On Saturday, I woke up to a series of text and emails from several musicians all sharing the blog post from composer Daniel Elder entitled “Equity Silences the Muse” (https://www.danieleldermusic.com/blog), along with their disgust for the narrative. I don’t wish to give a book report on his thoughts, but his rhetoric insights that “the muse” (which could be sheer inspiration or the perspective of the creator) is muted when overshadowed by equity. He states, “The ensuing shift towards equity goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of identity politics as a prominent driver in recent years. As a catalyst, a silently destructive newcomer emerged in social consciousness—The Victim”. In other words, the pursuit of diversity in music education and composition takes away power from those who are already in that world.
When composer Daniel Elder updated his social media to state, “Enjoy burning it all down, you well-intentioned, blind people” after George Floyd’s murder in June, I spent more time than I would like to admit re-reading the one-sentence thesis attempting to see if I could interpret it in any other way. It would not be his words that would leave me with my conclusion, but the shutting down of his social media that would let me know all I needed: that he couldn’t see beyond his experience.
In his previous blog entitled, “Why I removed commenting” he states that comments and critiques on works create doubt in the value of the art and that “doubt is unhealthy. It encourages conformity, and encourages censorship of personal honesty. In effect, it is illiberal.” I must say that I disagree. I believe that dialogue creates an opportunity for growth in individuals and collective societies. The real problem that Daniel attempts to address is the recklessness in which social media can be used. Though it has the ability to bring others together, the barrier of the screens almost gives permission for hate to thrive in the form of anonymity. It is not the comments that we fear, but the lack of humanity between the spaces.
So after three months of silence, the uproar in response to his blog doesn’t come as a surprise. This manifesto of sorts makes me wonder if this composer has done any self reflection on the grand scheme that is our evolving society. In the past 24 hours, there have been a series of responses highlighting a myriad of troublesome concepts. As I read the responses and comments on the supremacy that surfaces in the text or comparisons to pop culture and the relevance (or lack thereof) of Classical music in Pop culture, I kept returning to one thing: the disconnect from empathy.
In the book Lost Connection, Johann Hari states:
The internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other… our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, a great hollowing, that took place before anyone had a smartphone.
True disconnection is not the screen, but our overemphasis of the individual over human process. The thought that any group of people could be ornately superior to another is a toxic mentality that is taught in the subtle hums of microaggressions and the absence of diverse perspectives. Claiming that the progress of marginalized groups must be the cause of the lack of someone else’s success reiterates a “survival of the fittest” mentality. However, there is no competition in question. There is only the continuous question of everyone in the room being valued, supported, and given the opportunity to succeed. Not a handout or short-cut. And yet, there is still the question of the cognitive dissonance from the consumer. How can someone who created something I love--that I connect with--say things that contradict with who I am?
I don’t desire to attack Daniel. I doubt that he even imagined how people would respond to his words. When ideas are deeply rooted into the mind, it takes the precision of a brain surgeon and the patience of a Saint to unravel that web. I need no other proof that hate is taught and chosen ignorance is synonymous with complacency. But I do believe we are way past due for a conversation about whether we can separate the art from the artist and how to go about this in our curriculum, communities, and personal growth. Our ability to have these tough conversations is no longer optional. In fact, modeling difficult conversations gives a great opportunity to learn from each other's perspectives rather than always going into a conversation with the goal of proving your point. Is art redeemable or exempt from the choices of the creator? And if the art is redeemable, is the artist as well? I’d like to invite others to join me in this conversation… including Daniel Elder.
So Daniel, would you join me for a conversation? Can we be in dialogue so I can come to understand your perspective, and you can understand mine as a Black, female educator? Whether alone or amongst a panel, I believe that an exchange between our minds might come as a model for how to have conversations with people whose opinions are different from your own with the intention of carving a path forward. Our community has questions that need to be addressed sooner than later. And the only way to begin is through connection.
Being Human Together will be having a panel discussion about separating the art from the artist, equity, and how to have these difficult conversations on October 18, 2020 via Zoom. Here are some thoughts and questions that will guide our conversation:
What are your thoughts? We would love for you to be a part of the conversation. Leave a comment on this blog post or on our Facebook page so we can diversify the narrative. Our community has questions that need to be addressed sooner than later. And the only way to begin is through connection.
It is my honor to welcome you to the Being Human Together website! It was just TWO months ago that this project began to breathe life. And though we are still navigating a world with civil unrest and uncertainty, the conversations that have bloomed are proof that there is still hope and healing is truly possible.
As all Educators embark on the new "first year of teaching" in virtual setting, I wanted to share the BHT article that was featured in the August edition of the Southwestern Musician. I hope that these words (and the resource link at the bottom) help you navigate ways to connect with your students and colleagues.
This may not be the beginning that we know. But it is the beginning we get to create. So let's do this together.
I can't wait to talk with you again.
From my spirit to yours,
- Coty Raven Morris
It’s important to remember that minstrel music was written for entertainment and propaganda purposes. The songs were written to create the illusion that Enslaved people were happy with their circumstance.
And my my… did it work!
Things to notes:
- enslaved people were not allowed to read and write in their native tongue or in the English of the colonizers. They would pick up English from colonizers and slave masters. This would form a dialect that would then be used to make fun of Black people. These vocal mannerisms were used in publications and minstrel music (along with black face and “simple” percussive motifs) to make people feel comfortable with how they treated Black people.
- "But didn’t Black composers also write minstrel music? So we can perform it right?” - Black composers were ONLY allowed to publish minstrel music. And that’s if publishers were fine associating themselves with someone of color. They may or may not have been paid… and if they were, it was pennies on the dollar.
Teaching slavery is teaching history. We must understand how the people of the past created systems to demean people in order to build industry, celebrate how far relations between groups have come, and discover what we need to do in order to improve. Whereas minstrel music erases the truth of the history that should be taught and makes conversations about moving forward quite difficult. These pieces don’t provide truth. Just confusion and pain.
It’s exhausting to have to go through rep and curriculum again. It has been very taxing on me in a multitude of ways. Which is why I think it is imperative that we put pressure on the organizations that build this curriculum in the first place. You know that feeling where you teach something WAY better in your last class of they day than you do your first? The next day, we make an effort to provide that first class with the same content so everyone is on the same page.
Though I think we should all look at our classrooms and our hearts… if we do it alone, it can feel like a waste of time. It’s not at all… we just need reinforcements. You did the training. You learned the material. It’s not just up to you… someone one provided you with that and they should also be responsible for correcting it.
I hope this provides clarity.
Click here for a list of Songs with a Questionable Past, compiled by Lauren McDougle and here for great alternatives from members of Kodaly Educators of Texas you may not already be using.