In the past few years there have been several organizations that have been formed, founded, and solidified with a specific and intentional focus on Black advocacy and activism within the performing arts, and they’ve all been creating huge waves in the field of western classical music since their inception.
Among these institutions are the Black Opera Alliance, formed in 2020 with the mission of empowering Black “classical” artists and administrators by exposing systems of racial inequity and under-representation of the African diaspora in all facets of the industry and challenging institutions to implement drastic reform, and the International Society for Black Musicians, whose mission is to cultivate an international community of Black musicians through education, performance, collaboration, and the advancement of their work toward facilitating the unlearning of centered whiteness in the scholarship of music. On May 2nd, another group was officially launched and joins an already vibrant field of arts activism organizations on the move: the Black Orchestral Network.
Founded by Jennifer Arnold, Alexander Laing, David A. Norville, Joy Payton-Stevens, Shea Scruggs, Weston Sprott, and Titus Underwood, the Black Orchestral Network describes itself as “a community of Black orchestral artists” who “love and care about the American orchestral community.” However, with that love comes concern. BON sees the relative lack of Black talent in professional orchestras as a huge problem and has entered the arts activism field with not only a mission, but with a call to action.
In BON’s formal call to action, the organization offers some of the context that inspired their very direct approach, namely, a 2014 statistic that highlights the fact that less than 2% of American orchestral musicians are Black.
Additionally, the call to action challenges and critiques the League of American Orchestras and the American Federation of Musicians for issuing statements in support of racial equity, inclusion, and justice that, since their respective releases in 2020, have done “far too little” when it comes to the hiring and tenure of Black orchestral musicians. Many people argue that this type of on-stage representation fails to impact systems-level change, but members of BON believe the culture of orchestras and orchestral music will drastically shift with a radical re-engagement of Black representation in orchestras.
So what, exactly, does their call to action outline? In an extensive and comprehensive list of demands, BON calls on orchestras to:
- Hire Black musicians
- Change their mindsets surrounding hiring
- Remove barriers of entry
- Be accountable
- Develop plans for substantive change
- Collect data for accountable and transparent progress
- Support new talent and create opportunities
- Strengthen career pathways for emerging Black musicians
But it’s not just orchestras, themselves, that BON is calling to action. The group is urging funders to invest in organizations that are “already committed to Black orchestral artistry”, to direct their dollars to orchestras that answer BON’s call to action, and to “think big” about the possibilities for American orchestras. Concurrently, BON calls on local, regional, and national unions to support the cause, and asks the general American orchestral community to “raise your voice”, with a long list of signatories including Ann Hobson Pilot and Robert Lee Watt, who were among the first Black musicians to gain entry into American orchestras (National Symphony Orchestra, 1966 and Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1970, respectively).
Following the May 2nd call to action, BON declared May 9th their “Day of Solidarity”, in which supporters were asked to amplify the campaign by posting a BON-provided graphic to their social media accounts. On this “Day of Solidarity” I had the pleasure of speaking with two of the group’s founders, Alex Laing and Jennifer Arnold. I asked Alex if he could speak to what’s really at the heart of orchestras’ lack of Black representation, to which he replied:
“The reason that there’s a lack of change has to do with a mindset: a mindset that sees scarcity when there’s not scarcity. A mindset that frames [a lack of diversity] as a problem, as opposed to an opportunity. A mindset that doesn’t see the work of an orchestra in America as being poor for its lack of inclusion of Black people, Black music, Black artists, and Black culture. I would say that’s the thing – systems that are operating as designed in terms of keeping in place a mindset of a pipeline problem, or a scarcity problem, or a policies and procedures problem. But ultimately, I think it’s the mindset.”
In agreement with Alex and expounding on his point, Jennifer Arnold offered:
“I had this conversation with a musician who basically had the nerve to say that at orchestra auditions, they just don’t see Black people. They basically said, “There’s no talent amongst Black people.” Of course, I got a little heated about it, and I started talking about how the audition process is the problem. A lot of people are appointed or pre-advanced; we don’t have equal opportunity to those [people]. If we did, I think orchestras would look very different. I like to ask the question, when people say those kinds of things, “How did you win your audition?” This particular person said, “Well, I was a longtime sub, and I was pre-advanced.” Everyone knew this person, and so they felt comfortable with them, and now they’re in a particular symphony. I started in the prelims and had to fight my way and won an audition. I’m very grateful for it. But not everybody has that story. In fact, I think more people don’t have that story than they do. And so we need to talk about what winning an audition actually means. More importantly, Black people have to be part of that [conversation]. If we’re not included, then we will never get hired.”
Jennifer went on to explain her deeper inspirations for helping found the Black Orchestral Network, rooted largely in her upbringing that was filled with examples of advocacy and activism:
“I grew up with parents who were members of Black organizations. And so I’ve always wanted to have something like this for us in orchestral music. ISBM (International Society for Black Musicians) is a great example. NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) is a great example. But I wanted something that was a little bit more specialized for orchestral work. As I talk to more young people who feel like they don’t have a voice right now, I felt that we needed to have a group voice to reach the powers that be. But more importantly, I actually have been thinking a lot about Eartha Kitt, and Isaac Davis, and Paul Robeson, and Ruby Dee, and Marian Anderson. That’s why I actually thought about it – activist artists, and how they really put themselves on the line. I feel as artists we have to be publicly vocal, so that our colleagues in this industry cannot just turn a blind eye.”
According to Alex and Jennifer, early responses have been positive, with institutional signatories to BON’s call to action including the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Apollo Theater, the National Philharmonic, and even the League of American Orchestras, which was openly critiqued by BON in their call to action. The two also spoke to BON’s future, including collaborations with already-established arts activist organizations and a broader engagement of Black orchestral musicians overall.
Hopes and expectations are extremely high, and by the end of the 2022-2023 orchestral season the world will see which orchestras were serious about the call to action, and which ones weren’t. When asked what the Black Orchestral Network will do about orchestras that fail to participate, Alex simply replies, “We’ll see.”