The finale to this Identity Series concerns post-Blackness and the future of identity politics and labels. First, a video:
In his 2011 book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, the single-named author Touré posits theories about the generation today that came up taking past Black struggles mostly for granted, and reshaping the Black experience into something more maleable, complex, infinite. In a book review by Orlando Patterson in the New York Times, Patterson writes:
"One of [Touré's] goals ... is 'to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness.' Post-Blackness has no patience with 'self-appointed identity cops' and their 'cultural bullying.'”
Perhaps it is clear to see, now, why I mention this important, relevant text. However, Touré also writes in this book that post-Blackness is breaking free from "normative" Black behavior. This idea has always sat uncomfortably with me, perhaps because I am a child of this era of post-Blackness. Furthermore, the act of being Black and being a composer of Classical music has never been (and perhaps never will be considered) "normative." While there have been and are still many Black composers, I think it is safe to say that the total number is insignificant compared to the number of non-Black composers, and I would even go as far to say that the number of ethnic minority Classical composers combined is probably also rather insignificant compared to the total number of white-skinned composers, mostly from Europe and the United States (and perhaps South Africa). Being Black, brown-skinned, a POC, and an ethnic minority while being a composer has NEVER been "normative", thus perhaps Black composers have always lived in some version of post-Blackness.
But what happens when the world begins to significantly and eventually turn beige, when everyone in the world will be so mixed that racial labels will become pointless? Would this also mean laughing at humanity in the past for violence committed in the name of racism and identity politics? Or would this mean, dare I say, attempting to and eventually being successful at erasing certain aspects of history altogether for the purpose of maintaining a certain type of identity harmony?
Finally, what would this mean for music? What would this mean for music? Would all music be silenced to give current musicians a clean, fair slate? or would the beloved composers and singers and musicians of the world be kept?
My journey of promoting the music of Black composers and women composers has lead to me getting quite a slew of comments warning me against (what they call) discrimination and identity-based musical decisions. There is quite a bit I want to say to these people, but if I were to sum up my argument, I would say this: the way that Classical music developed was one big unconscious identity-based path that unfortunately occured before identity vernacular. Humanity had to name the problem in order to reveal it, but now that it is named and revealed, it does not automatically mean that it goes away. Think of the world of the future about which I postulated above. What happens if when the world goes beige and certain aspects of human history are destroyed? Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart ... they will all stay because they were beloved. If we do not do something today make Florence Price, Blind Tom, Ignatius Sancho, Undine Smith Moore, Nkeiru Okoye, Evan Williams, Margaret Bonds, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jeffrey Mumford, Julius Eastman, Dolores White, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Adolphus Hailstork, Ed Bland, Alvin Singleton, David Sanford, TJ Anderson, Jessica Mays, Elizabeth Baker, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Renee C. Baker, and a slew of other composers more beloved and respected, then what will the future look like?
Let's shape the Classical music future - a future where a female and a Black child can enter and feel welcome, not feel like an intrusion into a monotonous boys club where you have to prove your worth by being superhuman. Let's start now by transforming the myths of Classical music's elitism and exclusivity into truths of Classical music's desire to communicate to all. Let's start right now and write the path of this future, not re-writing the past, but shining a stronger light on the forgotten, silenced, and unknown stories of the past - stories that fell victim to racism, sexism, and the unnamed, unspoken identity politics that shaped this world. Let's shape the Classical music future!
Want to join me?
Enough of me! In this BIBA Blog, you will hear or read (or both) from Jonathan Bailey Holland, John Aylward, and Taryn Wells. This audio was taken from a panel discussion before the second performance of the Identity project, a collaboration between Castle of our Skins and the New Gallery Concert series. For those who could not attend, the first question, and the panelists' answers are below to hear, and a written transcription (which takes liberties!) follows. Enjoy!
Ashe (Moderator) : What are your thoughts concerning labels – self-identified labels or prescribed labels from an outside source, such as African-American vs. Black, white vs. being of color, mixed, multi-racial, or other labels thrown around in the media, society, politics, etc … ; do you think they create social constructs? Do they build community? Do they ostracize or polarize communities? What is identity? What does that mean to you?
Jonathan: I’ll jump in and say the answer is yes to all of those things about what labels do. I think as a creative artist, we spend a lot of time navigating labels, trying to determine which label is supposed to be applied to you or your work at any given point in time. I know personally, I spent a lot of time early in my career trying to avoid certain labels before I realized my choice of what labels were applied weren’t always the choices that everyone else was going to apply to my work. So, I stopped worrying about labels, and I think that it’s a thing I have to continue to remind myself to do: to not worry about the labels and just think about the art and the message and the reason behind it. But yes, I think everybody brings expectations to something based on how it’s identified, whether it’s how I choose to identify or how they choose to identify or how some third party tells them they should approach it.
Taryn: I wonder also if – especially for a composer who, many times we do not know what a composer looks like or an author for that matter – if you feel it matters that people know that before, or when, or after they hear your music? Is it important to you? For job applications or competitions …
Jonathan: I don’t think it matters. I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I don’t feel like I have the choice not to. And this is interesting, last night you [Ashe] were introducing one of the pieces – the Tania Leon piece, and you quoted her as saying she doesn’t talk about race. And I had this thought, like, wow … that’s sort of a luxury. And then I thought that she doesn’t really get the option to not talk about race because she had to actually say I’m not gonna talk about race … So, I guess I want people to interact with the art in whatever way makes sense to them. I think that most artists create art because of the art and not because of all the other labels that get attached in front of whatever their art form happens to be.
Taryn: As far as labels, I’ve just thought (?) that whenever somebody puts a label on you they usually have some sort of pre-conceived notion, some sort of usual misconception, and it’s really hard to go beyond that. And I think it points out other people’s judgements, and you always have to work against that, it seems. And whether it be stereotypes or what not, you want to just sometimes be able to stand up as yourself rather than as the label of being someone of whatever race or whatever sex or what have you. You want to be able to just stand up for your own create-ability.
John A. : What I have noticed about this is that, frankly, white composers don’t have to deal with that question. And so we can more self-define, move through multiple identities, and feel like we can be one kind of composer one day and another kind of composer on another day. And I notice that many of my colleagues who are dealing with their identity in a racial construct, that it’s socially limiting. And … it creates a difficulty for them to communicate – outside of that – that I don’t know about. I think that, in some sense, there’s some benefit to being able to deal with that in the crucible, so to speak, and in another way, it is basically just a problem. But I think that gets me thinking just about the idea of the way identity has to do with a kind of concept of overshift, and how it is very difficult to kind of own your own voice, and how artists struggle with that anyway. And how, I think one of the basic … one of the white privileges of being an artist is not to have anybody rip that out (?). And I think that is a really difficult aspect of the way identity and ownership, in terms of the cultivation of the artistic voice, works in contemporary culture.
Jonathan: I would add to that. It used to be that people would ask so what kind of music do you write? And I would think well, it’s kind of tonal at times, but sometimes I … you know, I could never quite figure it out. And at one point, somebody said you should just say Classical or Jazz. That’s what people want to know (laughter). I mean, that speaks to your point. It’s as basic as that. And once I say that, then I think there’s no expectation that it’s gonna go any further in terms of defining what it is.
The last and final part of the Identity Series will be published Wednesday, February 21.
Happy Black History Month, everyone!
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