Singer and operatic director Claire Hafner is performing a recital – Celebrating Black American Music – on 25th February – tickets are going fast! Songs include those by William Grant Still, one of which will be “Weeping Angels.” Claire’s essay below is our first piece created by a guest writer. Thank you Claire.
“Weeping Angels” – the Underrepresentation of African-American Composers in Classical Music”
One needs to look no farther than the current racial temperature of the United States for a realistic glimpse into the existence of lingering discrimination. For even as the old racial restrictions have dissolved, the issue of race has actually grown in American consciousness and in some ways, been pushed backwards instead of evolving. There seems to be no escape from this relentless reminder that (wo)men are not all created equal and it would be foolish to think that the musical world is immune from this popular mentality. One needs to look only as far as great performers such as Marion Anderson, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Paul Robson for an acknowledgement that their careers were constantly hammered with bigotry and obstacles that related directly to their skin colour. From Nina Simone’s inability to attend Julliard to Bessie Smith and the “brown paper bag” test, it is obvious that the treatment of Black performers is reflective of social norms. Rather than music being an escape from the harsh realities of real world problems it served as a microcosm of discrimination.
Black face performances and other blatant forms of cultural appropriation seem to be on the forefront of today’s pop scene with numerous white artists using the shorthand stereotypes of black culture to transform their images. But even before #blacklivesmatter and #grammyssowhite or Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl performance, there was the not so widely known struggle of Black American composers attempting to gain a foothold in the classical music genre. A struggle that has gone largely ignored by the majority of those with any interest in classical music. A struggle which clearly threatens people who wish to separate ethnicity and cultural experience from art when it brushes up against anything that may suggest institutional racism is alive and well. Though cultural activities cannot be apportioned according to race and ethnicity since these differences are the essence of a diverse society, the issue cannot and should not be ignored.
I discovered Black American composer William Grant Still (WGS) almost by accident. I was married to a Danish pianist with a classical background whose pre-teen years were spent in Africa soaking up all aspects of non-white musical influence; from traditional African poly-rhythmus to jazz and stride. His solo repertoire included Scott Joplin, and in an attempt to perform together we settled on some experts from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha which would utilize both his skills as a pianist and my opera training. Growing up in a completely white rural American town I was surprised at how connected I felt to Joplin’s opera and was even more curious as to why I had never heard of it before. Some quick but in depth research linked me with other Black American composers….namely William Grant Still and the struggle he faced with his opera Troubled Island. To understand the rich and complex history of this opera was to spend years reading and researching both the social, political and arts scene in the early half of the 20th century and to discover there was no one thing that contributed to the almost-rise of WGS as a notable opera composer, aside from his blackness. Try as he might he was never able to break into the fraternity of old white (and mostly dead) opera composers and though those in power poo-pooed that racial barriers where to blame it is impossible to look objectively and not see it. To say that race didn’t play a role in his struggle would be the equivalent of turning a blind eye to Trayvon Martin’s death being related to his skin colour.
With February being designated as Black History Month we are forced to deal with the fact that every racial conversation is a complex history that extends to present-day interactions and policies, and we get nowhere fast if large swaths of our population have a limited frame of reference. Today’s TV coverage of protests since the ones that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 over police shootings of unarmed black people rarely is contextualized with meaningful reporting on the conditions that ignited them. Whose problem is modern racism, really, and how can it be teased out of a subject such as classical music? Is it possible to even separate a composer from their music and to have works of art stand on their own, or is every artistic endeavor infused with the cultural and ethnic background of the person who created them? WGS claimed his operas where for universal singers and audiences, yet Troubled Island (his most successful work) told the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and although the leading roles of Dessalines and his wife Azelia were based on black Haitians, the opera company cast white opera stars who wore dark make-up for the 1949 premiere. This can’t help but trigger my reaction to Robert Downy Jr. and his role in Tropic Thunder. By definition, a white actor like Downey playing a black man amounts to a minstrel act. During slavery, white Southerners began the entertainment tradition of dressing up in slave costumes and makeshift makeup and performing songs and skits that mimicked black musical styles while degrading their servants, portraying them as lazy, stupid and promiscuous. WGS has spoken both in support of black face for his opera early on while trying to negotiate the realities of its premiere only to later in life speak out against it once he witnessed the role race played in denying him recognition as an opera composer. Is something as “black” as Haiti accessible to a mostly white audience and talent pool? Was WGS limiting his chances for success by composing something so culturally opposite than the very community that pays to observe it, and why should it even matter?
I am often asked how I feel about performing this music when I myself am not a Black American and sadly, there is no simple answer. As someone with an over-heightened fear of appropriation, I spent months breaking down possible performance options before I dared take the stage to present this music. I am very clear about who I am and what talents I have and never pretend to be anything different. I am a classically trained opera singer from a very homogenous background who has had the opportunity to live and travel all over the world infusing my experience with many different cultures and exposing myself to many different situations foreign to what I was raised with, but in no way does that make me qualified to speak on the personal experience of this issue or act as though I understand anything that fueled the experience behind this music. There are some very relatable topics of course; heartache, death, loss, love and hope but most are cloaked within the shackles of slavery (both historic and modern) which is a level of understanding that I do not have.
In order to feel comfortable performing these pieces there are some very concrete adjustments I make, the first being never sing it in anything other than the English that I speak. Often times there is an option to use alternative words referred to as a “dialect” that mimics the speech of the Black American peoples at this time. This is similar to the words “mammy” and “yo” and “gonna” in the aria “Summertime” from Gershwin’s famous opera Porgy and Bess. Personally, I am always highly offended when I hear European (read white) classical singers performing this work in concert and using this text, especially since Gershwin actually never ventured into the south to even study if whether or not this was even the way Black American’s spoke at the time. Though the authenticity of these dialects in the music I sing could be considered legitimate because the composers themselves were Black Americans I am not authentic within this speech pattern and therefore always opt for the alternative lyrics. Another solution to self-acceptance with performing these works is that each concert is almost more of a lecture series, an opportunity to say “this is beautiful music and though I may not be racially experienced in this aria I want to tell you about the history of the struggle and why I love it and I want you to open your ears and hear it for what it is; classical music that is on the same level as all the other opera that you know and love.” WGS, for example, claimed his music was not black but instead universal to be performed and consumed by people of all colours and backgrounds, so I try to be a vessel of delivery, not even interpretation, to convey the message of “stop and listen, there is more to the opera world than what you know…open your ears and join me in hearing something that may be different but just as incredible.”
Performing this music has forced me to come to terms with something I see many people struggle with, that being a singer isn’t actually about us. The minute we slip into the mindset that it is us and not the music, we unlock a world of emptiness and dissatisfaction with what we are doing. Being a musician is a trade like all others and we work hard to gather the proper tools so that we can offer the world an experience into what composers have done. We shouldn’t expect to be glorified and revered for what we do or even considered magical. We are no different from others that are experts in their field; law, carpentry, electricity, teaching. I am nothing but a tradesman who has decided I enjoy building a house of Black American opera much more than traditional European music and I don’t ask that you come and admire my building skills but to instead to enjoy the home I am offering you.
Using the coattails of Black History month as a platform to perform works by Black American composers was a conscious choice for me in preparing my upcoming concert. Playing on social conscious in order to increase awareness in art is something I don’t shy away from. Ideally art could transcend everything tangible; race, class and even physical appearance, but would that also mean the destruction of cultural uniqueness and an engulfment into ta melting pot of genericism? How can we allow culture and race to infuse our art yet not punish artists for belonging to an oppressed group that won’t ever reach their deserved recognition? To perform the music of WGS and other Black American composers and not have to acknowledge their struggle seems almost sacrilegious, for there is no shortage of stories on the struggles of many famous white opera composers in their quest to produce their now famous works. But when one dares to suggest the racial struggles of Black composers in regards to their art the tendency is to silence and shut down such narratives. I think it is naïve to wait for music to heal all wounds and unite us in a solid voice of equality, but it should at the very least help us open dialogues of empathy and understanding as well as transport us to that place where our souls are moved by the sheer beauty of something that words alone could never capture.