Facing Classical Music’s Race Problem

As a young, black (primarily) classical singer, I oftentimes find myself hitting a wall working with conductors and directors on interpreting African American musical styles. These encounters range from tokenization, to normalized ignorance, to downright racist stereotyping. Unfortunately, I recently had to face all three of these head-on with a rather well-known conductor. I share this story so other black classical singers know they’re not alone — so young singers can know what to prepare themselves for. I share this story with the full knowledge that those in power benefit from white privilege that normalizes white comfort and marginalizes black lived oppression. I write this with the full knowledge that, if read by the wrong people, I could be disqualified from future gigs.

While preparing to sing in a recent production of Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest, I was faced with what I may term a “difficult conductor.” I had the pleasure of presenting Langston Hughes’s powerful text “I, Too, Sing America,” which in this movement is sung as a duet with a different text sung by the mezzo. The mezzo sings June Jordan’s “Okay, Negroes.” Keeping in mind that the conductor in question was a white male, it is easy to see why I was a bit uneasy going in to this encounter. Would the conductor’s interpretation be sensitive the history of black oppression in the U.S.? Would he have a deep knowledge of both poets and their particular milieu? Would they say the word “Negro” and enjoy it a little too much? In this case, most of my fears were realized.

“I, Too, Sing America/Okay Negroes” from Songfest. Conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1977.

The conductor stopped in the middle of our first rehearsal (admittedly to correct one of my rhythmic errors), and began to offer his “reading” of the text. He informed us that June Jordan is telling Langston Hughes to stop being an Uncle Tom — apparently the revolutionary call for acceptance and for seeing the humanity of African Americans was lost on him. The conductor believed that June Jordan was calling for a stark departure from the accommodationist rhetoric of the Harlem Renaissance. In his words, “He [Hughes] is like Martin Luther King and she [Jordan] is like Malcolm X.

The issue with this statement is that it posits a false equivalency of hoping for dignity (“besides they’ll see how beautiful I am”) and being a white apologist. He also makes the common error of drawing parallels between black thinkers and poets that inhabited vastly different milieu — essentially all black artists inhabit the same time-space and are the same. Though Langston Hughes was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, one should not conflate his agenda with that of the bourgeois elite blacks (Alain Locke principal of them all). While the black elites like Booker T. Washington were touting a rhetoric of accommodation — even disparaging lower class practices like patronizing jazz clubs — Langston Hughes became the voice of jazz, blues, and the working class black person. Hughes was also gay and a socialist. None of these ideas align with the Uncle Tom narrative espoused by our conductor. June Jordan was active during the Black Arts Movement. It is a terrible mistake to judge these vastly different poets by the same sociological and literary standards, because the road to black liberation is long and winding. Perhaps Bernstein’s choice to set these texts side-by-side also rang false to me in the first place.

The second occurrence of racial ignorance was when the conductor told my mezzo colleague to be “more sassy.” And, of course, I was to be dignified and stoic. These facile characterizations not only paint one-dimensional characters, but hearken to minstrel stereotypes like the Mammy and the Uncle. I cringed on the inside as I realized the privilege of white ignorance in action. Of course, I could not say anything because I had no power in this situation. My reputation and budding professional career, in my mind, were in his hands. So I held in this anger, and did not have the best rehearsal as a result. Later, the conductor interjected in a conversation where I complimented my colleague on her visceral belting saying “You bettah serve us Tina Turner girl!” He said, “That’s right! Your Ike and she’s Tina.” I finally said something: “Umm, no. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.” He quickly scoffed, pretending that he was joking. I certainly was not convinced.

All of these aggressions coupled with his confusing conducting gestures made for a nightmarish experience. I should also mention that he routinely hit on young women involved with the performance, creating a general aura of chauvinism.

The performance ended up going pretty well, and I redeemed myself from those terrible rehearsals. However, I share this so that other singers know that I have experienced this too and it is not appropriate. WE expend so much mental and physical energy interpreting this white literary and musical canon. Yet, those in power have the privilege of being ignorant of important black literary figures. They paint the black experience with a broad brush and still enjoy the accolades and adulation of an uninformed public. We sell our bodies, our voices, and sometimes our sense of self just for a chance to make a gig check. And this is not just.

The easiest way this conductor could have upgraded his conduct from ignorant asshole, to insightful professional would have been to ask the two black soloists how we felt about the texts. The reality is that most black classical artists do not expect white conductors to understand the intricacies of our experiences — we are not naive. However, we are always hoping that someone will give us the chance to voice our thoughts, concerns, and experiences. White cishetero patriarchy, however, assumes ownership of all bodies of knowledge, and the supremacy of white artistic output.

We — musicians, conductors, administrators — must begin to expect a higher moral standard from our colleagues. Our society’s willingness to overlook ignorance and power hunger because of talent has been the main contributing factor of the #metoo phenomenon. How many have known about James Levine and overlooked it because of his “musical genius?” I am not interested in musical genius any more than I am interested in working with this conductor again. What I wish we would aspire for is music that is sincere, just, builds communities, and stirs positive action in the hearts of man. As long as our art remains tainted by greed and self-seeking, classical music is no better than public masturbation. Perhaps we should follow the advice of the poem Bernstein chose for the opening movement of Songfest:

To the Poem by Frank O’Hara

Let us do something grand
just this once Something

small and important and
unAmerican Some fine thing

will resemble a human hand
and really be merely a thing

Not needing a military band
nor an elegant forthcoming

to tease spotlights or a hand
from the public’s thinking

But be In a defiant land
of its own a real right thing

I would love to hear your stories of implicit bias, bigotry, and general ignorance in classical music. Together we can strategize real change in our profession. Maybe this looks like more minority-owned and operated musical venues. Maybe our new way will look like more minority orchestral conductors and arts administrators. Let us remove this veil of silence that plagues our art forms, and work together to do a “real right thing.”

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