I Hate Classical Music

A Conversation on Race, Identity, and Transformative Arts Practice

Justin Laing and Alex Laing

For several years my brother, Alex Laing, principal clarinetist for the Phoenix Symphony, and I, senior program officer at the Heinz Endowments, have been having often intense conversations, where my brother probed the thinking behind Heinz Endowments’ grantmaking that placed an emphasis on African and African diasporic culture, distressed neighborhoods, and teaching artists. Heinz Endowments, having taken the advice of Anasa Troutman of the consulting firm Lion and Butterfly, has begun to call this work transformative arts education. Heinz Endowments has written a paper called “Where Do We Go from Here?” that describes in more detail our initial learnings from community members about what this work might entail. In brief, in addition to the more standard and familiar elements of quality arts education, it includes ideas about developing programs that help children ask and answer questions about issues of race, class, and culture all in the context of deep arts instruction. Maybe more importantly, the feedback that we received from community members is that Heinz Endowments must turn our focus on transformation to our own funding practices and provide field building and multiyear support and be willing to support artists who address the thorny issues just noted.

In hearing me talk about the work over various family holiday gatherings, Alex was interested in such questions as, What are the implications for arts organizations such as symphonies? What about ALAANA (African, Latino, Asian, Arab, and Native American) artists who are highly trained in Western European art forms? These, in turn, brought up questions about the role of the arts in strengthening the knowledge children have of their inherited culture as well as the culture of “others,” particularly America’s dominating culture, that is, wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. These issues then reawakened concerns for me about the way increasing pressure on the budgets of large arts organizations (the vast majority of whom have predominantly white staff, artists, and audiences) and the increasing calls for equity in the funding of ALAANA communities could lead to “diversity” arts funding being used to fill the holes in the budgets of these arts organizations and missing an opportunity to dramatically increase the capacity and reach of those artists and organizations who have been working in these neighborhoods for a decade or more. What kinds of processes, if any, should funders use to ferret out the answers to these questions?

Alex and I felt that our relationship and respective arts work offered an opportunity to have a conversation that funding and artist communities might find interesting, so we decided to pose a few questions to one another and see what ideas they might turn up. We hope the reader finds the conversation half as interesting as we found having it.

Justin Laing Do you define yourself in race and culture terms?

Alex Laing In terms of race, I define myself as a biracial black man. In terms of culture, I would say the same and add American: biracial American black man.

Justin How does this decision impact your choices as an artist trained in Western European art forms, if at all?

Alex I think we all bring our personal story to work with us every day, and my particular job calls on me to make aesthetic choices all the time. In the course of a season, however, the sounds that I’m called on to make are determined well in advance (by composers and programming). Because of that, in my orchestral music making, I don’t think my race or culture have much opportunity to directly impact my sound-making choices nearly as much as my musical heritage — whom I studied with, admire, try to emulate, etc.

Having said that, I think my race and culture do impact the way I see the role of the orchestra in civic life and the type of work I want to be doing as an orchestral musician.

I was in grad school when I began to learn about and practice community-engaged music making. This was in the late nineties, and the shift from calling these practices “outreach” to “community-engaged” was just starting to take hold. That shift resonated with me — both the impact on the practice (from outreach to community-engaged) as well as the fact that there was a search for the right language.

The idea of “community-engaged music making” was exciting to me because it represented the possibility of practicing European art music in a way that was more useful to more people. It inspired me and was a big part of how I was able to envision a whole life for myself, one in which music and community and coolness and blackness were all intertwined.

Shortly after grad school I won the African American Fellowship from the Detroit Symphony. Winning that spot was a big opportunity for me, and I’m proud to be associated with an exemplar orchestra like the DSO. In the short term the program brings more diversity to the DSO’s stage, but its main and long-term goal is to bring more black people into the professional ranks of orchestral musicians.

It may be self-serving, but I like to think that program was about more than just helping to add color to some orchestra’s publicity shot (which it did). I like to think that an obligation of my DSO fellowship is to bring my whole voice — including my perspective on race and culture — to the table in this business.

Beyond my work within my orchestra organization, I think my racial and cultural identity definitely has an impact on the way I’m looking at developing my transformative arts practice. I think it’s very exciting that transformative arts practices are getting so much attention, but I have to admit that I do a lot of cringing when I listen to the way some European art music organizations and musicians talk about entering the transformative arts space. Often I’m cringing because the speaker is unwittingly invoking a metanarrative of white superiority. Almost just as often I’m cringing because the talk is too self-serving.

By self-serving I mean I hear a lot of focus on how transformative art making is creating a new, exciting, and authentic practice space for European art music (and musicians). What I’d like to focus more on is, What are we trying to transform people or communities from and into? Why? And, What makes us confident that we even know what we’re talking about?

Alex What do you think artists practicing European art forms bring to the table in trying to engage in transformative arts practices? More specifically, what baggage?

Justin Well, let me start by taking a step back and saying that I will speak to this issue in the context of African American and white American people, of which I count myself one. I am not going to try and speak in the aggregate of nonwhite people by saying “people of color” or ALAANA for reasons best explained by the late poet and playwright Sekou Sundiata:

I think “People of Color” is a shaky term because it represents empty calories. If it weren’t for white people, and for what one of my colleagues, Dr. Gary Lemons, calls “the whiteness of whiteness,” there would be no People of Color. We would just be Japanese or Indian or Cuban or Haitian or Native Americans. In other words, what we called ourselves would be rooted in geography and language and culture and religion and mythology and so on. 1

But back to your original question, I actually tend to work with and read the material of these organizations more so than work with the artists directly, and I don’t think that’s a meaningless distinction. What I see in the organizations is that they do not bring to the table an articulated critique of the role that relatively wealthy European art form organizations have played in preserving and promulgating ideas as to which arts are “classical” and normative and what are “ethnically specific,” “folk arts,” and marginalized. Maybe more to your “baggage” question is that they can come to the table with an idea that this idea of classicality is rooted in fair appraisals of art and that if Western European work happens to be the entirety of the work in the American canon, then “it just is what it is.” The notion that Europeans have contributed the important and classical art forms to the world and it simply “is what it is” is an important part of the larger narrative that white people’s lives, thoughts, feelings, needs, etc. are more important than anyone else’s, and serve as key beliefs and norms in structural racism. While thinking of these beliefs and norms as a form of oppression may seem odd to white people, the antiracism organization the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond calls internalized superiority one of the two sides of internalized oppression, the other being the internalized inferiority found in ALAANA people. Bringing internalized superiority to African American children in the form of the narrative of Western European classical music is harmful and obviously baggage with which I believe funders must concern ourselves. How this could become policy I am not at all sure.

Before closing on this question, I feel I would be remiss to not discuss my role as funder in this process. Obviously, none of these organizations could be “major” without a corresponding funding support structure. This, for me, is the much more complicated issue to resolve than the diversity guidelines we often reduce the question to. However, to address the role that the art funding structure plays in the metanarrative of structural racism that underlies and justifies many of the racial disparities we see, our field would need a much more sophisticated conversation about race, racism, and its origins.

Justin With the “baggage” concerns I offer, do you have thoughts about how European art form artists could address these issues?

Alex When you talk about the burden of internalized superiority, I’m reminded of Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to This” when he says,

I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. . . . The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of “the music.” Some jazz aficionados also call their art “America’s classical music,” and I propose a trade: they can have “classical,” I’ll take “the music.” 2

As it relates to a transformative arts practice, I think notions of classicality and timelessness tend to get in the way. They incline us to come into these spaces already locked into a paradigm about what we offer and why it is valuable. This can cause us to miss out on new ways of looking at what we bring to the table.

For instance, in reading the chapter you wrote, I was excited by your introduction of language around “bridging cultural capital” and how that can used as a tool to combat a “know your place identity” with young black students. 3 This offers a new way of looking at the associations of class and race that typically accompany the art form I’m trained in.

In my business, we’re eager to talk about how our music — in its “classicality” — transcends time and place. When we carry this framing with us into the transformative arts space, I think we assert it — at least in part — as a means of mitigating the art form’s past and present association as largely white and largely upper-class.

While there may be some truth to the assertion that great art transcends time and place, when engaging in a transformative arts practice, I don’t think we need to avoid the race and class associations of our music. In fact, I think doing so could possibly deny us opportunities and avenues for transformation. So, for instance, by framing a practice as, among other things, intentionally building young black students’ “bridging cultural capital,” we can invite inquiry and accept the race and class associations of this music without diminishing its power to transform.

Justin What do you believe should be at the crux of music programs you would design, and does this have anything to do with the current challenges facing symphonies, or is that a separate matter?

Alex I’m interested in transformative arts practices that have utility at their crux. By utility I mean useful for the participants, a program that interests them and helps them to take on a challenge or solve a problem that they face.

In answer to the second part of your question, it would be hard to separate my thinking about music and transformative arts from my experience as an orchestral musician — an experience that includes a lot of firsthand knowledge of “the challenges facing symphonies.” Still, I don’t think my feeling that utility should be at the heart of my transformative arts practice is about trying to address the current challenges facing symphonies. I think it’s about trying to do good work in this space.

Alex What might a collective impact transformative arts initiative look like? Drilling down a little, what do you think the shared measures might be?

Justin Well, our hope is to begin this summer by providing support to cohorts of artists who would like to work together to strengthen their practice in one form or another. Our goal here is to build the cohesion and visibility of the teaching artists and programs that work in African American and distressed neighborhoods. We are thinking of this as field building, and it could involve providing support for collectives to develop curriculum together or shared frameworks of socially just arts education or to coordinate the coming together of artists in one shared space. To lead this work, we are going to have an advisory committee made up of adults and youth with deep experience in working on transformation in African American and “distressed communities,” and this group’s initial work will be selecting the most compelling field-building projects and then helping to frame our strategy going forward.

As to the shared measures, I am not really sure, but I do think it will have something to do with increased visibility, cohesion, and dollars for this work. To get more specific, I think we would need to look to the goals defined in those initial field-building projects.

• • •

I won’t belabor this conversation with a long conclusion, as we are already over our word limit. I hope the conversation was interesting, and if you are in Silver Spring, Maryland, some Christmas or Thanksgiving, feel free to give a shout to jump in on the discussion.


  1. Sekou Sundiata, “Diversity Revisited-A Reflection,” African American Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Association of Performing Arts Presenters, 2004.
  2. Alex Ross, Listen to This (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).
  3. Alex is referring to an idea in a chapter I wrote called “Free Your Mind: Afrocentric Arts Education and the Counter Narrative School,” in the book Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice: A Way Out of No Way. Bridging cultural capital provides African American youth knowledge of wealthy WASP American culture while integrating it into their own sense of themselves as intelligent, capable, and confident African American youth.