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My Opinion: Classical Music is too white.

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

For some days now, I have been wondering about the future of Classical Culture and Classical Music in particular. I explain myself. Last Thursday, I have assisted to one of the most amazing concert I have been in my entire life. This young pianist Khatia Bunishvili (previous article) interpreted Chopin and Listz with such a virtuosity that she nearly made me cry. Yes, I was quite vulnerable but the moment in itself was just perfect. Large jogging, large sweater, perfect seat in front of her hands, I was in heaven. However, being alone during the interlude, I decided to walk in the corridors and the rooms of this 1927 building with a nice glass of wine. I nearly stifled myself when I realized that there wasn’t ONE single black person in the auditorium out of 1913 seats that night. I felt nearly embarrassed to be there, among this old, French, white bourgeoisie; they all look the same and I was convinced that I was the only one who even thought about this kind of problem. The rest of the audience had to take it for granted. I figured that it was a special night and I just stopped thinking about it and enjoyed the representation  … Unfortunately, neither my night at the charming Théatre de l’Atelier nor my evening at the Comédie Francaise has  calmed down my new thoughts. ( Well … I found one chador and one big black guy at the Comédie, and I felt exstatic). More seriously now … I have this very naïve idea that classical music is universal and can speak to everyone no matter the color, the religion, the age or the sex.

So, I ask the question: Why don’t we see any black people in the field of classical music or attending classical performances?

1. The first argument people may advance is money . Music lessons and concerts are usually expensive and since we take for granted that minorities from poor neighbourhood care more about what they are going to eat than the next piano concert at the Salle Pleyel whereas older and wealthier people have the time to sit and listen to it, the money to pay to hear it or to pay for lessons; you can foresee the result.

However, I refute this argument because I got my ticket for 10 euros and 12 euros for the Theatre. Moreover, today many actions from the governments are put in  practice in order to “democratize” the access to culture. When you’re under 18, museums are free and you can easily get tickets for any show for less than 15euros. The gap of “access to culture” is moving, and there are as well a lot of local and communal centre for young people to learn a music instrument.  I am convinced that even if the tickets would be 1euro or free, you would not see more black people in the audience.

2. So, the argument that follows is the simplistic one: it’s a “cultural thing”. Yes, blacks have jazz; raga, blues, rap, hip-hop and we have … classical music. Black people do not go to classical performances because for them is much more than just music, it’s a symbolic step. They must feel that they have nothing in common with this environment. I am not sure either I would go to a concert if I had to be the only white among 2000 blacks. Despite many efforts to change this situation, classical music sticks to the image of being a cultural movement instaured by the white people and for the white people.

Once again, I refute completely this argument. If classical music is for “whites only” what do we do with Mitsuko Uchida, Jessye Norman, Zubin Mehta and Yo Yo Ma? Do they fit into this racially discriminative scenario? We all know that today most of future classical musicians come from South East Asia, are they becoming white when it comes to music? Maybe the term white, just means “non-black”.

        Music is not about race, it is about access and education.

I feel very lucky to be brought up in a home where my parents encourage us all to play an instrument, to go to concerts and to listen to music whether it was classical or rap; every kind was accepted. It is true that serious study of music is passed within families through generations. However, if it is not at home, today, where a kid can discover music? As they are more and more exposed to internet and television, we could expect some improvement from channels but you can forget about it. Since classical music and culture do not make any audience (=money), private channels mainly prefer to give society the bullshit of reality show rather than educate them despite the promises of different government to put pressure on national TV (Frederic Mitterand in France on France Television 2/3/5). So eventually … School.

Some surveys claim that many children leave school unable to differentiate between a violin and a guitar. There is a very serious problem and from my personal experience the conclusion I drew is that it is a vicious circle:  as long as classical music will be considered as white, middle-upper class, elitist and old there cannot be any meaningful improvement in musical education caused by a clear lack of instrumental tuition in schools, particularly at primary level. And if there is no improvement in the education (at the root of the problem) classical music will remain an old, white, bourgeois music. Furthermore, it is important to note that it is not harder to learn about an orchestra, and the history of classical music than it is to learn about rap (I used to understand absolutely nothing to the lyrics, and sometimes I still don’t. People had to explain me some words. True story) it’s just that we are more exposed to hip-hop and rap; we hear it everywhere, every time we turn on the radio or the TV so it’s the easy way.

Julian Weber attacks the heart of the problem when he says:  « It may seem an obvious question, but how can anyone like any kind of music if they never hear it? White people decided that they liked MOBO – music of black origin – (jazz, rock and roll, r’n’b) because they had easy access to it – and they particularly liked it when it was “legitimised” by one of their own colour. To interest black people in classical music, we need more young black role models like the organist and conductor Wayne Marshall. Our present system is not designed to produce them. »

In conclusion, we have to tackle the problem of the musical education system and encourage kids from every social class to have access to instrumental tuition. There is a lot of work to do but it is definitely crucial for the well-being of the society in terms of social mobility and racial mixity. It is the time to reject this stupid theory that claims that “black people don’t like classical music”. It is false! It is time to go beyond the racial stereotypes we have and all appreciate together the perfect harmony of an orchestra. Eminem made it, he’s a white boy in a black-dominated field and he probably had to fight twice harder to get where he is today. Some have dreamt about having a Black president governing the United States of America, I am simply dreaming of a Black conductor directing the Orchestre of Paris. So as “the King” used to say : a little less conversation , a little more action please!

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  1. music is not a cultural thing, it is about money and access.. never thought about it this way… interesting perspective there 🙂

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