Tradition & Legacy in African-American Composers, part II

Welcome back, I hope you’ve enjoyed your break. Let’s jump into Part II, and discuss the playing of African-American composers in our time. Last time we spoke, we were talking about the Great American Melting Pot in terms of culture. I want to clarify here that there are wonderful composers that aren’t “black” or “white1 who exist and should also be researched, but are being glossed over for the same bad reasons, which we will discuss. We are focusing on black composers because I want to discuss a problem within context.2 Again, I want to be clear that underrepresentation is not a black vs. white issue, or a man vs. woman issue. But first, a little story about my childhood and my upbringing in classical music:

In the suburban-like bubble of a town where I grew up, I heard many of my friends and classmates tell me that “racism is dead” and that “we should only be listening to artists who write great music regardless of race.” I started wondering why that second quote was often paired with the first quote,3 and became terrified that what they were trying to say was that white composers are writing better music. I find this to be a ridiculous, prejudiced claim and I hope that this is not what they meant. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, they probably were not actively attempting to be racist, but instead trying to say there’s nothing wrong with the status quo of concert programming. My problem, as I stated in Part I, is that the status quo is very white and male. There is a resurgence on the horizon, however, of playing and recognizing black composers, so I want to remind everyone of some things to keep in mind as we explore their music. And now:


Part II: Mind the Gap


In Part I, I briefly mentioned how treating black composers as a niche genre can be harmful. By using the label “black,” we open up the opportunity to create a divide: composers and black composers. Very slyly, this label creates a division between composers, and insinuates that there is a difference between a composer and a black composer. Through this division, blanket statements will come and start to do even more damage by exoticizing black composers: ex. “I’ve never been a fan of black composers,” “I’m so excited to hear this piece by this black composer,” or the dreaded, “she’s great for a black composer.” Ideally, this division should be instead a distinction, rather: “Did you know Harry Lawrence Freeman was the first black composer to have an opera staged in the USA?” or “Did you know Florence B. Price was the first female black composer to have a piece performed by a major US orchestra?” Here we use a label to highlight an accomplishment within a societal context, instead of dividing the composer from the tradition and legacy of all composers. By focusing on the achievement, we can bring the composer into the tradition rather than ostracize her from it. So let’s explore the ways we can exoticize black composers and why it is damaging.


Probably the most common way we exocitize black composers is by assuming they are solely a product of the black experience. Here, we reduce extremely complex artists and creative thinkers into a one-dimensional analysis of their racial identity. Surely their experience of being black in America holds a strong influence on their personal identity, but we must understand that composers are more than just their skin tone. They exist on a multi-dimensional level, and as discussed earlier, billing them as a black composer erases so many other important aspects of each person’s human experience. To be African-American is to be American. To be a black composer is to be a composer. This small quirk in how we talk about composers may not always be used in a demeaning manner, but by changing how we use our language, we can eradicate the possibility of a negative comprehension.


Similarly, we exoticize black composers by assuming they can only write “black” music, such as spirituals or jazz. African-American spirituals are importantly American folk music, not just black music. This means that anyone is free to use this music and draw from it from inspiration, that not every black composer needs to feel connected or compelled to draw from this material. Just like jazz, hip-hop, rap, or soul, non-black artists are able (and encouraged) to explore these genres and draw from these genres as inspiration. But of course, we must also be aware of the historical context from which this music comes. Looking at African-American spirituals, this music comes from a time of great pain in American History. Using this music in a disrespectful4 way can cause a stronger division between people rather than create great art. And again, we want to be recognizing those who write great art; we want to perform great art.


On the other side of the spectrum of exoticizing black composers is ignoring them, an equally damaging problem. In the American canon, there are quite a few great composers that wrote music that will stand the test of time. When we play exclusively Ives and Copland and Bernstein and Reich, we start to forget that perhaps there are other American composers writing great works of art that deserve to be performed alongside these American greats. By only playing and lauding white composers, we reinforce the misinformed view that only white composers are writing great music. By playing exclusively white composers, we turn non-white composers into some exotic5 dish whose sole purpose is to push the audience’s boundaries on what is allowed in the concert hall when/if they are ever performed. By playing exclusively white composers, we neglect the influence that non-white composers had on the realm of art music.


So why aren’t black composers being performed? I have a few ideas why, but I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the classical music world just isn’t educated about the history of non-white composers and their music.6 Perhaps there was a history of racism that made decision makers of the 20th century weary to promote black composers for fear of being blacklisted.7 Perhaps the classical music world feels that black composers exist in a purely black tradition/legacy and therefore should only be played by black performers and musicians and since black classical performers, musicians, and composers make up a minority in the classical music world, black composers never really have a chance to make it in the mainstream.  Perhaps black composers were/are just writing bad music and racism doesn’t exist and everything in the world is perfect. I have varying degrees of faith in each of these suggestions, but I doubt the actual reason is a singular reason. At the end of the day, however, we must not pretend these composers do not exist. They have existed for nearly 150 years, and there are even more black composers writing today. By recognizing this influence and allowing more representation8 into the concert hall, the future of western art music will improve, not diminish, and will lead to better music, ideas, and a better world.


There is a very thin line that I have been trying to walk while writing this essay, and that is to not fall prey to the very thing I’m arguing against – exoticizing composers. Writing an essay about black composers is, by its nature, essentializing the blackness of these composers. I went ahead and wrote this essay because I believe it does more good to educate people about these underrepresented artists, and to educate people on how we undermine their work so in the future we can give these composers the proper respect and attention they deserve. We should be talking about black composers, and African-American composers should be included in conversations about American art. Some people, like my friends in music school, would argue there is no problem; that we should turn a blind eye to the composers’ non-musical personality traits and identity, and that their art will eventually bring the recognition it deserves. To sit back and try to let the problem of underrepresentation solve itself, however, would ignore that there is a system in place that makes it harder for minority composers to get played and performed. So we must become aware, we must continually ask ourselves, “Is there a problem?” If yes, “What exactly is the problem? How do we approach this problem?” Check back for Part III to see the thrilling conclusion of my discussion of tradition and legacy in African-American composers.




Derek Carter

February 2nd, 2017

Written for the Fulcrum Point New Music Project blog


“White” is a terrible term to lump a group of people in, and I’m so sorry because I’m about to do it a bunch, but we’re talking about minority representation.

Feel free to substitute another underrepresented group anytime “black” is written… well most of the time.

It also confounded me that only my white friends believed that racism was dead, but of course that is a conversation for a different day. A very necessary conversation, I might add.

Here I mean disrespectful to the music. Music is a reflection of the people, time, and culture it comes from, and disrespecting music is disrespecting the artists who created it. This is very much related to the conversations of appropriation we’ve all been hearing about in recent years.

Foreign, unnatural, doesn’t belong

See Part I

Literally. Black-listed. Blacklisted. Do you get the joke? I made a joke!

I feel I should add that I’m not advocating the throwing out of great composers that happen to be white males at all.