The classical and contemporary music worlds have recently replaced the buzzword “collaboration” with “diversity,” and that push for broader inclusion has largely centered on women. The fundamental issue with the marketing and implementation of this very important matter of inclusion is that the faces and voices in the conversation are largely those of cisgender white women.
First off, I want to recognize how inspired I am by the many women who are addressing a number of problems related to inequality in our industry—from problematic power structures to sexual harassment to equal pay for equal work disparities. I do not discount any of the efforts that these strong women have made to move all of us forward.
However, the problem comes when the voices of those speaking out about diversity are largely homogenized. The problem continues when organizations promote “diversity initiatives” using only images of cisgender white women. What these actions and inactions tell women who look like me—women of color, and individuals for whom I am an ally, including non-binary and queer women—is that our voices and, more poignantly, our faces are not welcome in this conversation. Personally, it has the effect of taking my agency as a woman away from me. When people mention the breakthroughs of women composers, I do not identify with these achievements as a part of the evolution that paves my path in the music industry. The more I talk to other women of color hailing from nations across the globe, the more I understand how the subconscious presentation of diversity framed exclusively as a “middle-class white cisgender woman’s problem” has the ripple effect of silencing women of varied ethnic backgrounds and gender identities.
About a year ago, a friend and colleague in the composition world spoke to me strongly about how she felt that the music industry was inherently stacked against her as a woman. In a moment which she later described to me as a “much-needed check of her privilege,” I explained to her that while the world might seem difficult for her as a woman, as a black woman I have almost nothing going for me…and every small task is a fight for survival in this new music world.
As the daughter of a British mum and an African-American father, my childhood was largely influenced by my mum’s continental culture. I spent a great deal of my time in the family room listening to recordings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and wearing out countless cassette recordings of Peter and the Wolf. My father, who was determined to give me all the resources that he could, sent me to Dale Carnegie executive training courses with upwardly mobile employees of Fortune 500 companies, while other preteens whirled around in the fanciful teacups at Disney World. At the same time that I was afforded all this privilege in my youth, I was in touch with those from humbler means, as both of my parents wanted to instill within me the idea that I learn to serve others and to be grateful for whatever I was blessed to have in my life.
While my childhood was sprinkled with the privilege of the pre-recession upper middle-class, there was still a disparity. Every time I walked outside my home and had to stand on my own without the back up of my parents, I was challenged. My parents frequently had to come to school to meet with administrators and teachers who thought that I was cheating on my papers because my command of the English language was far above my grade level. If I had been a white male child, they would likely have called me a prodigy. Instead, I was tested, writing essays under time and pressure by hand on notebook paper, with the same results each time. My vernacular and writing style were not influenced by anyone but the inner voice, which sought to express my being in the most artistic and factual manner possible.
I constantly heard from my white friends, “You’re black, but you aren’t really black.” But I was definitely black enough to be kept waiting as a child at a diner in Georgia while white patron after white patron was served before me for more than three hours. I was definitely black enough to be called a gorilla, a beast, a man, and a whole host of denigrating terms when I developed a muscular build akin to Serena Williams. I was definitely black enough to be told by multiple men throughout my life that I wasn’t “classically beautiful” and that “if only you were white with blonde hair” then I would be desirable. I was definitely black enough to be told that having people steal my music wasn’t a big deal because it had been happening to blacks for generations.
When I made the decision to pursue music, I understood at my core that I did not want to fall into the stereotypes of what “black music” was expected to sound like. I knew that my natural form of expression had another voice that deserved to be cultivated. I knew that focusing on a “classical” practice exploiting Negro spirituals would feel forced and disconnected from the Roman Catholic faith that was integral to my rearing. I often found myself recoiling into the works of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt, and Arnold Schoenberg. I was a frequent loner in music school because my tracks were largely independently driven. These men gave me a place to start experimenting with a different voice. Then one day, I met a friend and colleague who would change my life in more ways than I could imagine—a person who challenged me to question my perceptions of how I was treated, making me realize that I deserved more basic respect than others were giving me in my personal and professional life; a person who made me realize that the only way to be the truest artist and most authentic version of myself would be to embrace all parts of myself, to put in the work to better myself, but to accept my humanity and stop beating myself up for not being the perfect little black girl everyone wanted me to be; and, most importantly, the person who introduced me to the work of Pamela Z.
When I first saw Pamela Z perform on YouTube, I cried.
I cried because her work is so beautiful, so powerful, so genuine that it touches the soul.
I cried because I saw the possibility of organic expression coming out of a setup that integrated electronics.
I cried because for the first time, I saw someone who looked like me expressing themselves freely, breaking the bonds of expectations that have been cast on our people for hundreds of years.
I often present experimental music workshops at schools throughout the U.S. I do this for a number of reasons, but the first being that when I step out onto a concert stage to play piano, the sonic expectation that my skin color and afro send the crowd is one deeply rooted in the traditions of Nina Simone and Alicia Keys. While I am grateful for the work that these women have done to pave the way for black women to be on the stage at all, I want to push the expectations of what black performers—and in particular, what black women—are expected to release into the sonic ecosystem of the concert hall.
When I inadvertently checked my colleague’s privilege, I brought up the point that as a black woman in experimental music or contemporary concert music in the United States, I do not fit in anywhere.
In 21st-century America, white presenters in cosmopolitan cities have told me that they do not feel as though a black woman playing piano and electronics would fill the house enough to warrant them turning the lights on for a performance.
Meanwhile, an administrator from an African-American history museum informed me that they would be cancelling my Black History Month presentation because they did not feel as though my music was “black music” and furthermore, that it was “inaccessible for regular society.”
So now as a black woman who composes and performs, I am faced with hard barriers to pursue a career in a field that I love, a field that has saved my life in difficult times, a field that has given my life meaning and purpose, space and tones that have been my blanket as I cried myself to sleep wishing that I could wake up and be a pretty white girl with all the promise and possibilities in the world in front of her.
When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion. Leaving politics aside for a moment, how would it look to have the United Nations governed solely by the most Anglicized countries in the world, with absolutely no representation from Third World countries and those with more ethnically varied populations? You couldn’t exactly in good conscious call it the United Nations.
We are at a crossroads in the evolution of modern music. With the advent of resources like Rob Deemer’s Composer Diversity Database, we have the ability to reach out to others who are cut from a different cloth and to include their powerful voices and perspectives in the difficult conversations that we are having now about how to move forward. There should not be a conference where I am the “token black person.” There should not be a festival where people of color are afraid to participate because they fear that their essence will be misappropriated by white people who fetishize the “exotic.” Non-binary and queer individuals should not feel as though their very valid points about exclusionary practices centered on culture and gender identity are systematically being brushed aside or otherwise silenced by people and organizations at the top of the power structure food chain, ultimately reinforcing additional hard barriers to participation in the upper echelon of our industry. When we see a poster for a new “diversity initiative,” it had better be a rainbow of skin tones and no professional model stand-ins because “you couldn’t find a real composer of color.” When I look up major festivals of new music, I don’t want to hear that the lineup is whitewashed because “good black composers don’t exist.” And the most controversial of all, I don’t want to hear that “black people lack a place at the table of the diversity conversation because they are just falling into line with what Western Europeans have taught them.”
We can do better.
We can do better for ancestors.
We can do better for ourselves.
We can do better for future generations.
We can start today.