Posted on June 26, 2019

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Nebal Maysaud, New Music Box, June 24, 2019

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My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

Classical Music is Inherently Racist

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The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly white–occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.

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From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cuures of people of color.

What to Do About Our Love for Classical Music?

It’s not uncommon to love your abuser. I know the experience, and can understand how hard it is to leave. Despite all that classical music has done to me, I still can’t help but marvel at the religious splendor of Bach’s works for organ. Nor can I help but weep at Tchaikovsky’s raw expressive power.

I will forever love my favorite composers. It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time. I am not making a judgment call on specific works in the canon, but instead their function in modern classical music institutions

And there is still the question of what to do about the skills these composers taught us.

I would like to return to the analogy of the abusive relationship.

Many of us have learned a lot from our abusers. Some abusers are even our parents. Their abuse can follow you wherever you go, and escaping them entirely may be impossible. Whether we like it or not, we are forever changed by our abuse.

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While most composers of color are responding to a calling, that calling is to create artwork in our own voices not to behold ourselves to the social construct of Western classical music.

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In order to leave our abusive relationship, we need a community.

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Western classical music depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers are by playing the game of these institutions.

It’s time for us to recognize that engaging with these institutions, that contributing to the belief that our participation in composer diversity initiatives is doing anything to reshape the institution of classical music, and that classical music is an agent of cultural change instead of a placeholder to prevent composers of color from forming our own cultures, is ultimately furthering colonization and prevents us from creating artwork capable of real, genuine expression.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine. Instead, I want to create music for my community. Instead of contributing to white culture and helping them erase my own narrative, I want to use my ability to create art to keep my culture alive.

As long as people of color are making art, culture stays alive.

This mission is entirely against the nature of white supremacy, which seeks to replace non-white cultures with their own fantasies. Therefore, I will not find support in this endeavor.

Let’s Create Art for Our Own Communities

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White gatekeepers still control funding. And we are fortunate enough to have a few allies in these positions. We will need to cooperate in order to stay afloat. It is possible to engage without inflicting cultural harm. Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

But while we’re getting our funding, we need to create our own communities. We need to find each other and make music together. We need to ally ourselves with artists from all walks of life in order to create the cultures whiteness has tried to take from us.

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What Does a Post-Classical Community Look Like?

I am not advocating for the formation of a formalized group. Formalizing ourselves runs the risk of trapping ourselves within the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s essentially using the tools of our oppressors to try to liberate ourselves. Instead, we need to look at how our cultures have historically gathered, and use active decolonization as a larger community to decide how we want to organize ourselves.

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Imagining a Post-Classical World

Instead of stealing from other cultures to create a facade of white supremacy, cultures from around the world are able to present the endless beauty and infinite histories of our traditions.

This freedom will extend to everyone, including white musicians who will be more prepared to handle the traditional music and practices of their own ancestors. White musicians will come to realize that they have given up a lot to be white, and that they have a culture too that they can explore. White composers can spend time analyzing their own history and influences on that history – i.e. Gregorian chants and their influence from the Middle East; Pagan and other minority religions; minority histories within Europe; or traditional Celtic, Greek, and Italian music. A lot of has been explored in European tradition, but since the Romantic era, too many works have been explored from the belief that white Western culture is superior to all others. {snip}

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures, they can go back to the point before they came to be known as white and collaborate with other composers to explore a more accurate history and culture of their own people.

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My Plan

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By knowing how Western classical music treats me and composers like me, I do not want to limit myself and my opportunities, and I don’t think I have to. I believe you can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

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This way of thinking is a stark departure from a practice of making your clients your best friends. Many of the musicians I know interact with no one else but their circle of colleagues. I personally find that practice to be a way of implicitly making people of color feel unsafe and unwelcome. By keeping my distance, I not only keep my mental health under control, but I also get the chance to connect with my own communities and give them access to an art they never thought they needed.

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Conclusion

Our movement will still have white allies present. There are those (although very few) who are willing to put themselves in danger and go against the institutions. Others are willing to work within institutions to protect and defend us people of color as we create our coalition. There are already those ready to leverage their privilege to establish a more equitable future. Because they too have learned that they will not be liberated unless everyone is liberated.

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People of color are done being tokens and our calling to create is not being fulfilled. {snip} Every day, people of color are conversing with each other about possible ways to combat racism in the field of music, and these coalitions form as a natural result.

In a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth.

{snip} But in a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth no matter how much the white institutions disapprove of our message.

If just one musician of color finds hope and inspiration to work towards a future independent of the institutions they now recognize as their abusers, I will have done my job.

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