British Conductor Sacked by US Music Festival After ‘Innocent’ Joke With His African-American Friend was Labelled Racist
Patrick Sawer, Telegraph, September 9, 2017
An acclaimed British conductor has been fired from a prestigious American music festival after a seemingly innocent joke he made to a black friend was labelled racist.
Matthew Halls was removed as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival following an incident in which he imitated a southern American accent while talking to his longstanding friend, the African-American classical singer Reginald Mobley.
It is understood a white woman who overheard the joke reported it to officials at the University of Oregon, which runs the festival, claiming it amounted to a racial slur.
Shortly after Halls, who has worked with orchestras and opera houses across Europe and the US, was told by a university official his four year contract, which was to have run until 2020, was being terminated.
Mobley, a countertenor who regularly performs in the UK, has now spoken out to defend his friend, saying there was nothing racist about the joke and describing the university’s apparent treatment of Halls as deeply unjust.
“He has been victimised and I’m very upset about it,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. ”It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.”
The incident comes amid heightened sensitivity over race in the US, with renewed protest over police brutality, institutional racism and the re-emergence of white supremacists.
It also coincides with the rise of what some have dubbed ‘the snowflake generation’ and the debate over whether the demand for ‘safe spaces’ on campus stifles debate and free speech or simply protects minorities from abuse and discrimination.
But Mobley maintains that while racism should be challenged and ethnic groups made aware of each other’s sensitivities, his friend has been the victim of misunderstanding and overreaction.
Halls and Mobley had been chatting at a reception held last month during this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, when the subject turned to a concert in London in which Mobley had performed.
The singer, who was born and raised in the southern state of Florida, said the concert had an “antebellum” feel to it, of the sort associated with Gone With the Wind and other rose-tinted representations of the pre-Civil War south.
In response Mobley says that Halls “apologised on behalf of England”, before putting on an exaggerated southern accent and joking: “Do you want some grits?”, in a reference to the ground corn dish popular in the south.
“I’m from the deep south and Matthew often makes fun of the southern accent just as I often make fun of his British accent,” said Mobley. “Race was not an issue. He was imitating a southern accent, not putting on a black accent, and there was nothing racist or malicious about it.”
But the singer suspects that a white woman who overheard their conversation and spoke to him moments later went on to report it to the university, alleging Halls had made a racist joke.
An internal inquiry into the incident is understood to have been held as a result of the complaint.
However, Mobley was not invited to give evidence and he says there is a deep irony in the fact the authorities appear to have assumed on his behalf that he would have objected to the joke.
“I’m the subject of a falsified story, without having the chance to have my say,” he said. “My voice has been taken away in a conversation about race that involved me, and technically that’s racist.”
Pressure on the festival organisers to reinstate Halls is growing, with from others musicians coming to his support.
Meanwhile Mobley fears his friend’s career will suffer after being tarnished with the incendiary label of racism.
“Matthew is obviously upset, and part of his anger would have to come from the fact he’s been accused of saying something so insensitive to a close friend,” said Mobley.
The singer, who will perform in Purcell’s King Arthur with the Academy of Ancient Music at London’s Barbican next month, says that while he appreciates the efforts of some white people to confront racism, he warns it can lead to wrong headed assumptions.
“A lot of our allies have become so eager to help the race and fix the scars they almost go too far,” said Mobley. “They think they are at the point where they understand racism more than those who have really encountered it in their lives and they make assumptions on our behalf about how we might feel, as if we don’t understand when something said to us or done to use is racist.
“It’s well meaning, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions.
“It also demeans and cheapens the very serious work done by civil rights activists and abolitionists to have the difficult nuances of racism and microaggressions taken seriously.”
Responding to the claims a spokesman for Oregon Bach Festival, said: “The University considers many factors when deciding whether to continue a contract. Regarding Reggie Mobley, it doesn’t appear he was involved in the University’s decision. Having said that, it would be inappropriate for the University to disclose details about a personnel matter.
“While I anticipate that more information will be available soon, I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter right now.”