Sunday, June 14, 2020

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE: Lockdown interview with Alternative Classical

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE
Photos by Eric Richmond

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE is a double bassist and the Founder and Artistic Director of the Chineke! Orchestra, the first professional orchestra and junior orchestra in Europe made up of majority Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) musicians. In 2018, BBC Woman’s Hour placed Nwanoku in the top 10 of the world’s most powerful women in music (Beyoncé was number 1), and she appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. In both 2019 and 2020 she was included in the ‘Powerlist of Britain’s 100 Most Influential Black People’ alongside the Duchess of Sussex and Stormzy. A huge champion of diversity in the classical music industry, Nwanoku was awarded an OBE for her services to music.

We had a virtual conversation about the topics on everyone’s lips: what she’s up to during lockdown and the impact of Coronavirus on the music industry.

How is Chineke! coping with the lockdown at Chineke?
With such a small team as ours, it’s hard. We're supposed to be doing our debut US tour right now. It's just devastating because it was two years in the planning. At a time like this – with Brexit and Trump and all these awful negative things – it was really felt that Chineke! needed to be touring and seen in America. There was a huge amount of momentum and most of the concerts had sold out. We were also due to be performing at Saffron Hall, at Brighton Festival, in Paris, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and also closing the Edinburgh Festival. All of that is cancelled. It’s horrible, BUT there’s no point in whinging. The whole world is stuck with this situation and however bad it is for us, there are millions who are finding it worse. And when I realised it was really happening my creative brain just went into overdrive because challenges always present many opportunities not previously thought of.

How do you think the industry as a whole is kind of coping? 
I think it's been really tough for the industry. Some people are actually in shock. Some musicians have gone into a downward spiral. Some have been ejected from their accommodation by ‘live-in’ landlords; some students are desperate because they've all got enormous fees to pay but they're not receiving their full tuition. It’s pretty awful for many people, particularly those who are in the early freelance days. 

What does your work look like at the moment and how will this affect you?    
I'm working at a rate of knots at the moment, but not in the same format as before: I’ve had to write to all the people previously fixed for the concerts and break the cancellation news, and I’m in so many daily Zoom meetings and interviews that I’m kicking myself I hadn’t got ‘shares’ in Zoom! The other day I was around a (virtual) table with the Culture Minister and representatives from orchestras, museums and libraries from across the country. This was an opportunity to tell government how lockdown was affecting Chineke!. I was able to emphasise the need for government to support us, as we are the only organisation that's leading by example as an orchestra for diversity and inclusion. Since we've launched, the Arts Council has put diversity at the top of the agenda for all other organisations. Our actions have changed the conversation, so I feel they need to protect us. 

I learned NOT to believe the popular narrative that a) BME people are not interested in classical music and b) BME people aren’t any good at classical music. Both are wrong. We’ve proved both are wrong. Who would  argue with that? We’re so happy to welcome everybody to classical music but what we can’t do is take anything for granted. BME people historically cannot take anything for granted.

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