Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Colour of Music Festival Founder Statement on Black Institutions

Black Professional Classical Musicians Festival and the Challenges of Racial Discrimination

June 9, 2020 Charleston SC—Amidst an unprecedented time for a vast number of Americans, the political discussion has now turned to black businesses and institutions regarding how systemic racism has created a divide that reaches far beyond COVID-19.
As Broadway remains shuttered and cruise ships are moored to piers, the classical music world has also experienced a devastating blow. White classical organizations generally have funded budgets for the 2020-2021 season and hefty endowments support from wealthy individuals overseeing private foundations. They are also able to access the National Endowment of the Arts or have quick lines of credit to keep the doors open and pay employees during and 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 (COMF) is the rare example of black classical excellence in the U.S. showcasing an abundance of black talent from top American and European conservatories.
Despite this, the organization has had little success convincing donors to lend their support and/or even consider diversifying their giving. Organizations like COMF are often met with resistance because those with funds to support the arts stick with organizations that have historically produced classical music in America.
To witness nearly all Fortune 500 companies make statements, “We support Black Lives Matter’” and “We support you,” that support unfortunately will not include black organizations such as COMF.  These statements are viewed by many in the black community as lip service. No corporation will have their feet held to the fire when we utter “now show us the money.”
Dating back to 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. After all, it is viewed by many white Americans as theirs. Fundraising balls, galas, and sponsored principal orchestra chairs are the engines that create exclusive access to the virtuoso instrumentalist, making it very much white society.
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, Pops series, and Gospel Christmas concerts are typical displays of diversity on many stages, but Masterworks and Chamber series rarely showcase black artists.
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. But for many in America the COMF is an entity they fail to discuss and question why such a bold idea was even started.
Anywhere in America you can find billboards of Shen Yun’s national tour—a great example of a country putting money behind its unique position and heritage. White audiences flock to see them! This also occurs when organizations like the Israeli symphony, Russian orchestras and others from Europe come to America—they are presented by white concert associations that would never present COMF because it is too black. The only American orchestral exports are the multi-million dollar-funded top ten orchestras who receive local and global sponsorships. International touring of COMF will never see the likes of that exposure because we cannot get that kind of support. 
Significant segments of American orchestra spots, including Latin conductors, have been given music director positions black conductors are very qualified to handle. Black men and women contend with internal racism among the very members of the orchestras who vote on the players and conductors filling the openings.
Considering there are more than 2,000 orchestras throughout North America, the Colour of Music Festival’s sole purpose is to focus on, and present contributions black composers and classically trained musicians of African ancestry bring to the art form.
The efforts of COMF have failed to increase the percentage of black classical musicians in the 2,000-plus orchestras, currently calculated at 2% of orchestral members. 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. In a way, we are saying and doing this because we have been systematically kept out of the concert hall to present our version of what was exported from the racist system our European cousins fostered.
To honor the life and legacy of George Floyd and numerous others who paved the way for the COMF to exist, the organization hopes 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.
Please view the Colour of Music Festival’s We Stand in Solidarity video.
Lee Pringle
Founder and Artistic Director
Colour of Music Festival, Inc.
PO Box 22724
Charleston SC 29403-2724

About the Colour of Music Festival
Based in Charleston, South Carolina and organized in 2013, the Colour of Music Festival, Inc. presents a diverse classical repertoire of baroque, classical and 20th century music at the highest of musical standards to diverse audiences throughout the Lowcountry, regionally, and nationally. The Festival has also presented performances in Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA, Houston, TX, Nashville, TN, Richmond, VA and Pittsburgh, PA and Columbia, SC. www.colourofmusic.org

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