Today I write, and we all live, under the pall of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Americans of color, amid the echoes of the Black Lives Matter protests that continue to shake our nation awake, and in the mournful reverent hours after civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis has left this earth. Today—every day, actually—is a good day to listen more than to speak, and I’ve asked one of my gifted former students, soprano Brandi Birdsong, to be the voice of my editor’s column for this issue as we discuss, briefly in print as we’ve done over breakfast in the past, the experience of being a black woman in the choral-vocal world right now.
[Soprano, Brandi Birdsong]
Eliza: Are there particular pieces of music that have been speaking to you these last several months, during the coronavirus shutdown and the protests against police brutality?
Brandi: For whatever reason, the Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams has been something that keeps coming up. That may have to do with Walt Whitman’s text, or the music that marries the text so perfectly.
Eliza: We want to think of choral music-making as an inherently inclusive and welcoming art form, but have there been times when you didn’t feel that way, and when your choral directors and choir-mates perhaps didn’t realize that you didn’t feel that way?
Brandi: I can’t speak about anyone’s personal experiences about this subject except my own, but I think, for me, there is a constant “token black person” role that is played. Being in a choir that is diverse but still lacks black people is like those painful days in high school when the teacher discusses slavery and all of your classmates turn and look at you. I’ve had a choir-mate actually tell me I’d get into a university because I happen to be a black girl interested in opera—as if I wouldn’t get in for my talent or musicianship. The idea that I would get things handed to me for affirmative action purposes when I feel I have to work harder than others to be taken seriously is a back-handed compliment. This is one of the many examples of not being taken seriously in the music world, and not only as a person of color, but specifically as a black woman.
Eliza: I was struck today by this quote from Jason A. Dungee: “For Black conductors, there can exist a particular internal tension that occurs when you realize that the primary voice people want to hear from you is one of activism, not music.” Have you experienced that as a Black singer as well? Do you feel free to create your own path as an artist, or do you feel that the music world is inclined to pigeonhole you?
Brandi: At times, yes! This is tricky because in my experiences in choir, my voice is considered too “rich,” “colorful,” or “big” for some solos or roles. But when certain other opportunities come into play, like a spiritual or gospel piece, it’s an almost unspoken decision that I would be considered for it. I’ve had people ask why I didn’t audition for gospel solos in choir. I’ve never auditioned for gospel pieces in choir, ever. The assumption can be a little frustrating because when there are other solo opportunities, I’m not encouraged or asked why I didn’t audition. I think the main point is that I am more than the trauma black people have experienced. I am something my ancestors dreamed of and I want to break more boundaries, not just singing the typical “oh, Brandi can do that for us” repertoire.
Eliza: The intersection of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprisings have created a strange and unsettled atmosphere for all of us. What, if anything, do you want to hear from your teachers and conductors in this time? What’s helpful? What’s not? What do you want the choral profession to hear and understand?
Brandi: I want musicians and choral directors to know that when we, as black people, see brutality filmed every day, and when we watch it every day—people who look like our brothers, our aunts, our cousins—it’s traumatic. The [African American] music that they perform stems from trauma and pain. It’s hard enough to see people rationalize the killings of black people. But it’s painful seeing the music directors we love so much use gospel and spirituals to make their programs more enjoyable but also be so silent. If you want to tread lightly on this subject and not make public statements that show people where you stand, at least check in on your students and singers. Show them the love you have for them like the love you show for black culture and music.
Eliza Rubenstein; Editor, Cantate Newsletter for California ACDA