"The 'Canon' Is Racist": How A Collective Of Black Musicians Are Exposing Racism In The Classical Music Community
Classical music, like many industries across the nation, is finally reckoning with its long-standing racial inequity problem. With an overwhelmingly white, Eurocentric canon, few internal mechanisms for accountability and institutional hierarchies that quell dissent, the world of classical music has proved particularly impervious to heeding calls for racial justice. Entrenched in tradition, the industry has allowed its outdated systems to endure, largely unchallenged; according to a 2016 report, Black musicians still make up less than two percent of the nation’s orchestral members. Intrinsically fixated upon the distant past, classical music has long resisted the path towards a more equitable future. That is, until now.
In the wake of the protests that have swept the nation over the past few months against police brutality and systemic racism, classical music is at last addressing its deep-rooted institutional biases. As musicians of color come forward to share their stories of racial injustice, organizations and individuals are being held accountable for their actions and encouraged to take responsibility for effectuating meaningful change moving forwards.
One Instagram account, Orchestra Is Racist, lies at the epicenter of this movement. Run by a collective of Black musicians, the page provides a platform for musicians of color to share their stories of experienced racism in classical music, from education to orchestral hiring processes to dealings with arts' administration. In addition to providing a space for musicians of color to share their experiences, the account also aims to effectuate tangible change in the field, reaching out to institutions and individuals to ensure their commitment to change. Says the team, "Until orchestras stop being racist, we will continue to exist. As orchestras adapt and morph, so will we."
GRAMMY.com spoke with the team to discuss the account, classical music's shifting landscape and the industry's path forward. In order to protect members’ anonymity, the interview was conducted entirely via email. "While we have no fear of de-anonymizing ourselves, we want to keep the focus on the stories presented and less on us," explained the team. "There may be a time when it makes sense that we reveal our identities, but for now we will continue to maintain this anonymous platform for people to speak out and foster change." You can follow them on Instagram @orchestraisracist.
What were your initial goals for the page? Have those goals changed or expanded as the account has grown?
We wanted to offer a platform for people to air their grievances and traumas. We want to offer this anonymously so that the submitters feel safe enough to share without feeling punished. It’s too often the case that people of color are not heard, not taken seriously when they file a complaint, or they’ll be labeled problematic. Sometimes they simply just don’t file a complaint for those same reasons. Or, they feel nothing will come of it. We want to be a page that spotlights the traumatic burdens we have had to carry—largely in silence—for years. More than just showcasing problems of racism, we act to hold these institutions accountable. So, those goals are basically the same today. And with the growing number of followers, you can see that people are taking our complaints and us more seriously. Organizations and institutions are responding to the stories, making policy changes, making personnel changes, redesigning their curricula. The combined and coordinated efforts of the page and the followers have helped push these organizations in the right direction.
In the future, we are planning to create a task force that will attempt to quantify racism in the orchestral world and propose concrete changes based on those data. You will see Tom Batson’s statistical analysis of orchestral programming on our page. We'll do more of this with the task force.
We are planning to create a fund that will support BIPOC musicians' education and involvement in the orchestral world. That may be money for lessons, for instruments, for legal representation so they can combat racism in college and the workplace, etc.
"BIPOC trauma isn’t a fad and it wasn’t fixed with a black square."
What did it feel like to see this page start to gain attention? When you started the account, did you see it reaching this level?
It's great to see the page grow. What's better is to see the results we are getting from organizations that are making genuine changes. The comment sections always have some gems of real anti-racist education and sentiment from our followers. As we grow, we force these institutions and the media to continue to grapple with these issues. BIPOC trauma isn’t a fad and it wasn’t fixed with a black square. We have serious work to do and to continue doing! The outpouring of support is not surprising and it has been reassuring to see allies and "ally-wannabes" engage with the page and to see the global and genuine support network that BIPOCs create.
It was also heartbreaking to see the page grow so much. It is obvious that there is a real reckoning that needs to happen at these institutions. They really need to start making concrete changes—not just PR statements. These problems are pervasive—it’s not just one university or conservatory. It’s many places, over the entire trajectory of someone’s career and it’s tragic to see so many people affected. The dream would be that people don’t have to do go through what we went through.
Recently, chief classical music critic of the New York Times Anthony Tommasini authored a piece calling for the end of blind auditions in orchestral hiring processes to promote racial diversity in American orchestras. Do you think this approach would ultimately be helpful or harmful in increasing racial diversity?
Unhelpful. It’s counterproductive, misleading and clearly didn’t include appropriate research. Tommasini missed the mark! It was an article that supposedly had good intentions, but it would have been better to discuss it with musicians of color before printing. (We're assuming that didn't happen…because it's so out of touch). The most obvious and crucial omission is that the screen comes down in the final round of most all auditions, which defeats the purpose. Committees remove the screen, see that you're of color, and that's where the racism happens. They start inventing musical reasons for why you don't belong. And this isn't solely an American issue. Just look at the Vienna Philharmonic…For most orchestras, the "blind audition" is just a liability issue or just "meritocracy theater."
Following up on the previous question: Are there specific aspects of the classical music world that have allowed the industry to ignore institutional racism and individualized experiences of racism for so long?
Almost every aspect of classical music, as it is currently, cultivates a toxic and racist culture. That doesn't mean that every participant in classical music is racist, obviously. The specific aspects that sustain institutional racism are: hero worship; classism and elitism; unbalanced power structures (like the relationship between students and private teachers; the fear-based mentality that your teacher can "make or break you"); access to quality education and opportunities, especially for lower socioeconomic students—classical music is cost prohibitive for many prospective practitioners; respectability politics and classical musician stereotypes that serve to flush out individuality (for example, the flak that Yuja Wang gets for wearing short skirts is endemic of classical music's respectability politics rooted in the intersections of classical music and Christian worship—the altar, god-figures, etc.); the way classical music history is taught as a sanitized, sexist, queerphobic, whitewashed, and white supremacist version of history; lack of reporting protocols for racism; the way orchestras are funded and governed by "pay-to-play" boards;
"outreach programs" that are missionary-like PR campaigns. We could go on…and it is our page's work to address all of these issues.
How do we then adopt more equitable structures that include mechanisms for accountability moving forwards?
One way to move forward productively is to create an EDIB [equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging] watchdog that is independent and investigative. We also published a post that crowdsourced answers as to what orchestra can do to become more equitable. There’s no silver bullet for racism that has been trained and engrained in classical music for 400 years.
In what ways do you think access to resources and opportunities disproportionately affects people of color in the classical music world? How do you see the path forward in making accessibility and exposure to classical music more equitable from early training onwards?
Certainly, access to classical music education and resources is an issue. Partaking in classical music comes with certain upfront costs that are prohibitive for many people of color. And people need to continue to create ethical and anti-racist outreach organizations that teach and support young people of color. But what we reject is the argument that there just simply aren’t enough talented musicians of color. False! Many musicians of color leave the field because of the abuses against them, racism from their colleagues and teachers, institutions that don’t offer mental health resources and financial difficulties. Institutions can counter these reasons for leaving the field with smart policy changes.
In terms of early music education, we need more access to musical education in lower socioeconomic backgrounds through youth programs. Music educators need to stop selling lies of classical music exceptionalism to their students. Orchestras need to form long-term partnerships with youth to support them and provide training within the orchestral setting.
As it stands currently, the classical canon is overwhelmingly populated with works by white European men. Do you think that classical music can be extricated from white Eurocentrism moving forwards? What changes do you hope to see in programming and within the canon itself?
The "canon" is racist—it’s an arbitrary set of guidelines set by historically dead white academics. There’s no aesthetic reason why Beethoven is better than, say, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, except for the fact that one has achieved mythic status and is consistently played. It’s the mere exposure effect—we like things more the more often we see or hear them. Make no mistake, we love Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and even Wagner, but they aren’t the totality of classical music. Educational institutions have a moral, ethical and scholarly duty to change their curriculum to include more about composers and musicians of color, women and the LGBTQ+. Contextualize their musical output, problematize their lives and works. Many of the composers that we play currently were only deemed "white" sometime in the early 20th century. Whiteness is just like the canon—an arbitrary set of guidelines set by dead white men.
Orchestras need to do the work of performing works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Julia Perry, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Tan Dun, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Francisco López Capillas, Chinary Ung, William Grant Still, Gabriela Ortiz, Margaret Bonds, Tania León, Florence Price, Marcos Balter, George Lewis, Qu Xiao-Song, Errollyn Wallen, George Walker, Toru Takemitsu, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, James Wilson, Yoshirō Irino, Ulysses Kay, Zenobia Powell Perry. The list goes on. Orchestras need to commission works by composers of color. There are several good websites out there that will show you a database of composers of color and compositions of color. Every concert should feature a composer of color. Why not? This needs to be the new norm.
In some of the posts on your account, I’ve noticed instances of individuals refraining from being specific when detailing their experiences out of fear of losing their jobs. What do you say to those currently pushing for change who are simultaneously trying to navigate the unfortunate reality that they may still need to work within the context of a discriminatory system to succeed?
You're right. The posts vary in level of detail offered. And what you see is what we receive. We just copy and paste. But there is still the very real fear, especially within a field this small and with so few people of color, that speaking up will out you. So all of these stories are acts of bravery. For those who need to speak out without fear of retribution, we encourage them to reach out to us. Sharing these stories is a form of cathartic release and that may be all that the person can do in the moment until retaliation has been curtailed. There are too many institutional structures in place that preclude BIPOCs from feeling empowered to speak out, and that’s the way the system likes it.
What are the long-term changes you want to see in the industry? What are some specific policies and directives you would like to see institutions adopting right now?
We just want equal rights, equal opportunities, fairness, and to be treated with dignity. That amounts to orchestras recruiting qualified board members and leadership of color, people who are aware of and sympathetic to the issues of systemic and structural racism and have the wherewithal to change it. No token hires.
Orchestras can make the audition process more fair by keeping the screen up; create mentorship schemes that train pre-professional musicians of color in orchestral playing; revise the tenure process so that it is quantifiable and not subjective; commit to commissioning works by musicians of color; commit to performing works by composers of color; hire more soloists, vocalists, and conductors of color; white musicians can speak out when they see or hear something racist.
Institutions can broaden their curriculum to include composers of color side-by-side, on equal footing, with the dead white men; create hotlines and reporting/investigation systems for anonymous claims of racism; they can establish and support Black Student Unions; mandate cultural awareness and anti-racist training for all the faculty and staff; require bystander intervention training; commit to performing works by composers of color; offer mental health, community support systems, and mentorship.
One easy-to-implement suggestion is that conservatories and music schools include required works (concerti and sonatas) by people of color in the audition requirements. This both sets the tone for the institution’s commitment to EDIB and encourages a generation of prospective students to learn and perform these works.
If orchestras need help with the path forward, we encourage them to reach out to us. We can point them in the right direction. Use us as a resource.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Regarding "cancel culture," briefly. We collect stories and give them a platform to be heard, recognized and empathized with, for people to support and use as leverage for change. We just sound the alarm, someone else (organizations) has to put out the fire. We have never advocated for the firing of anyone, and we have not doxxed anyone (screenshots of social media messages, emails, and text messages aren’t private). If an organization chooses to fire someone, that’s their prerogative. Sometimes the best and only way to change the culture is to change the personnel. Orchestra Is Racist invites all people to come to the table, knowing that their words and actions have been deeply traumatizing and detrimental to the involvement of BIPOCs in the arts, and commit to doing anti-racist work on themselves and in their craft.