Across the cultural landscape, the light of truth is working its way through the past. Historical inaccuracies, unattributed contributions and long-lost gems – all victims of male whitewashing – are being restored and reinstated.
Hidden Figures, an Oscar-nominated film of 2016, shows the incredible contribution of three pioneering black women. Rosalind Franklin’s work, which enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to uncover DNA and claim a Nobel prize, has only recently been fully recognised, many years after her death. From art to science and beyond, the work of historically marginalised groups is being gloriously shared. Except within classical music, that is. And to compound matters, the errors of the past are being repeated today.
It’s Proms season – a chance for the classical music world to show that it’s moving with the times – and just as relevant today as it has always been. But it is yet another missed opportunity. I welcomed the BBC’s declaration last year that there would be a 50/50 gender balance in all new commissions of contemporary composers by 2020. I wholeheartedly agree with David Pickard, director of BBC Proms, when he says the target is “a crucial statement for gender equality by the arts industry”, and I am actively working with him to effect more change. But more must be done.
This year’s season includes work by 29 female composers, out of a total of 160. If we add ethnicity into the mix, the numbers become even more stark: of the BBC’s 13 new commissions for the season, only one is by a black female composer and one by a black male composer (at least they’ve got gender equality).
My pride at both of these composers - Errollyn Wallen and Daniel Kidane – having previously been commissioned by the organisation I founded, Chineke!, is overshadowed by my frustration with the continued male white dominance in the world that I love. The Proms run for eight weeks, with two or three concerts a day, but you’ll have to listen carefully for music composed by anyone other than a white male – in total there will be less than four hours of it, and less than 20 minutes from black and minority ethnic composers, throughout the whole season.
Sadly, it comes as no surprise to me that our cultural landscape in this section of the arts still looks and sounds the way it does. I’ve enjoyed many conversations and been involved in many conferences concerning the lack of diversity in the classical music world. There is talk of gender balance and a more complete balance of ethnicities; people in leading positions also say they want a more equal balance of ethnicities and gender in their organisations – be they orchestras or administration. I have heard all the talk but action seems rare and slow.
The choreographer Wayne McGregor compounds the problem in his recent compilation album. The release, Collaborations, was billed by its label as “a collection of music from the biggest names in modern classical and electronic music” – and yet, with dismaying familiarity, only two women are featured in the album’s 15 tracks.
I founded Chineke! in 2015, establishing Europe’s first majority BME orchestra, with the central mission of championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music. I felt something must be done after 35 years of performing on the international concert platform, and becoming too used to being the only black person on stage. In just a few years, we have been able to provide career opportunities for the BME community and to become a catalyst for change by increasing the representation on BME musicians in British and European orchestras.
When Chineke! was asked to consider playing this year’s two CBeebies Prom concerts, the question was posed with a touch of trepidation: the programmers were familiar with orchestras being a bit sniffy at being asked to play a Prom aimed at children aged two to six. Our response was absolutely the opposite. Those young people are tomorrow’s audiences – and their parents would be there too. We grabbed the offer with both hands. Chineke! could be the first live music experience for many in that audience of 13,000, and therefore what they see becomes the norm: a completely diverse orchestra. We played those two CBeebies Proms last week and every single person in the auditorium had a blast.
We are fulfilling our mission through concerts, community engagement and educational work. We are rediscovering and including works by BME composers both living and from the past. Mentors and role models cannot be overestimated, and we are already seeing positive results. It’s time for more organisations to take bolder moves taking action, getting involved, broadening horizons, and that way we’ll catch up with all the other creative industries sooner, and broaden audiences at the same time.
Composers whose repertoire we perform and/or recommend are Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Florence Price; William Grant Still; Scott Joplin; Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; Avril Coleridge-Taylor; George Walker; Errollyn Wallen; Hannah Kendall; Eleanor Alberga; Philip Herbert; Daniel Kidane; Jessie Montgomery; Anna Clyne; Ignatius Sancho; Sally Beamish; Julian Joseph; Jill Jarman; José Maurício Nunes Garcia; and Esteban Salas Y Castro. The list is long.
Not only do these composers add glorious repertoire choices for us to complement any concert programme – but they add a rich storytelling, harmonic sound world to our ears.
• Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE is founder and artistic director of the Chineke! Foundation, and principal double bassist. She is professor of double bass at the Royal Academy of Music