Why, this year, Last Night of the Proms will be woke | Daniel Kidane

My composition premieres tonight. It’s a recognition that classical music needs more diversity, to make it meaningful for all of us

In recent years we seem to have reached peak wokeness, but not entirely for the right reasons. I first heard woke as an adjective from the US, alongside the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The term “stay woke” was used as an empowering slogan that encouraged people to be vigilant to the injustices in society, especially racism. But as the word grew in popularity, the licence to use it in any which way expanded and its meaning became diluted. It was in response to this woke-washing that I decided to call my piece for tonight’s Last Night of the Proms “Woke”.

As a composer whose father is Eritrean, whose mother is Russian and who was born and raised in the UK, I have always embraced a mixed and diverse outlook. With age I have begun to truly appreciate the richness of drawing inspiration from a variety of perspectives. Having three cultures at hand to quarry for ideas – a triptych of folklore, language and traditions – is much more fruitful than just one.

My journey into music began with group recorder lessons at a state primary school. I then progressed to the violin – my dad had a dream of me playing the instrument. At my local Centre for Young Musicians I had my first proper encounter with contemporary classical music. After being spotted singing in a choir I was recruited to join the English National Opera children’s chorus, where I sang in La Bohème, Carmen, a Bolshoi Opera production of Boris Godunov and the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. And so began my love for new music, so much so that when I obtained a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music, I took up composition.

I am always very thankful to those who encouraged and supported me along the way. I also remember feeling a sense of otherness – where were all the other black and minority-ethnic children? The realisation that classical music is an industry with a one-sided vista was something that didn’t sit well with me from an early age. I have heard many an argument as to why this might be the case – a popular notion is that western classical music is a European tradition, and therefore makes the current state of affairs acceptable. It doesn’t. Successful composers such as Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor existed, yet their music remains in the shadows. Why?

Those in the industry should promote diversity. By doing so they will make classical music meaningful for all and sow interest among future generations. When I was growing up, there were no words like woke. Instead, I remember vividly the tragic slaying of Stephen Lawrence and the phrase that was coined by the inquiry into his murder – institutional racism.

And so for the Last Night of the Proms, my wish is for my piece to be taken as a musical call for greater empathy and a willingness to try something new – whether musically or culturally. We can all play a part in staying vigilant and woke.

• Daniel Kidane is a classical composer. His composition Woke is to have its premiere at the Last Night of the Proms, Saturday 14 September


Daniel Kidane

The GuardianTramp

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