by Becky St. Clair
The history of American music is infused with African influence, and it covers a multitude of genres, styles, artists, and composers. In an article on the Smithsonian Institute website, Steven Lewis says, “Describing the African-American influence on American music in all its glory and variety is an intimidating–if not impossible–task. African-American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them.”
And yet the standard music course at most American colleges and universities rarely, if ever, touches on Black Music.
“I’ve spent my life listening to classic jazz, gospel, spirituals, and oldies, but I didn’t tap into the juggernaut of African-American classical music until I got to PUC,” remembers Christina Allen, 2019 PUC music and visual arts alumna. “When I started looking for recital pieces in my voice lessons, I realized there are so many classically trained African-American composers, lyricists, and artists, and I’d never heard of them.”
Allen has always been a singer; her father, also a singer as well as a trombonist, began teaching her jazz harmonies when she was five years old. She was handed a mic and soloed with her church choir as a young child, too.
“When I got to PUC, though I was focused on film and television, I couldn’t help but find my way over to the music department,” she says with a grin.
Allen found her way to a practice room and began singing. She was overheard by a professor, who encouraged her to try out for choir, which she did. At first it was just something she was adding to her course lineup for fun, but she quickly realized it was more than that to her.
“I loved it,” Allen admits. “I knew I had to get a degree in music because I just love it, it’s part of who I am, and I wanted to study it properly.”
During her senior year, as she prepared for her senior recital with Dr. Eve-Anne Wilkes, her voice instructor, Allen knew she wanted to include music by Black composers in her lineup. So she chose a couple of pieces by William Grant Still: “The Breath of a Rose,” with lyrics by Langston Hughes, and “Grief,” music set to a poem by LeRoy V. Grant.
“Still’s music has been instrumental in my journey as an African-American female vocalist,” Allen says. “There’s something really incredible about the storytelling in it. The way he brings together the music just has such a powerful way of emoting stories that are really relevant to our culture. He gets under your skin in a good way, with room for thought and consideration.”
Allen points out that Still was extremely thoughtful about the lyrics of his music and about who he had write them.
“His music speaks to the experience he and everyone around him was having, and that’s meaningful to me,” Allen adds. “Even with current artists in popular genres, the ones I gravitate toward are those who are using their talent for more than just entertainment. They have something to contribute to the time they’re in.”
It isn’t just Still that speaks to Allen; she also proclaims a deep and abiding love for the music of Florence Price, George Walker, Robert Nathaniel, and Margaret Bonds. And though her counterparts at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) studied these and others in every music class they took, Allen points out that at most colleges and universities, you have to search out specific classes about Black or African-American music.
“It’s just not common literature,” she says with sadness. “There are brilliant composers from every ethnicity and we simply don’t hear about them. If we as a society want to heal in some of these areas in which we’ve been wounded and broken, we have to rethink how we educate. Because education is how we cultivate our values and mindsets and it shapes our perspectives of the world.”
Allen is a classically trained African-American female vocalist. Though there are many others who fit this description around the world, she knows she is still a rarity. And she feels compelled to be an ambassador for her culture–specifically for women of her culture–in classical music.
“It would be an injustice if I didn’t,” she says. “If someone is moved by the fact that the music I sing was made by someone who looks like me, I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. My voice is a gift and I have a responsibility to share that gift. I’m not just singing when I perform; I’m telling the story of African-American music–of classical music–and I want to share that story because if I don’t, I don’t know if anyone else will.”
Allen quickly points out, however, that she and her African-American brothers and sisters are not the only ones who can tell this story. For example, white people are not the only ones allowed to tell the story of Mozart or Bach or Debussy; Allen herself has told their stories and others throughout her musical career.
“We should be able to tell each other’s stories,” she says with feeling. “Anyone of any race, creed, shape, size, color, or whatever should tell whatever story they resonate with and that resonates with them. In telling the story and sharing, it’s a fight for equality. We have importance just like everyone else, and there’s value in that.”
It is, however, a special honor for Allen, as a Black musician, to honor the legacy of those who have gone before her. And it’s not just about singing music; it’s also talking about it.
Allen shares a story of chatting with a nurse at a doctor’s appointment. The nurse happened to mention that he’d been to Scotland, going back to his roots. Allen’s immediate response was, “That music is so soulful! I love it!” The nurse was taken aback by her description of Scottish music, surprised that she had not only listened to it, but had thoughtful things to say about it.
“We started talking about music and how it impacts our lives,” Allen recalls. “It turns out he has a radio station and loves music, listening to everything under the sun. I started sharing about composers I love from my own culture that had impacted me and he said he’d play some of them on his station.”
Intrigued and inspired, Allen tuned into the station later and found the nurse had kept his word. He even gave her a shout-out on-air.
“It’s so important that we share each other’s culture,” Allen emphasizes. “All of it shapes each of us, and if we claim to want equality and do away with racism on every level, we need to walk that talk.”
And it starts with education.
“We have to integrate our history courses,” Allen says. “Branching out and offering the history of Black music not just as a separate course, but as part of the history of music we already take.”
She continues by saying that classes shouldn’t just talk about African music in world music courses, but in all of them, and when studying composition, professors should be thoughtful to include a diverse range of cultures and styles. Lectures should Include Black composers and musicians, and ensembles should perform music from all over the world.
“For many–myself included–college is the first time we truly experience classical music,” Allen asserts. “If not for some awesome teachers, I may not have had the experience I did with classical music. There’s something to be said for performing music from people who look like you, and being able to represent your culture. What we’re exposed to matters.”
It’s not just higher education, either, Allen points out; it’s a societal issue as the country tries to play catch-up and heal the brokenness garnered through past mistakes. And every little step forward matters–especially in education.
“What we learn in school shapes our perspective and we can’t make progress if we’re leaving out pieces,” she says. “I was greatly impacted in a positive way by the education I received with my music degree at PUC. I was completely cultivated in unexpected ways, and it’s forever shaped me as a person and as a musician.
“Music is a universal language and it has a special and unique way of helping you understand another culture outside of your own,” Allen concludes. “Understanding is valuable. If we dare to not be angry, and to be gracious and willing to continue the conversation, we’ll move forward.”
Some Black composers to explore, recommended by Allen & department of music faculty:
- William Grant Still
- Florence Price
- George Walker
- Margaret Bonds
- Ulysses Simpson Kay
- Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
- Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
- Jessie Montgomery