“Racism is so pervasive in this country and in the world at large that it has, in many instances, become unconscious. It can slip into the daily discourse and go unrecognized, even by people who clearly ought to know better.”
– Jessye Norman, Stand Up Straight and Sing! –
A report commissioned by the League of American Orchestras showed that the “proportion of nonwhite musicians represented in the orchestra workforce — and of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians in particular — remains extremely low.”
- Only 2.5% of US orchestral musicians are Hispanic or Latino
- Only 1.8% of US orchestral musicians are Black
- Only 8.3% of US orchestral staff are Black or Latino
- Between 2010 and 2016, only 2-6% of conductors and music directors in America were Black
Even once hired, Black and Brown musicians face interpersonal racism that makes working conditions more difficult than it is for white musicians. They are routinely questioned by staff whose implicit bias causes them to assume they are not performers, assumed to have fewer skills than their white counterparts and play only specific instruments, and offered fewer opportunities beyond concerts and repertoire designated for “diversity.”
Diversifying classical music will take more than shallow efforts of programming. It will take concerted, comprehensive work from boardroom to concert hall and in communities.
It is important to highlight the racism in Classical Music, even as we use it as a vehicle for our activism. We are donating our time and talents to creating this anti-racist work, and a portion of any future proceeds from Don’t Look Away will be invested in Black and Brown Classical Music organizations to help begin to correct this inequity and as reparations for past harms.
Data Source: Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field by Dr. James Doeser, commissioned by the League of American Orchestras (2016)
“I believe in my heart and soul that classical music heals, and that opera is for everyone, but there is real work that needs to be done in the classical musical community.”
– Lauren Michelle, award-winning opera singer –
Articles on Systemic Racism in Classical Music
- How Orchestra Boards Can Advance Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: A Guide from the League of American Orchestras
- Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music: Nine performers describe the steps they recommend to begin transforming a white-dominated field
- That sound you’re hearing is classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism
- The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music
- Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical Music
- Resisting the Eurocentric Paradigm: Activist Classical Music Groups Effect Change
- It’s Our Music Too: The Black Experience in Classical Music
- Black Musicians Demand End to Racism in Classical Music Industry
- Can Music Theory Education Overcome its Whiteness Problem?
- Music Theory and the White Racial Frame
- “Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory,” by Phil Ewell
Activist classical music
We encourage you to seek out performances of other activist classical music that both expresses the experience of racism and tackles questions of how to eradicate it. The following is only a small sampling of works written on this subject. If you have a suggestion of a piece to add, message us using the contact form on the About the Artists page:
- Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (2015) by Joel Thompson is a piece for male chorus that sets the final words of seven men killed by police or authority figures.
- Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for music, The Central Park Five by Anthony Davis dramatizes the famous case in which five African American and Latino teenagers were falsely convicted and spent years in prison. Davis has composed many activist works, not only in opera, but also choral, chamber and orchestral music.
- Yet Unheard by Courtney Bryan is a work for orchestra and chorus which commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013.
- Nigra Sum Sed Formosa – I am Black But Beautiful (a fantasia on microaggressions) by Jonathan Woody contrasts passages of the Biblical Song of Solomon (“I am black but beautiful”) with the kind of casual racism faced by Black musicians every day.
- Adolphus Hailstork‘s 1982 piece American Guernica was a response to the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a racially-motivated bombing that killed four young girls attending Sunday school.
- Composer Mary D. Watkins has several pieces, including, Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story, Emmett Till, The Opera, and Five Movements In Color for orchestra.
- In Prints of Lost Breath, written in response to the murder of George Floyd, Peña Aguayo captures both the vibrancy of bomba music, originally from the African slaves and free African people on the island of Puerto Rico, and its connections to the fight for social justice.
- Last Breaths by Armando Bayolo sets the last words of six young Black men killed by police in the last ten years.
radio & podcast
Tune into shows that promote diverse composers and performers. Here are a few to get you started:
- Unmute the Voices, a radio show and video series hosted by Dr. Quinton Morris that celebrates BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) artistry in classical music by highlighting compositions and performances by BIPOC artists.
- Black Music Seen, a podcast dedicated to highlighting and telling the stories of living legends in Black classical music.
- Melanated Moments in Classical Music, the award-winning podcast from Classical Music Indy, shines a spotlight on musical works composed by, for, and about Black people.
- The Black Maestro
- Classically Black centers Black voices and challenges ideas of what the field of classical music looks like.
- In Down With the Patri-Bachy, Elizabeth Ajao and Ben Richards introduce listeners to composers from underrepresented backgrounds.
- Classical Music In Color is about all things classical by or about classical musicians of color.
- Trilloquy is a podcast featuring stories “from the fringes of classical music” every week. They interview guests with diverse perspectives on the world of classical music.
- Rhapsody in Black is an “ecstatic exploration of classical music that’s aesthetically and uncompromisingly Black, with host Tesfa Wondemagegnehu.”
- The Anthology of Black Classical Music is a series from WNYC produced “by black musicians about black music, its history, its present and its future.”
- Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness
- Are We Hearing A Crescendo of Anti-Racism in Classical Music? with Dr. Kira Thurman and Ashleigh Gordon
- Black Muses Podcast: Episode 1: Part 4– Black Composers in Classical Music with Anthony R. Green
organizations & ensembles
This is a partial list of Classical Music Organizations that are either majority Black and Brown or have designated themselves activist organizations. Try attending a concert, listening to recordings, and supporting their missions.
- Chicago Sinfonietta
- Imani Winds
- Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra
- The Sphinx Organization
- Castle of Our Skins
- The Dream Unfinished
- Orchestra Amadeus
- Sound Off: Music for Bail
- Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul
- The Oakland Symphony prioritizes marrying the traditional model of a symphony orchestra with the mission to engage their diverse population at the concert hall and in the community.
- Black Orchestral Network
- Challenge the Stats “provides a space of creativity, community, and advocacy for communities of color through our concert series; as well as spaces of aspiration and inspiration for young people through our educational workshops. Our highest priority is to empower a generation of classical musicians of color to spark social change in their own communities by leveraging the talents they have honed throughout their years of training.”
- The National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) was created “to help increase diversity in American orchestras. It does so by offering Black and Latinx musicians a customized combination of mentoring, audition preparation, financial support, and audition previews.”
- The African American Art Song Alliance is the home of interchange between performers and scholars interested in art song by African-American composers. It includes an incredible compilation of composers, performers, scholars and publishers.
- The African Diaspora Music Project is a compilation of original works by composers in the African Diaspora. It includes a searchable database.
- Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music focuses on classically trained American singers and composers of African descent and on the vocal music forms they influenced, especially opera and art songs–including Negro spirituals composed for concert performance. They include a chronology of major events and accomplishments by African American vocal musicians and a list of libraries and research centers that house significant collections of resources by and about African American musicians.
- The George Shirley Vocal Competition celebrates African American Vocal Repertoire with a yearly competition which awards $30,000 in scholarships across 5 divisions of competition from college to professional, as well as a composer division.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King –
“…the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because
people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
– Eric Holder –