization takes a culture’s beliefs and indoctrinates the populace so that the colonizer’s beliefs replace those of the colonized. My family didn’t know a lot about our own culture and subscribed to the belief that Western classical music was a higher form than their own music. They knew we had a classical tradition, but couldn’t help me get closer to what it was.

A reproduction of an image from a 1994 manuscript featuring a drawing of the musician Sadiq Ali Khan performing on a rebab as well as two other annotated drawings of a rebab with extensive text, in Arabic.

Initial Research

I started off a lot like that Bach AI. I was broke, needed to work as much as possible to stay afloat, and didn’t have any connections. I knew what the right way to learn was. I wanted to find a teacher or go study at a summer institute or even a school. But those options weren’t available to me.

But I also wasn’t going to let colonization win. I needed to learn however I could.

I didn’t have the lesson plan or the pedagogy. But I had a few hundred songs, a few singers, and the internet. Like the doodle, I also started with a tiny sample of a much larger, broader style. I spent hours, days, and months studying these scores. I found a website called maqamworld and I compared all the music I could find to these maqamat.

I spent all my free time, gathering these bits and pieces, trying to recreate this style like an AI.

My Limitations

I did all the research I could, but it cannot be understated how limited that time was. As soon as I graduated, I struggled to find a job. I looked around for freelance work and took whatever jobs I could.

I battled mental illness, and it didn’t really go away. A year after graduation, I talked to a psychiatrist and found out that my post-grad depression was actually PTSD. Taking care of my mental illness is itself a job.

I worked on my credit ratings and applied for a dozen credit cards. Lacking any jobs or credit, I had to use a new credit card to buy a used car. It wasn’t a lot, and I had a plan to pay it off before the 0% APR plan expired. But then I got in a car accident. And after that I was forced to leave an abusive job.

In this entire mess, I was constantly shifting between 2-3 jobs. Now I’m glad I found some stability, but a freelance workload is still not easy. Occasionally, I would add a retail job here and there.

(Some might also argue that composition is not a job, but my mental illness doesn’t care. Labor is labor, and my spoons are spent.)

All of this is to say that I’m chronically exhausted. And not just exhausted but stressed from poverty. After working more hours than full time, I still am barely paying my bills, barely covering my debts, and have almost nothing to spend for myself. And on top of all that, I still have PTSD, which means that I need to work at about half of what I’m doing now to stay healthy.

I’m sharing this information because it is a huge deterrent to learning things the right way. It means that not only can I not afford a teacher, but I can’t afford to take time off to see people’s workshops, to meet and network, to go to concerts, or do almost anything a composer does to build a career. I manage to sneak these things in when I can, but it’s very limiting.

The effects of poverty are exacerbated by my language. I would be able to learn Middle Eastern music theory much more easily if I knew Arabic. But I don’t know it well enough to study books and resources, so I’m stuck with maqamworld – which is an amazing first step, but doesn’t get you to where five terms of Western music theory would.

While colonization kept my family from knowing and believing in their culture, it kept me from being able to finance an education of my own heritage, and deprived me of the very tongue needed to speak and understand my culture. All of these limitations made learning my culture’s music properly impossible.

An historic photo of 3 Aleppo musicians performing (from left to right) on some sort of not completely identfiable frame drum, an oud, and a ney

Feeding the AI

LGBT+ composers of color might be pretty discouraged by now. If it’s not poverty, it’s sexism, if it’s not sexism, it’s homophobia, if not homophobia, racism. And I haven’t even touched on the unique issues transgender and non-binary PoC face. Or how the field is also uncaring to disabled people or that everyone’s ignoring some serious fatphobia. For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

But our work is not futile. We just have to find a different path. We need to carefully think about the people who recommend us a “correct” path and recognize when those are unavailable to us. Classical music is designed to keep QPOC out, so following a traditional route means we walk right into its trap.

But we still run into the problem that learning however we can will result in something that doesn’t quite make the mark.

And that’s okay.

After I fed my AI on all the Middle Eastern music I can find, I set out to compose a piece free of unwanted Western influence. I failed with that goal, but with whatever knowledge I could, I created a piece that’s not quite traditional Middle Eastern music, but it’s also not classical either.

These conditions led me to create a piece I’m most proud of: Decolonized Arabesques.

Sure, the piece has influences from both traditions, but that doesn’t make it part of those traditions. Instead, my work came out with something entirely different. Just like the Bach AI as it gathered its own style trying to become Bach, I found a personal style trying to reject what I learned and strive for a pre-colonized ideal of what my music should be.

Conclusion

It still hurts, and will always hurt, that I will never be able to shake the violence Western culture has done to my culture and my discovery of it. But just because I speak English does not mean that I can’t speak about my culture. Just because I’m in the U.S. does not mean I’m not Lebanese, and just because my music resembles a Western style does not mean that it is not 100% Middle Eastern.

The voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music.

Every composer has a personal voice, and the voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music. We just need the support of our colleagues from all walks of life. The fringes of New Music, visual artists who love to collaborate, our friends and family back home, multi-media artists and curators. It is time we recognize that we are people free of a social order instead of begging for acceptance from classical musicians who can never love us for who we are.

Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

A round, stringed instrument

Introduction

“How are you going to become a composer?” My uncle said angrily, “No Lebanese person has done it. Why you?”[1]

I was sitting in the baranda of my teta’s (grandmother’s) home in the Lebanese mountains. I finished my junior year of high school and made the unalterable decision to study composition in college. It was nighttime. The family gathered to chat while my teta cut peaches for us from Jido’s (grandfather’s) farm.

Being the first generation to study in the U.S. in my immediate family, I had the rare privilege of deciding what I wanted to study.

In our culture, I had the responsibility to craft a future where I can continue accumulating wealth (and therefore stability and opportunity) for future generations of my family. In that regard, pursuing the arts was akin to refusing this responsibility. This decision caused my uncle to become tense.

“Then I’ll be the first,” I responded.

My family and I didn’t know any composers of Lebanese or Druze descent. We were all in uncharted territory.

“Hrmph,” my uncle scoffed. He reclined into his seat with eyes that clearly said “you’re making a mistake.”

An aerial view of Lebanon (photo by Nebal Maysaud)

As an aspiring composer, I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew that there were thousands of people like me, and that my success as a composer is not guaranteed, no matter how good I was. But I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. I had a radical something that needed to be expressed, and music was the only way I could express it.

My parents got married in Lebanon in 1994 and moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 when my mom was pregnant with me. She was 19. My father would get up to work at 3:00 a.m., and wouldn’t come home until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mom spent equally long days between work and caring for three children.

My parents couldn’t afford to give me lessons, or take time off work to see me perform, and were skeptical, if not hostile, toward my decision to enter a field they knew nothing about. Other musicians my age had the resources and support they needed to succeed while I had to navigate my artistic passion alone. This discrepancy between myself and my journey, and other upper class composers only grew with age.

I also had very few friends in high school, and frankly a lot of it was a blur due to my PTSD. But I distinctly remember my music being there when I had no one to confide in. Music became my life, and I had no choice but to create.

If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist.

Despite everything working against me, I decided that I must pursue music as a professional. And I hold that same spirit today. As the first one in my family to major in the arts, I have a lot of eyes on me. If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist. But if I succeed, that success will provide hope and comfort to other aspiring artists in the family.

Despite all of these setbacks, I was (naively) comforted by the fact that there was a hole in the new music community. My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music.

As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.

How to Colonize a Culture

A culture can be defined through a people’s land, language, beliefs, food, or art. Colonization works by limiting access to these cultural markers while also rebranding them so that the colonizing force steals the culture of those they colonize and claims it as their own.

Colonization works by limiting access to cultural markers while also rebranding them.

In action, colonization works by invading or destroying land, criminalizing the native language, making it as difficult as possible to practice the colonized religion, and restricting access to ingredients needed for the colonized people to cook their own food while rebranding their recipes as the colonizers’ own.

But in this article, I want to focus on how white culture colonizes the Middle East through art, specifically music.

Composers Use Orientalism to Further Colonize Non-Western Cultures

Europe is not the only place with a classical music tradition. Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Yet much of the Western world pretends that they were the only ones to compose music beyond entertainment, and use other classical traditions not as a source of inspiration to grow together, but as a resource for stealing techniques and growing their own genre at the expense of other cultures.

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud's composition A Psalm of David which references the style of Western appropriations of Middle Eastern music with the instruction "like an 18th century Viennese composer emulating a Janissary band he heard one time"

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud’s composition A Psalm of David

Stealing Middle Eastern Stories

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation. Yet white composers have been writing about and critiquing stories from the Middle East for centuries.

Western composers always had a fascination with the exotic East. A place of magic and wonder, where strange people with strange customs create fascinating stories for audiences to gaze upon.

This narrative of an “other” whose purpose is to entertain the eyes of Westerners is very much in practice today. I see plenty of composers, some prominent, praised for writing music that references the Middle East.

And the music they compose makes no reference to Middle Eastern classical music. Because such a reference would concede that the Middle East has a classical tradition. Instead, they use a few cartoonish references to an exotic Arabian land of their own creation.

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation.

One example is the use of augmented seconds to represent the exotic. Or using the oboe to mimic a snake charmer or other Middle Eastern instruments. (What instruments they mimic, I don’t know. The oboe sounds nothing like any Middle Eastern or North African instrument that I know of.)

Or perhaps they compose a simple melody with an old style drum beat. Or try to mimic the Baladi by composing a flashy piece that has no substance or meaning, and is instead supposed to create the effect of an underdeveloped people dancing and performing a ritual.

Written down, these examples are obvious racist caricatures, but I still see them used today in pieces where composers are lauded for their activism.

And the stories they produced are not just exotic fun, but reinforce white supremacist beliefs about non-white people.

A meme which reads: "The audacity OF THE CAUCASITY"

Presenting the Middle East as “Barbaric”

White supremacists believe that the white race is the most advanced. Which means that non-white people are inherently less intelligent, less emotionally mature, and less civilized. In other words, white supremacists look at non-white people as a step in between them and barbarians.

In order for this ideology to stick, white supremacists need evidence. They don’t have truth, but they do have power, and they use their power to manipulate non-white cultures to make them appear as though they are more barbaric than white people.

The most common way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the Middle East’s track record with LGBT+ and women’s rights. After colonization, the Western powers supported conservative despots to increase instability in the region to prevent the area from becoming communist. The far right regimes they supported enacted some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.

I recognize that Middle Eastern politics is very complicated territory. And I can’t accurately state what happened in the Middle East within a paragraph. But the West’s attempt to impose itself on the region as an act of modern colonization is well documented and researched.

These human rights abuses are now used by the West as evidence of the Middle East’s backwards values. The West is more developed because women appear to have more freedom. By hiding the fact that these regimes were initially supported by the West, they create the unreal case that feminism is a Western value that the Middle East is too barbaric to enforce.

And composers love writing music “for” Middle Eastern women and minorities without their consent, and doing so by highlighting the abuse they receive and the toils of war. The trauma these regimes place on minorities is regularly displayed in a piece of music. The effect is something profound for white people, and triggering for minorities.

Never Ending War

The sound of war is a common theme for white composers to write about. But rarely is it handled with care and research. Rarely do these pieces consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

Rarely do pieces about war consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

I remember going to a concert with my mother, immediately feeling horrified when a piece about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon played and my mom was forced to hear the very same sounds of war she witnessed growing up. White people were amazed by the piece, while my mother and I were on the hinge of panic attacks due to this senseless trigger.

In all of these pieces, the message seems to be questioning why warring factions can’t get their acts together and stop fighting. They generally suggest that these victims need saving and it’s calling on their listeners (who are white since classical music audiences are almost always white) to act as white saviors and stop the violence through their charity. While coming from a meaningful place, this narrative saves no one and actually worsens the effects of white supremacy.

And these stories also act as barriers that keep Middle Eastern composers from telling our own stories. I am expected to continue praising white feminists for their work in writing about the trauma my people face, while stories by actual Middle Eastern women are largely ignored. Here we see Western classical music saving a space for Middle Eastern representation, but maintaining a white monopoly over its presentation.

Conclusion

These pieces may come from a desire to help, but they ultimately reinforce colonization. They reinforce the trope of the white savior. They spread harmful false messages about Middle Eastern values. They don’t reference Middle Eastern music or traditions, but instead incorporate cartoonish signifiers of racist caricatures. Ultimately, they are not Middle Eastern stories, just exotic displays masquerading as authentic work for the Middle East.

I spent my college years learning how to navigate this environment. In a desire to be authentic, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond the Western classical music world. I needed to explore the traditions of my own people’s music so that I can keep the Middle Eastern Classical tradition alive. As you will see in my next article, discovering one’s own culture can be extremely difficult in a colonized world.


NOTE:

1. I apologize for not making this point clear enough: When I was in high school, I didn’t know about the hundreds of Lebanese composers before (and after) me, nor did anyone else in my family. I was not trying to make a claim about being the only Lebanese composer. Instead I wanted to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find a thriving culture of Lebanese composers and musicians, but I had to look for them first.

Am I Not a Minority?

Hands on a piano, with a heart tattoo on the left hand.

Introduction

Contemporary classical music is a field overrun with socially conscious and politically liberal musicians. Moreso, the community pays great attention to the need to increase diversity for minority composers, but do people of color see those benefits? If musicians today put so much effort into increasing diversity in their programming, then why are there so few composers of color? While white minority composers see progress, people of color are left behind.

The field of Western classical music as an institution suppresses Black and brown voices while utilizing tokenism to prevent public outcry and protest.

The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy

This article isn’t just about me. I’m not asking for personal inclusion in a field of exclusivity. Instead, I’m hoping to use my experiences as a victim of racism to highlight the fundamental institutional abuses Western classical musicians sanction on composers of color.

The fact that this field needs greater diversity is no secret. Many prominent new music organizations express a yearning for more works by minority composers. But composers of color still face significant barriers in our careers despite the overwhelming public calls for good will.

This irony might seem baffling, but Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution that increased visibility will not be effective in liberating all minority composers. Instead, a complete restructuring of how we as contemporary classical musicians view classical music is necessary.

With this article, I express nothing new. Instead, I add my account of racist experience into the ever-growing library of minority musicians who have written similar accounts to how they perceived and reacted to their own oppressions within the field of classical music.

Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution.

Artists such as Anthony Green, whose article “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” provides a clear example of how new music communities continue to discourage Black composers from gaining stability and stature as new music composers. And Elizabeth Baker’s article, “Ain’t I a Woman Too?” Which was a direct influence on my article, and beautifully expressed many of my own frustrations with the lack of inclusive feminism in our white-centered musical landscape.

The information I present in this article is not new, but I’m hoping it will be expressed clearly enough to help my minority colleagues understand that they are not alone in their experiences, and for more privileged readers to better understand how deep classical music’s racism really is. This article will provide the background information needed to understand the remaining articles in this 4-part series, which will more carefully analyze issues such as orientalism, class, and resistance.

Far more composers are doing good work in building sustainable futures for minority artists than are listed here, and they are heroes building a new framework that is more inclusive and more freeing than classical music’s institutions will ever be. Just because these barriers exist in classical music to keep it as white as possible does not mean that we have to accept these truths and play within their system. In fact, I want to use the information I share in this article to argue that we can and should create something better.

The Myth of the Composer-Genius

One of my good friends and colleague Evan Williams has already written a wonderful article titled “The Myth of the Composer Genius,” which I encourage you read. Dr. Williams examines the cognitive dissonance between the belief of composers being artistic geniuses chosen by God to share their gifts with the world and the reality that composers get their skill through work, practice, and opportunity.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field. The conflation of “genius” and “white man” means that no minority will be viewed as a real genius, and hence not a real composer.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field.

While one can argue that the definition of genius is being expanded today to mean anyone, its expansion creates a top-down approach to breaking down these barriers. A top-down approach means that you grant access first to those with the most privilege and move down. Instead, Black feminists and their organizations such as the Combahee River Collective recommend a faster, more effective bottom-up approach. This method seeks to eliminate oppression by focusing on the most oppressed first, and is based on the understanding that when the most oppressed are liberated, then everyone above them is liberated as well.

Trickle-down Social Justice

The classical music field is squarely rooted in the top-down approach. And like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

Like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

This approach grants most opportunities for increased diversity and visibility to minorities with the most privilege. In a white supremacist society, that would be white minorities. Specifically, white women.

First let me say that women in general have an abysmal and unacceptable representation in the Western classical music field. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra examined the repertoire performed during the 2014-2015 concert season by 22 of the largest American Orchestras and found that only 1.8% of works were composed by women.

According to The Guardian, “New statistics have shown up the ‘inexcusable’ fact that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed across the world from [2018] to 2019 include at least one piece by a woman.”

It’s possible that among new music chamber groups, the statistics might be better, but there is still an undeniable bias towards men in this field.

Many of you reading this article know these statistics. And maybe you are doing good work in commissioning and performing works by women composers. But structural oppression runs deep enough that heightened visibility will not close this gap quickly enough.

In order to have a full understanding of our landscape, we need find statistics on our most oppressed. Not only do we need statistics on women, but how about women of color? Non-binary composers? Non-binary or third gender composers of color? Black composers? Black women composers? LGBT+ Black women composers?

All of these minority groups, and more, deserve to be free enough to create artworks of their own. But as it stands, the only minority group being paid much attention (and even for them, it’s not enough) is made up of white women.

Where are the Statistics on Composers of Color?

Surely if I google “statistics on composers of color” I should be able to get some results. Instead I get more statistics on women composers. And here I find the perfect metaphor for how different minority groups are conflated.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone. While it is true that increased opportunities for a single group can help expand others, that situation only occurs when the single group being supported is more oppressed than the other groups. For example, increased opportunities for Black women will lead to more opportunities for other women of color. But supporting white women will not have the same effect. This belief only works when taking a bottom-up view of decolonization, not for trickle-down social justice.

This is what I mean by trickle-down social justice. By making white minorities the center of diversity attention, you have a system where the pool of privileged folks utilizing the culture and labor of PoC is growing, enabling further oppression of those with the fewest means to success while claiming a progressive, anti-racist label.

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough. But people of color have no reason to trust that white women will be any less racist than white men. Dr. Monica T. Williams explains this mistrust more deeply in her article, “How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy,” pointing out that “True feminism has the power to transform society, but too often what is advanced as feminism is actually White supremacy in disguise – a counterfeit we sometimes call White Feminism.”

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough.

The institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding are worlds apart from the experiences of white women. And one shouldn’t invalidate the other. Anyone interested in expanding access to classical music education and careers to all minorities should be mindful of the institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding and work to utilize their privileges to dismantle them.

A cartoon of a mother and child, both with text bubbles. Mother says, "Brahms could be worse, Calvin." And the child replies, "Brahms could be a lot better, too!" (Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission)

Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission

The Institutional Barriers that Keep Composers of Color from Succeeding

Not all people of color are the same. We each have our own successes and failures within this field. Some would argue that the current push for diversity supports their careers while others insist that current work is not enough.

I have observed a few patterns of behavior that many people of color face. These microaggressions are a few ways in which opportunities were kept from me and other people of color.

The classical music field does not value Black and brown voices. We exist as oriental decorations to the white-centered narrative which controls the space. Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Western classical music’s initiatives to diversify their compositions do not challenge the system’s white supremacist roots. Despite heavily influencing white cultures, PoC are rarely allowed our own space. Exceptions are made at the expense of tokenizing the few non-white composers they allow in their space.

In my experience, I’ve had to follow a set of unspoken rules if I want to be taken seriously as a Western classical musician.

1. I am not allowed to be too “radical” in Western classical music.
2. I must depend on white funding and institutional support for my projects.
3. I must work within an institution, never against it.
4. I must never express anger or resentment at my treatment.
5. I must remain calm when harassed by a white individual.

These unspoken rules silence people of color. At the same time, they allow us enough space to exist in the presence of white musicians. It creates a shield from criticism while upholding white supremacy. Musicians of color tend to face severe consequences if they hold contempt for one of these rules.

Rule #1: I am Not Allowed to Be Too “Radical”

Those with stature in classical music institutions claim that slow change is happening. Ultimately, they decide how much change they want to see in their institutions. If this change involves them losing their stature, or diminishing the meaning of their stature (which is necessary for our liberation), then it will be deemed too “radical” and will either be ignored or ridiculed.

As minorities, any ideas which do not fit the status quo are ignored. People of color are allowed to have (monitored) voices in this field, but they must have the approval of the larger, white audience to take root.

White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

But white musicians do not need approval from people of color to express their ideas and are encouraged to steal the labor of musicians of color. White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

I personally have seen my work and my ideas taken by a white man, who essentially claimed credit for the work I’ve done. This practice goes further into how we treat material, where white composers are comfortable taking stories and religions from non-white cultures and appropriating them in their music.

Rule #2: I Must Depend on White Funding and Institutional Support

In a capitalist society, success is based on money. Artists need to focus on money in order to afford themselves stability. To create art without needing to profit off your labor relies on a privilege that not everyone has.

Frankly, the conversations I’ve had with classical musicians on issues of economic oppression make it obvious why “class” is in the name. The first step to being a classical musician is to amass a massive debt in exchange for education. Some might argue that it is the nature of higher education today and something everyone, regardless of what they study, goes through.

But then why are we expected to continue paying thousands of dollars for other experiences outside of our education? We live in an environment where doctoral degrees are assumed to be a necessary stepping stone toward one’s future, and universities are taking advantage of that baseless assumption by sticking a disastrous price tag on those degrees. If the field as a whole believes that higher education is necessary for a composer’s growth, then why is it inaccessible to most on grounds unrelated to merit?

Festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

Higher education barely scratches the surface. On top of spending an exorbitant amount of money on 8+ years of academic study, composers are expected to spend several thousand more dollars to attend something similar during the summer months. Summer festivals are seen as places where one can acquire prestige and network with similar musicians. But these festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

And yes, to me and anyone with my level of income, those who can afford these festivals are rich.

What’s almost worse is the expectation that lower-income folks will apply for scholarships and perform extra labor to receive (partial) funding instead of creating new avenues for opportunity. In this regard, we are expected to work within the institution to beg for funding instead of creating our own opportunities for career development.

But let’s say that despite all odds, despite being unable to afford the education and festivals, you still become a prominent composer. How will you get money? By and large, you will be steered only towards resources for minorities – which grant most of their funding and visibility towards white women.

Many of these organizations do not have anything to offer PoC; because PoC fall under the umbrella of “minority”, we end up in a position where white minorities monopolize the crumbs of tokenism within institutional structures.

Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

The field of classical music relies on institutions, endowments, universities, people who can afford to commission new work, and other high-paying clients. Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

Rule #3: I Must Work Within an Institution, Never Against It

If I rely on white institutions, then I can’t be too radical or else I will lose my avenues for funding. If I want funding without beholding myself to the whims of an untrustable elite, then I need to find alternatives to gaining capital outside the framework of an institution.

But rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it. After all, wouldn’t working against institutions mean that you’re against them, or the way they function? These institutions offer spaces for PoC to exist, but to suggest our independence risks exposing the foundational flaws and abuses these organizations graft onto their minority followers. They fear we will expose them for the fraudulent practice of using token visibility to shield their own white supremacist roots while claiming to be progressive.

So they work to silence the minorities who, without any more options, reject the prescribed system of tokenism in exchange for real methods of artistic creation that allow for sustenance on their own terms.

Rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it.

This silencing depends on enabling racist behavior, on pointing out whatever flaws one can find or make up about a person of color, and trusting that it will tarnish their reputation, despite those standards never applying to a white individual. The effect reverberates around the miniscule classical world, and anyone who depends on the institution, and believes in it, will have no reason not to believe it and thus shun those who work against an institution.

A meme created via imgflip.com with the caption "WHITE MUSICIANS WHEN POC ARE TALKING ABOUT RACISM" showing someone with their face buried in the ground.

Rule #4: I Must Never Express Anger or Resentment at my Treatment

These last two rules go hand-in-hand, and emphasize classical music institutions and their affiliates’ pervasive use of tone policing. White musicians love giving the minimum to PoC and using that exposure to shield themselves from criticism.

PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists.

In essence, PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists. That sliver of progress is used against those who advocate for real, substantive change.

Rule #5: I Must Remain Calm When Harassed

In that same vein, PoC are demonized when we do express anger, even when being harassed. I have these as two separate rules because rule #4 applies on a meta level where I must always at least pretend to be in a state of contentment with the institutions of classical music and their efforts to increase diversity.

But this rule is more specific.

Every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers.

In my experience (and I’m sure this is the case for many other PoC as well), every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers. I can think of so many examples, especially on social media, where as soon as anger is shown, as soon as white folks actually see the consequences of their constant abuses, or even evidence that there is constant abuse, the entire case is dismissed under the excuse of belligerence.

These experiences have led me to be labelled as racist, sexist, anti-semitic, transphobic, islamaphobic, and other labels which I work to fight against.

Conclusion

I have written very little about music, which will be covered in a later post. With this article, I wanted to show how pervasive white supremacy is in the classical music world, and explain the background into other arguments I intend to make in this series. Arguments such as the following: white composers using Middle Eastern stories in their composition is colonization; trans, non-binary, and third gender composers need their own space unique from cis-women led spaces.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color. But the musical output takes it a step further. In my next article, I will explore several examples of how white Western culture steals and appropriates from other non-white cultures, and how Western classical music embodies that colonization.