Envisioning an Anti-Racist Future in Classical Music

Ashley Jackson | December 20, 2022
A woman with hoop earrings, in crisp white button down shirt, holds her hands folded under her chin; her elbows rest on a surface.

Ashley Jackson. Photo by Julia Comita

“Opera isn’t really accessible to people in my generation-it’s just not something we care about. It’s expensive, old, and hard to understand.” (First-year Macaulay Honors student)

At Hunter College, I teach a required course for first-year Macaulay Honors students called “Arts in New York City.” Throughout the semester, we focus on Harlem-based artists and institutions, which allows us to examine broader themes such as art’s connection to contemporary social, political, and cultural movements.

A couple of weeks ago, we began our deep dive into two operas, Troubled Island and Porgy and Bess. Both operas focus on black stories, but while George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has entered the repertories of many major opera companies, William Grant Still’s Troubled Island has yet to receive additional performances after its initial premiere in 1949. Early critics of Porgy and Bess called out Gershwin’s use of troubling, yet familiar stereotypes of African Americans, whereas Still’s opera told a story of black liberation in Haiti. The disparate legacies of these operas raises the question, “Does classical music provide a safe place for authentic black stories?” If not, how can we imagine a more inclusive, anti-racist future for the field? We prefaced our study of opera with the following exercise:

You and your creative team are given a budget of $20 million to produce an opera. What’s the story, who are the main characters, and who wrote the music?

The results were astonishing. One group wanted to explore the psyche of a young, bipolar female grappling with her mental illness during the early days of the pandemic. The music of Billie Eilish and Lizzo would represent the two polarities of her mind. Other stories took place on Ellis Island and a New York subway car. And the last group reimagined the musical Annie with a stunning collaboration between J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Lin Manuel-Miranda.

We had a great time laughing, dreaming, and celebrating each other’s ideas. The exercise also taught me what it would take for Gen Z to buy a ticket to the opera: they need to see themselves on stage, vibe to a soundtrack of their sonic present, and be challenged by today’s social issues. In effect, they completely reimagined the art form itself to be a space of relevance and inclusivity.

“Together, We”*

Music brings people together. We play together and listen together. Growing up, “This Christmas” brought together family and friends to decorate our Christmas tree. “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” often signaled the end of service at my grandmother’s church. On the way home from a long Saturday spent at Juilliard Pre-College, my dad would turn on WBGO “Jazz 88” and teach me about Wes Montgomery. This was my musical world: rich, varied, and joyful.

As a harpist studying at Juilliard, I focused my doctoral research on The Ballad of the Brown King by Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes. As I approached the end of my doctoral studies, my musical worlds seemed more at odds with each other than ever. While my research taught me about how these black artists uplifted their community through music and words, as a harpist, I still struggled with envisioning a place for my seemingly disparate interests. After graduation, I stepped back, took a full-time administrative position, and began to design my own space.

Classical music, as we currently define it, is an industry built upon anti- anti-racist structures. In “Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical Music,” Alex Ross painfully reminds us, that “This world is blindingly white, both in its history and its present.” He later lifts up the scholarship of Kira Thurman who, in “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” writes, “Classical music, like whiteness itself, is frequently racially unmarked and presented as universal – until people of color start performing it.” If the preservation, performance, and study of classical music continues the centuries-old traditions of elevating works by white, European men, at the consistent and deliberate exclusion of women and people of color, then the classical music system and anti-racist principles will remain irreconcilable.

Without necessarily having the language to express my increasing discomfort in certain classical music spaces, I kept asking myself, “Why isn’t this music bringing more people together, people who looked like me, and my grandmother?” And, what, if anything, could I do to make this music a joyful experience for my communities? In our field, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work must be ongoing and consistent. It requires a thorough rebuilding from the ground up, and the construction of new spaces where music can do what it does best, bring people together.

Programming for New Connections

Programming is the most immediate area where performers and presenters can begin to reimagine the classical music landscape. Here are two engaging strategies for both performers and the audience.

Thematic (not Tokenizing) Repertoire

I’ve long been a fan of thematic programs. It’s a great way to look for repertoire that otherwise may be overlooked. It’s also a reminder that shared human experiences connect us across different cultures. One of my upcoming programs, Take Me to the Water (May 4, 2023 at Lincoln Center), explores the way in which water has served as a metaphor for spirituality and freedom across the Black Atlantic. While I do focus on the music of the diaspora, my hope is that such a universal theme will encourage audience members from all different backgrounds to give thanks to their ancestors.

Mix It Up

Imagine what a program could look like if we weren’t here to play a certain kind of music, but rather convey a message by all musical means necessary. What would it sound like if Alice Coltrane were in conversation with J.S. Bach? They both had a lot to say about spirituality, and there may be more similarities than differences between them.

Watch “The First” Language

“Ashley, do you know if you are the first black harpist to play with the New York Philharmonic?” my mother wondered. “You should do some research.”

As she became more and more excited, I became more and more consumed by racing thoughts. How did I sound that first concert in the Fall of 2014? Was my harp in tune? What did I wear? Was my hair neat, but not too neat? While I never confirmed the answer to her question, I was reminded that our presence on stage, in the boardroom, and on administrative teams, comes with responsibility. Responsibility to represent and uplift the needs of our communities. However, when we talk about the “firsts” or the “only ones,” we project the long-perpetuated myth that erases the work of those women and people of color who came before me, such as Joseph White, a black violinist who performed with the New York Philharmonic in the 1880s; or Dr. Leon Thompson, the first African American Director of Education for the orchestra (1970-1980); or Sanford Allen, another violinist, who played with the orchestra for 15 years, resigning in 1977 after “simply tired of being a symbol.”

I may have been another “first,” but if the industry is committed to antiracist practices, it will eventually stop clinging to these milestones, and ensure that I will not be the last.

Educational Spaces as Laboratories for De-defining Classical Music

Four musicians are on stage, including violinists and cellist and a woman playing harp.

Harlem Chamber Players. Photo by Bob Curtis.

During my first year of teaching at Hunter College, I was assigned Music History 101, “A Thousand Years of Listening.” After a couple of traditional lectures, I decided to break up the monotony with this question, “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, classical music?” “Beethoven” ranked no. 1, with “boring” not far behind. As I looked around at my students, who came from all different backgrounds, I realized that my work going forward had to focus on breaking down what my colleague Philip Ewell calls “the white racial frame” that has remained the foundation for how classical music is taught.

That semester, we explored call and response in the music of the civil rights movement, learned about rhythm and polyphony in the grooves of James Brown, and discussed color and timbre in Ellen Reid’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, p r i s m. Understanding systemic racism in classical music begins with the ways in which it is taught because it will be the next generation who carries that knowledge forward. Teach with intention, and search for ways to make the classroom an equitable space for a multitude of traditions and perspectives.

Inspirations and Acknowledgements

collage of three portrait photos. left to right: A man in long jacket and pencil moustache poses with arm on pedestal in sepia tone photo; a woman sits in chair for portrait with embroidered blouse in black and white photo; a man in blue suit jacket appears to look up and whistle.

L to R: Joseph White photo by Erwin et Ernest Hanfstaengl; Margaret Bonds photo by Carl Van Vechten; Terrance McKnight photo by Julie Yarbrough.

My humble vision for an anti-racist future in classical music could not have been possible had it not been for organizations, artists, and scholars who have been doing this work. Such a vision is possible and beautiful because of the lessons I’ve learned from them:

  • Terrance McKnight: scholar, an artist, and a persistent dreamer of a musical world big enough for all those who want to listen.
  • Margaret Bonds: “My music has to be human, and people have to like it. It has to move them spiritually and intellectually.” At a time when black people were thought to be less than human, Bonds created music that spoke of their beauty. She was my muse, teacher, and inspiration as a began to realize my own career in music.
  • Ann Hobson Pilot: At age 14, I played for Mrs. Hobson Pilot, the former principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the first black woman to hold a principal position with a major symphony orchestra. She was the example of someone whose footsteps I could follow.
  • The Dream Unfinished: A New York City-based activist orchestra, whose first concert, a benefit for the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s murder, brought me to tears. Finally, here was a space where my passion and creativity and care for black and brown peoples could flourish and be safe.
  • Harlem Chamber Players: My musical home, where we invite our Harlem community to celebrate its diversity through the music of underrepresented composers and dynamic programs. 
  • Philip Ewell: My trailblazing colleague who has put to words so poignantly about how music theory (and history and performance) has been taught through a lens that confirms white, male supremacy.
  • My Hunter College students: Over the years they continue to teach me about how we can celebrate the many things that make us who we are through sound and music. 

Envisioning an anti-racist future in classical music is not new. In 1960, when Margaret Bonds completed a revised version of The Ballad of the Brown King, she hoped the piece would inspire a “true concept of Brotherhood toward people of color throughout the world.” Bonds, Hobson-Pilot, Dr. Thompson, and countless others laid the foundation for this work, so it’s up to us to honor them and continue their legacies.

Learn more about harpist Ashley Jackson on her website, ashleyjacksonharp.com

Community Connections examines issues and ideas of meaning to diverse communities throughout New York City and across the United States. Presented by The WNET Group, home to America’s flagship PBS station.

*“Together, We” is a composition by educator and composer Pauline Oliveros.

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