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  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.
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.
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.
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.