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Josie Campbell on Highlighting Black Voices Within the Classical Music Community


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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

You have been involved in and initiated numerous different projects to advocate and highlight black voices within the classical music community — could you tell us a bit about some of your favourite projects?

Yes, sure! When I was in my third year of undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee, I founded an organisation called the Black Musicians Alliance with one of my colleagues. We did this to create a safe space for black musicians in our school and to highlight the black voices. One of the main projects that we did was a weekly brown composer series. We would feature it on our social media platforms, and we would put visible posters of the composers around the university with information and links to their music. We did this to get their voices out there, and so people would know about their repertoire. In February 2021, last year, we had our first Black History Month concert. I helped facilitate that; recommending repertoire and working very closely with our director of orchestras. In my senior year of undergraduate studies, we developed a school of diversity task force which was comprised of the Dean, several students and faculty members to help revamp the curriculum to learn more about underrepresented composers, making sure that the ensembles at our school were playing music written by underrepresented composers. We also put on events and talks on how to diversify repertoire — stuff like that. I also did this within the organisation that I created in third year. We would do talks about what it’s like to be a black classical musician and the hardships you face. We also brought in librarians to talk about how to look for underrepresented composers.

Most recently, I gave a talk on the Shared Narratives panel. I was asked by my professor of my diverse voices class at RAM to do that. Right now, for my masters’ project, what I want to do is find solo pieces by a black composer and then have my voice in the background narrating prose about micro-aggressions that my friends and I have faced as black classical musicians. I then want to overlay this with myself playing the cello. So that’s my idea of a masters’ project at the moment!


Your work to advocate black voices in classical music today is not yet finished. What is your opinion on today’s stance? Which problems do you think still need to be addressed nowadays, and are there areas where you’re definitely able to notice some progression?

I think that diversifying classical music really does start with early education because, unfortunately, a lot of people of colour and black children don’t have access to music as they come from lower-income communities. The first thing that usually gets cut, especially in America, is the arts. So these kids aren’t even having access or exposure to this. So I do think that there is a huge financial barrier with pursuing classical music; with lessons, access to instruments, and materials, you need to continue those studies.

So I do think that an after school program or getting more types of programs into schools with underprivileged populations is really where it starts. But I also think there is a big problem, especially at the conservatory and professional level, because people just aren’t playing this music. I think a lot of people don’t want to do the work to find the music, but it is out there, and it isn’t that difficult to find. There are even some that are still free and non-copyrighted. So there are underrepresented composers; it might just take you an extra minute to look.

I think the whole idea of going to a classical concert is a very elitist idea in itself, and if you don’t know the proper etiquette or don’t have the money to buy a ticket, it’s not accessible for all. I think more work needs to be done to make venues or concerts free or more relaxed. In other words, changing the narrative for what it means to go to a classical music concert or event and making it less elitist so it doesn’t shut out a whole demographic.

Full Interview: “After ‘Black Lives Matter’ There Was a Big Push to Start Playing Music by Underrepresented Groups”

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