Black Lives Matter, COVID, and Diversifying Music History

Over the past month, since I published my first post on this platform, the Black Lives Matter movement has reignited the fight for racial equity and justice in the United States and across the world. Unfortunately, the events that led to this reawakening have been the tragic deaths of black individuals at the hands of the state’s law enforcement officers. The calls for acknowledgement of the systemic racism BIPOC face and actual change in policies to dismantle and counteract this system have poured out of and into every facet of our lives, including music academia. Our brilliant colleague, Danielle Brown penned a powerful and incisive open letter to the Society for Ethnomusicology in particular and the discipline in general. This ignited an ongoing heated debate in the SEM’s listserv. Music scholars and students across the country are coming forward with their stories of lived discrimination within music academia. Not unlike the calls for dismantling or defunding police departments, the criticisms and anecdotes of students and faculty of color to the academic music establishment are not a call for reform, but rather a call to question the system in its entirety.     

I have been personally processing the call for change from a very individual perspective, and as half-formed as the thoughts, concerns, and ideas I share here are, my only aim is to add one more perspective to this conversation. I’m limiting this post to one particular aspect, diversity in the music history surveys; I am extremely aware that racial discrimination pervades music academia and classical music in countless forms, and I would never pretend to or attempt to address them all in this forum.

I preface my thoughts and suggestions by stating that I was raised within the Western European Art Music tradition. Based on my country of birth, Puerto Rico, it seems that many white music scholars and performers assume that I would be an expert or knowledgeable in folk and popular music traditions from Puerto Rico and Latin America. I grew up listening to this music and singing it mostly during Christmas time, but as a musician, I was raised on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Haydn, etc., with some 19th-century Puerto Rican danzas thrown in for good measure. I did not study the classical nor the folk traditions of Latin America until I was pursuing a PhD in musicology at Indiana University, and working at its Latin American Music Center. Like all musicologists who do research on and teach music that falls outside the canon, I have had to first master my knowledge of the canon to then relate the music of these “other” composers to it. For someone who was “raised” within this tradition, the idea that being an ethnic minority excludes me from properly belonging to this tradition was painful and shocking, but it was also a moment of confronting the colonial processes and situation that led to the imposition of classical music as superior to other musics within the context of a neocolonial society in the Caribbean. I am “othered” many times over: as a woman, as a second-class US citizen, as a classical music native who is not considered as such in the world of US music academia. I am and will always be in a constant process of decolonizing my self from a musical upbringing that taught me Pierre Boulez but not Rafael Aponte Ledée. I am also aware that I write this from the extremely privileged position of a tenure track appointment.

The canon sits at the center, everything else revolves around it. There have been calls to “diversify” the canon, which is kind of an oxymoron, no? Having a musical canon implies exclusivity; some composers and works become codified as necessary for a “full” education or knowledge of the tradition, while others do not. The existence of a canon implies social, political, and economic power and control. When someone asks, with the best of intentions, “how will we diversify the canon?,” in turn, I ask why do we want to diversify the canon?

Recently, I wrote the following response when a group of colleagues was posed the question of how would we diversify music history courses: “I would caution against merely listing composers and performers we will ‘include’ in our WEAM (Western European Art Music) music courses. Black and non-white individuals and their music have been ignored or omitted from concert programming and music history surveys for historical reasons, and just adding them to the listening list is not sufficient, it is mere tokenism. What I like to do in class is to question the very structures that have led to the marginalization of non-whites (Others). What are the social and political and economic systems that lead to the formation of a canon of mostly Germanic male composers? Classical music is the music of a white patriarchal Christian system, and including black, women, and non-white composers as part of the surveys and saying ‘hey, these individuals also wrote classical music’ is mere tokenizing. Even in the graduate course Music of the Baroque this spring, I introduced Latin American colonial music as part of the European colonizing project that decimated indigenous peoples and trafficked African slaves to the new world, music served as a tool for religious conversion and the imposition of European power and dominance in the New World. We continue to teach WEAM because it is expected; but the more we can teach other traditions that are non-WEAM, and make sure students understand the conditions under which the WEAM tradition developed, then the better we can prepare them to continue their own exploration of musics and traditions by non-white folks.” (I used “folks” for gender inclusivity, not to single out non-white individuals as “folk.”)

I am certainly not the first to wage this criticism against the calls for diversifying the music history surveys, as Alejandro L. Madrid has so eloquently written here. [Edit 6/30/2020: A friend and colleague reminded me of Leonora Saavedra’s writings on this topic, which pre-date Madrid’s. You can find one of them here.]

If the goal of a university degree is to expand students’ worldview and provide them with the tools and skills they will need to thrive outside of the academic environment, then how is it responsible to only teach students the canon, especially in the times of a global economic crisis brought on by a global pandemic? We do not know what concert culture will look like in the future, we do not know if symphony orchestras and opera companies will go back to business as usual. If we think of this situation in Darwinian terms, as a rapidly changing ecosystem, only those who are quickest to adapt to (or even create) the ‘new normal’ will succeed in having a meaningful career. In a way, the trickling of the Black Lives Matter movement to music academia also presents us with a great opportunity. If we want to cultivate curious and adaptable musicians, wouldn’t introducing them to new repertory (and the historical context in which it was created) push students to develop better skills to adapt to the unknown? How are musicians supposed to cut through the noise of online/virtual recitals, recordings, concerts, if everyone is playing the same repertory? Wouldn’t it be more compelling and exciting for a young performer to become the expert of an until now relatively unknown composer or group of composers. Take for example Patricia Caicedo (who has built her career as an expert of Latin American art song repertory), the Catalyst Quartet (sponsored by the Sphinx organization, they specialize in music by African American and Latin American composers), or Daniel Inamorato (a virtuosic Brazilian pianist who specializes on Latin American works and who as a pedagogue is deeply invested in developing methods for teaching neurologically diverse students). And wouldn’t it be reassuring to students to examine and study the music and career paths of lesser-known figures, which in turn could serve as alternative models for how to flourish in the music world? In other words, hearing and seeing stories of how individuals from a variety of racial, gender, ethnic, and national backgrounds navigated their careers opens up students to new possibilities for what success means and looks like, and this would also have innumerable benefits for the mental wellbeing of our students.

I stand with my colleagues in their call to diversify music academia, but rather than jumping to the call to diversify the canon (as I say above, it is the product of a historical process that needs to be taught as that, a historical process), we should diversify music repertory (this starts in the private studios and major ensembles) and diversify the music history and culture offerings at the curricular level so that those “other” musics and composers are treated with enough attention and respect (that means expanded listening and reading time), rather than a passing mention or footnote that tokenizes them within the canon.

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