Thursday, 23 July 2015

Black in Britain - musicians and stereotypes

Good article "From slavery to singing star: celebrating Thomas Rutling, by Ronald Samm, who is a singer himself. Samm is starring in a piece on Rutling's life at Harrogate, where Rutling settled down. Samm was also one of the security guards in Tansy Davies' much misunderstood  Between Worlds  at the ENO. What must it have been like to be black in Britain in late Victorian times when any kind of non-white person was an exotic alien?  Rutling is seated above, middle row left. In his tux he could pass for a banker or a patron of the Royal Opera House. But look at the banjo and guitar in the foreground. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were admired but they still had to conform to stereotypes. No way was the public ready for blacks  as equals in "serious" music.

Rutling (1854-1915) was a contemporary of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), whose blackness was an accident of birth, and who grew up in an all-white environment, admired by Elgar and feted at the Three Choirs Festival. To Coleridge-Taylor's credit, he set out to learn about black identity, writing music influenced by generic "African" ideas and Black American music. Being a proper English gentleman meant he was received by the President of the United States. Ordinary black Americans  didn't get invited to the White House except as menials.  To Coleridge-Taylor's credit, he went out of his way to learn about black culture and meet black American artists and intellectuals, Coleridge-Taylor's music is possibly better known in the US today than in Britain. Read my article "Who really was Coleridge-Taylor ?" HERE, and my other pieces on him by clicking the label below.

Coleridge-Taylor's music is fascinating because he was genuinely trying to come to terms with non-white western aesthetics, much in the way that French composers from Bizet on explored exotic themes. Imagine if he'd worked with Ravel and developed a whole new musical language?  But he's also important as a perspective on race in late colonial times. Jeffrey Green's biography Samuel Coleridge-Taylor:: a Musical, Life is  essential reading. It's based on exhaustive first-hand research, presented with genuine knowledge of background and the composer's position in society. Even now, black people are exploited for novelty value, an approach which is fundamentally racist even if it's not intentional.  Jeffrey Green's sensitive book gives Coleridge-Taylor the dignity and respect he deserves.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) grew up in a black community in the South, so his experiences of black identity were more acute than Coleridge-Taylor's, and very different indeed to the prettified fantasy of Delius's Koanga. Grant Still was middle class and educated, but had to adapt to a certain amount of stereotype to make a living.  Fortunately, he lived long enough to be recognized as a musician and part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Back to Ronald Samm and his ideas on the role of black singers today. If this really was an equal world, the issue wouldn't arise, but the fact is, the number of black people in classical music doesn't reflect demographic reality.  Like it or not, classical music is perceived as being elitist. The myth reinforces prejudice, intensifying the problem.  One of the stupidest things in current arts policy is the idea that music can somehow change society, but in reality, unless society itself changes, we aren't going to get more blacks on stage and in the audience. Non-white people get patronized all the time. More talking down doesn't help. Besides, being non-white can sometimes be an artistic advantage. Last year, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang Puccini Manon Lescaut.  Westbroek's lush blonde voluptuousness was nicely set off by Lester Lynch as her brother. In a sense having a black guy as lowlife feeds stereotype, but the dynamic between Westbroek and Lynch was electric. Brother and sister, enthusiastic parters in crime, enjoying every moment.

No comments: