a seat at the table.
Detroit was cold, y’all.
I landed at DTW Airport on a dangerously frigid Thursday afternoon and the pilot said something like -11 degrees. I pulled the earbud out of my right ear just to be sure. He wasn’t kidding.
So SphinxConnect. A conference held in conjunction with the annual Sphinx Competition to talk. Talk about being Black. About being Latinx. About diversity - about what we can do to add our own colors, our own flavors, and mix them into the pot of what we call classical music.
And let me tell you, we need to do better.
We need to do better because yet still, as a Black or Latinx human, the world is still cold. Maybe a little colder than -11, I don’t know. But we have to talk about race. We have to talk about the differences, the challenges, the things said or whispered by other people as we climb the ladder, some of us through the conservatory system, and we hold onto them especially when it hurts. Putting aside differences is not an option. Pretending that race doesn’t exist is not an option. There are so many brothers and sisters that have lived a life in this craft, in this art form, that were never destined to see any publicity, whose words and sounds and notes held no value. They’re just summed up in only two names: William Grant Still and Scott Joplin. Sprinkle in a little Florence Price.
What about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?
What about George Bridgetower?
Or George Walker?
Or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?
Or Hale Smith?
Or Margaret Bonds?
Or Undine Smith Moore?
Or Arturo Márquez?
Or Jacqueline Nova?
There’s a sea of composers that we’ve seldom heard of because Black and Latinx history is compartmentalized. Glossed over. Given a few sentences in a textbook.
Slavery existed. Anyway…
We need social justice. We're hungry for it. And I find that yes, it's so nourishing to sit down with another Black artist and talk about life over steaming hot coffee, or be a cell among cells in a conference with someone who's got a great idea, but I'm still appalled by the fact that there's one or more “presenter” that doesn't have a clue about the shit we deal with. Somehow, we're still reduced to numbers. Specimens to fill a space. Statistics to boost your own ego - to make it seem like you're doing something to “save” us or solve an epidemic of some kind. And sometimes it doesn't wear a mask of malicious intent, but what that looks like to me is blatant ignorance.
You know, a Black double bassist was killed last year on his doorstep. You know what his name was? Draylen Mason. I could have been him.
Jussie Smollett was attacked, an unknown chemical substance poured on him and a noose hung around his neck. He's a Black artist too. That could have happened to any brother on the block.
But we're just numbers.
Let me tell you something. Numbers do absolutely nothing to remedy a minority student feeling incredibly alone. Nothing to soothe a young POC artist from feeling scared or misunderstood. Nothing to protect the life of a POC in any hood, in any ghetto, or any one of them that makes it out and finds ‘themself’ in a community full of white people, only to be harrassed, threatened, degraded, or worse.
We're not playing, fam. It's not safe enough.
In listening to these seminars and meeting new people and rekindling old relationships, I remembered times of my earlier life. Of growing up in Long Island and taking “field trips” to hear the NY Phil and not seeing anyone that looked like me in the orchestra. Not seeing anyone looking like me as the soloist. Not seeing anyone of my complexion or darker, of my hair or nappier, grace the rectangular billboards in front of Alice Tully or then Avery Fisher halls in the Plaza. Was there a place for me here? I wasn't convinced. Juilliard seemed completely unattainable. Maybe it was me. Maybe I didn't know the half of what was going on. But okay, maybe one artist in our little circle makes it big in some way - is that it? How many decades before we can weep in awe of what Black and Latinx classical musicians have to offer? How many years before we can pay them well for it? Give them credibility? Give them a job? A good one?
Sphinx is doing their part, though, and I love that. They've partnered with NAAS to get more of us in major orchestras. They've launched the Sphinx Performance Academy and have partnered with three top-notch American conservatories. And of course, the competition, which is a great payday no matter what prize you get, and the Artist Grant, which is a great payday for all of us alums. But I've gotten so, so much out of SphinxConnect, a place to reflect. A place to talk, because we hardly ever get to. A place and a time to take the Presidents and Provosts and Deans of major institutions and organizations, sit them on a stage in front of hundreds of people, and pick and pick and nit-pick at their plans for inclusivity - on the stage, in the workplace, as a young'n. And believe me, you find out who's who. Some really work for inclusivity, and some ain't got no plans at all and find a way to dodge pressing questions.
SphinxConnect is a place where every Black or Latinx artist out here can somehow feel like we're part of a family. The Sphinx Familia. Because we've all felt pain. We've all been judged and prejudged before, because it's not surprising for some people to question the level of playing of a violinist with the surname Sanchez, or Rodriguez, or Castro, for example, compared to Anderson, or Kim, or Lee. And the hoops. The hoops we have to jump through to be exceptional.
I remember being told that I would have to work so much harder because of who I am and what I look like.
And pushing, pushing isn't easy.
The Sphinx Competition, well, it's a spectacle. Bring in an audience, brothers and sisters from around the country and some from others, host it at the home of the DSO, livestream the final round, give wonderfully generous prizes, have an after-party, prizewinners, semifinalists, judges, audience members, and all. It's a good time. I remember. I was a contender myself once upon a time. And they're good at selecting well-deserving artists.
Sometimes I can't deal with some of these audience members, though. They're so quick to judge, so quick to open their mouths. #1 was good but kind of forgettable and I thought #4 had a better sound and was so much more creative and #3 just missed that one high note and that kinda did it for me and…
How, as a listener, can you be so dismissive of what we work for? It is literally never about perfection. It is never about pleasing you. It is about the art. This art that we're sharing, both the performer and you, at this time on this date in this space. And it's not gonna be the same tomorrow or any other day. There's so much heart, so much vulnerability that goes into music making, and so much struggle to work out every fine detail. Not to mention how expensive it is to continuously rehearse a concerto with a pianist, record it to gain admission into a competition in the first place, and instrument related expenses like new strings and bow rehairs because that's part of sounding your best, too. And the nerves, the nerves can be crippling. Nerves make people want to end their careers. Nerves make some people want to end their lives.
We are not just numbers.
We are not just numbers.
We are not to be reduced to a simple commodity in a store window.
We are far more complex than that. We deserve better. And Sphinx knows that - we can see their vision and how tirelessly they work for the mythical painting of a Black artist, a Latinx artist, and however they identify, feeling welcome and open and safe to be the fullest version of themselves. Of ourselves.
So white people - we need you. We need you to come here to SphinxConnect and look around. Take it in. And listen to what’s being presented on the table at any given hour, because you can help us take a step forward. Lead a change in social environment to make a POC conservatory student feel included. Foster a perspective so a Black music teacher isn’t perceived as “intimidating,” or “armed and dangerous,” or “a threat.” Value and respect the lives of People of Color so that we are not just labeled as a “statistic.” And don’t just say that you do. Put it into action.
And as I live with the sentence of “I have to work so much harder…” maybe I do, maybe we do, but not in a sense of just getting people to know our names. Maybe it’s for a much brighter and more diverse future, so that we can see more of our sons and daughters in the performing arts and really listen to their words and sounds and thoughts. Maybe it’s to see more audience members that look more like us. I still find that when I perform at summer music festivals, an overwhelming percentage of the audience is white and old. There might be a sprinkling of Asians and Asian-Americans, and then there’s the one (or two) Black people who come up to me after the concert and ask me where I’m from. They know that it’s still a rare sight. That’s unfortunate.
Maybe it’s a future with more heart and more meaning than ever before. That politics won’t erase our purpose, our missions, our voices. That we can exercise the fullest extent of the word “authenticity” and feel damn good doing it. That our faces are not just used for advertisements and promotional materials but are actively recognized and are representative of a larger community. A strong community. A community that’s just as emotional and vulnerable and uncertain as the rest but perseveres through hope and light, lots of light.
We have a bright future ahead of us.
Thank you, SphinxConnect.
We out here.