It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die
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. My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.
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.
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. 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.
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
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. 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.