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Commentary: Black classical musicians and organizations need your support

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Colour of Music (copy)

The Colour of Music Festival included chamber music at the Edmondston-Alston House last year.

Amid an unprecedented time for a vast number of Americans, the political discussion also has turned to black businesses and institutions regarding how systemic racism has created a divide that reaches far beyond COVID-19.

The black classical music world has experienced a devastating blow. Majority-white classical organizations generally have funded budgets for the season and endowment support from wealthy individuals overseeing private foundations. Many also are able to access lines of credit to keep the doors open and pay essential employees until the pandemic is over.

Black institutions, on the other hand, are placed in dire situations to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” as Dr. King once said, and “… how do you expect a bootless man to pull himself up?” It is no secret black Americans do not have access to a system designed to exclude them.

Now in its eighth season of presenting black classical musicians, the Colour of Music Festival is the rare example of black classical excellence in the U.S. showcasing an abundance of black talent from top American and European conservatories.

We see Fortune 500 companies make statements like, “We support Black Lives Matter’” and “We support you,” but that support unfortunately will not include black organizations such as the Colour of Music Festival. These statements are viewed by many in the black community as lip service. No corporation will have its feet held to the fire when we utter “now show us the money.”

Dating back to the days of Haydn and Mozart, black composers and artists have been a part of musical offerings in Europe. However, even centuries ago black artists and composers suffered racism. The very construct of classical music was never intended to allow black people to share in any part of the art form.

So why was a Colour of Music Festival started? Its mission reveals what it is — a black classical musician organization with a keen focus on inspiring children of all races to dream and aspire to be participants. Black composers’ works and black conductors on the podium remain rare. Special-event concerts such as MLK celebrations and “Pops” series concerts are typical displays of diversity on many stages, but Masterworks and Chamber series rarely showcase black artists.

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For many black classical musicians, the genre is considered another glass ceiling needing penetration. Other countries export their talent without apology for having no black artists in their entourage, and no one questions the idea.

The percentage of black classical musicians in U.S. orchestras is calculated at 2%. The League of American Orchestras has implemented many initiatives to change this dismal representation, but it will take generations for those numbers to increase even slightly.

That stark 2% statistic allows both black and white patrons of the art form to draw their own conclusions as to why black institutions like the Colour of Music Festival do not enjoy similar levels of support experienced by their white counterparts.

As heirs to those who have endured inequities across the country, the Colour of Music Festival has made several statements as to why such a radical concept is needed in America. The festival points out the disparity every time we take the stage.

To honor the life and legacy of George Floyd and those who paved the way for the Colour of Music Festival to exist, we hope the spotlight will turn to the financial support of HBCUs, the festival and other black institutions needing support.

Each time the Colour of Music Festival presents, it is living proof of a collective solidarity in hope that one day, as in other countries, black expression can be appreciated and financially supported.

Lee Pringle is the founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music and  founder of the Charleston Gospel Choir.

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