Tag: race

Ain’t I A Woman Too

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.

When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion.

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.


Elizabeth Baker steps over her gear during a performance at LLEAPP 2018
Photo by Megan Patzem

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 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 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.

Close Listening: Music and Race

Open Sign Through The Glass Of Window

Last week I wrote about the thorny nature of genre classification in music. Today I’d like to dig deeper into the thorn bush and talk about an even more problematic form of classification: race.

At the outset, I’d like to make sure we all agree that, scientifically speaking, race does not actually exist. However, because of the actions of racists past and present, we are stuck with a society that is rife with systemic bias toward people of color (and this, of course, will not come as news to the people of color reading this post). As the author of the article linked to above put it, “Race does not exist, but racism does.” Conscious steps must be taken against the latter every day, by all of us, including becoming aware of the role race plays in the music industry.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the music of Santigold (via my Radiohead station on Pandora; yay, metadata!), whose music I instantly classified as indie pop. After hearing a few tracks, I knew I was going to be a fan and looked her up on the internet to see if she was a new act. One of the first things I stumbled upon was a 2008 NME article in which she speaks out against people classifying her music as hip-hop and R&B (when in fact she doesn’t even like R&B) purely based on her race. She states in the article that she “made sure” her album is a pop record. [N.B.: The article’s author appears to have confused Santigold’s name and the title of her first album, Santogold.] No doubt it was in reaction to these false classifications that Santigold, in a 2012 interview with Lucy Jones, stated that her music is “genreless.”

Around the same time that I came into contact with Santigold’s music, I was also introduced to the music of Julius Eastman. As an erstwhile Morton Feldman scholar, I remember being shocked and ashamed that I’d never heard Eastman’s name before. As this post by Matthew D. Morrison points out, while we remember many of the SUNY at Buffalo Creative Associates (Crumb, Kotik, Rzewski), until very recently Eastman’s name has been largely absent from the canon of post-World War II composers. In fact, as Renée Levine Packer cites in her fascinating book on new music in Buffalo, Kyle Gann called Eastman “one of the least-recognized and most imaginative minimalists…a pioneer,” in his 1990 Village Voice obituary for Eastman. Packer’s firsthand accounts of the Creative Associates’ activities make it clear that Eastman was an active member of the group and his talents were well-received and appreciated, so why have we heard so little about him in the 25 years since his death?

These two encounters with the work of very different artists got me thinking about the ways in which factors external to the sound and production of a given piece of music might result in its misclassification—or non-classification, in the case of Eastman. This in turn got me thinking about the music I chose to write about, the pieces I suggested for concert programming, and the concerts I decided to attend (back when I was doing more of all those things). Was I unwittingly perpetuating the systemic bias I claimed to oppose with these choices?

The truth is that, while I spent quite a lot of effort making sure women musicians—particularly composers—were equally represented in my activities, I did not spend nearly enough time making sure I gave people of color the same consideration, particularly as composers. I attribute this lamentable lapse in my judgment to the two issues I discussed above, both of which boil down to one outcome: lack of visibility. I didn’t know very many composers who are people of color, nor did the press releases I received often come from or include POC composers. It was my responsibility, then, to seek out these people and rectify the situation, and I failed to do that.

We must address the fact that we are missing out on certain new music because it is being classified for different communities, or not being classified at all. This fact is likely attributable to the new music scene’s ideas surrounding pedigree and style; inclusion on a new music concert program often depends on a certain type of training and the avoidance of certain stylistic signifiers. To be frank, it should make us all deeply uncomfortable how white the new music scene is. I say this not to discourage anyone; I say it because I am invested in this scene and want to see it grow by embracing what may seem at first like unfamiliar voices.

In my next and final post in this series, I will examine the question of criteria for inclusion in more detail as I consider who the holders of power are in the music industry.

Can We Move Past Post-Race, Already?

If you follow the American Composers Orchestra and you stay on top of your composer opportunities, you might have noticed ACO’s most recent Earshot post on Facebook:
Earshot post on Facebook
I saw this opportunity when it was first posted and I thought, “Great, another meaningful opportunity from ACO. Good for them, I wonder who the four winners will be.” And many others shared my enthusiasm—commenting, liking, sharing, and tagging to help spread the word. But I was surprised to see some comments that weren’t so positive. In fact, some went so far as to accuse ACO of blatant racism. Others argued that, were the tables turned to only include white composers, we would hear uproarious criticism. ACO has since removed those comments, but left some of the less incendiary responses up, such as:
incendiary responses
The comments that were removed and those above reflect some dangerous thinking—dangerous because it suggests that we live in a colorblind, post-racial America, where careful consideration of a historically oppressed and repressed group of people can now be casually tossed underneath the blanket term “racism,” or disregarded altogether under the guise of our shared Americanism. It is absurd because it suggests that the diversity of people successfully creating and performing new music in our field is robust enough so that no such opportunities like this one are necessary. It suggests that these remaining opportunities somehow pander to notions of trivial politics instead of addressing modern-day oppression. It is dangerous and absurd because it microinvalidates specific cultural identities with notions of super-imposed normalcy, i.e. “Americanism”—that somehow to be American is to be enough, and to be further qualified is unnecessary.

One need not spend more than 20 minutes looking through the headshots and biographies of the fastest emerging or most famous composers creating music in today’s orchestral world (and new music in general) before noticing the astounding homogeneity of that pool. I find that lack of diversity perplexingly unrepresentative of the actual number of people who are creating or who would like to create new music at high levels. Every day I come to work and receive calls, emails, applications, and musical samples from people of all races, ethnicities, and genders who are working diligently to improve their musical craft. As a violist, I perform with people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. On SoundCloud, YouTube, Vimeo, and BandCamp, I listen to people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. Yet the diversity of composers chosen for some of the highest paying or otherwise most valuable career opportunities in our field remains less than impressive, even in 2013. So why do some people react negatively when major cultural institutions take a public stand to make our field more equal?
Open door
Were the tables turned and this opportunity offered only to white composers, of course we would, and we should, hear and make uproarious criticisms of that model. The phrase “Whites Only” harkens back to a painful historical narrative in the United States. “Blacks Only”—“black” as the privileged, as the historically powerful—does not. To equate a hypothetical whites-only call for composers with ACO’s opportunity is impossible and painfully ignorant of the consequences of our past. Lawyer, civil rights activist, and author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander puts racial privilege in perspective, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”* The too-often monochromatic skin tones in positions of power within new music affirm that there is still much work to be done.

I don’t care to live in a post-racial America; we all have a race, a culture, and an identity to embrace and celebrate. I do, however, care to live in a non-racist America, where people of all colors, ethnicities, and genders are hired, approached, perceived, and even incarcerated equally. It should be obvious: we do not live there today. But some opportunities, behaviors, and dialogues take steps to get us closer to that nation of the future.  To return to Michelle Alexander’s writings:

This argument [of racial caste] may be particularly hard to swallow given the election of Barack Obama. Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first black president could possibly have a racial caste system. It’s a fair question. But there is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the existence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet racial caste systems do not require hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference.*

I, for one, am grateful for ACO’s lack of indifference.


*Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, NY: The New Press.


After graduating from Vassar College with a bachelor’s in music and a secondary focus in English, Emily Bookwalter joined New Music USA’s team as a grants manager in January of 2011. Seldom refusing an opportunity to meet new people through music, she is an open-minded collaborator, improviser, and violist/singer in New York City. As a faithful advocate for accessible music in communities, Bookwalter is a violist and the external affairs manager for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn; a close-knit group of musicians dedicated to the democratization of concert music in Brooklyn. In addition to her time spent with the SOB, she actively performs with jazz/hip-hop/contemporary ensembles ShoutHouse and the Gabriel Zucker big band, and is an avid performer of improvisatory and experimental chamber music.