What role can music play in eradicating prejudice?

Martin Cullingford, Gramophone Editor
Thursday, June 11, 2020

Let us listen - and shine a light on the shared nature of humanity

The Chineke! Foundation, here receiving the RPS Gamechanger Award, have been inspirational in increasing diversity and inclusion (photo: Mark Allan)
The Chineke! Foundation, here receiving the RPS Gamechanger Award, have been inspirational in increasing diversity and inclusion (photo: Mark Allan)

The killing of George Floyd in America has brought the horror of racism to the forefront of public discourse once more. Which is where, for so long as it exists, it needs to be. If there is injustice and prejudice, it is right that everyone seeks to root out such hatred, and implore all to recognise the shared nature of humanity.

Everyone I know of in the music world will share this belief. Few things are as capable of crossing the boundaries of background as music - an abstract art form which speaks to the deepest part of our soul, and beyond, and which knows neither division nor distinction when it comes to the colour of skin. And yet many of our artists feel a particular pain right now, a point powerfully made in the recent Facebook Live from the Kanneh-Masons, which they dedicated to the memory of George Floyd. It was introduced by the mother of this extraordinary family of young musicians, who offered the inspiring words: ‘Music is a testament to suffering, to hope and to love. Let it be a testament to change’.

People around the world are calling for that change, protesting in their thousands, and even reassessing their relationship to history. Classical music's past relationship to race-relations has not always been a positive one, though that's arguably true of most art forms or social structures whose history stretches back into less enlightened eras. Black performers were once shut out of leading concert halls - but in direct response, the extraordinary power of Marian Anderson's performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial became a pivotal moment in the hard-fought history for racial equality. It's powerful to reflect that, faced with such prejudice, it was a courageous musician, and music itself, that changed minds, hearts and the world around them.

That was in 1939. Today's classical musicians do not face such appalling and blatant segregation, but there is always more that can be done, and the musical world has responded in a number of different ways to recent events. From organising a blackout on social media last Tuesday to encourage people to step back and reflect, to looking at the number of BME composers featured (or more accurately not) in concert programmes and study syllabuses, there is a general desire that more can, and should, be done to make sure our world is one of open and understood equality.

So what can I, an Editor of a magazine about classical music recording do? Firstly, and most importantly perhaps, promise that all those working to address racism and overcome prejudice have the support of my colleagues and me. But secondly, I can do what I have always done every time when, over these past few years particularly, societies have felt fractured, their fault-lines exposed. I can encourage people to listen. To open your ears and hearts to what music and musicians might have to say, particularly through the voices of unfamiliar composers.

One doesn’t have to look far. The Chineke! Foundation, Britain's first majority BME orchestra, has been inspirational in the UK in introducing many to classical music who felt excluded, and introducing audiences to new composers that might once simply have not been heard. When it won the inaugural Gamechanger Award at last year's Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, its founder, double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku, spoke passionately of all that is gained by 'creating greater diversity, inclusion, and ultimately belonging'. The Chineke! Orchestra's recent recording on NMC, Spark Catchers, showcasing six recently premiered works by BME composers, is a listen both compelling and moving in turns. And another example: later this month the pianist Rebeca Omordia offers an online version of her African Concert Series, promising an inspiring insight into the rich musical diversity of the continent's art music. Learning of that, this morning I returned to her fascinating album from last year, Ekele, an exploration of classical music from Nigeria by composers largely unknown to the West, and enjoyed its explorations afresh.

Composers from the 20th and 21st centuries, given passionate advocacy by first-class musicians. That's what our pages of course carry month after month, but if the only difference here is one of race, then let that be an encouragement to explore, enjoy, and to render such observations irrelevant for audiences yet to come. If I've journeyed in this article from the pain of prejudice, towards hope and life, then that's not meant as a denial of the darkness of the moment. It's because I genuinely trust and believe that music can indeed enrich and change lives, and even the world. Let us listen, and, as the old hymn has it, let there be light.

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