A Black History Month is eleven too few Jump to main content

A Black History Month is eleven too few

British composer Philip Herbert reflects on the nature of Black History Month as a contemporary musician, and how we can better celebrate Black History in the national curriculum, wider education, and through representation in the UK music industry.

Plato said, ‘Those who tell the stories rule society.’

There is a danger for us to look at history as something that is lifeless and dead, failing to grasp that the narratives, from the annals of history: are of people who lived life in a very purposeful and committed way to fulfil their dreams - and thus leave the amazing legacies, that we read about, today.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an immigrant in the USA. He recognised that Black and Asian musicians could write music using their own musical cultures, just as he was using his Russian musical culture to inform his musical output. We must learn from Rachmaninoff's observations – he spoke from his own experience, and put in place strategies to make swift changes in the music industry of his time. Rachmaninoff spoke with vision, recognising that ethnic minorities could make a contribution to classical music by making use of their own musical heritage:

“There is a strong national characteristic in America, a characteristic born of her broad democracy, the gathering of many nations, a cosmopolitan note which your composers must catch and write into your music. How it will be done or when or where, no one knows. I am convinced however, that the plan of taking Indian themes, and [black] themes, is scarcely likely to produce great distinctive American music, unless these themes are developed by Indian Composers and [black] composers. The highest quality of all art is sincerity.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff, ‘Etude Interview’ The California Eagle, 18 October 1919

There are academics, gifted virtuosic musicians, and brilliant leaders in the today’s music industry, who, like Rachmaninoff, understand from their own perspective what can be done to make positive changes in cultural diversity within the classical music industry. They have established legacies, which speak to the positive changes that they have already made in today's music industry, which will one day go down in the annals of Black History.

Consequently, we don't need to try to reinvent this, as if this hasn’t happened before: rather, we need to build on the achievements of these enlightened individuals. We need to seek out them out, wherever they may be in the world, and have them come to the UK and use their skills - in collaboration with the talent that is here. Along with their vision and insight to help the music industry here, we can identify and signpost what developments need to be established. By so doing, a generation of musicians, from culturally diverse backgrounds, will be enabled to find their place and make their mark in the music industry, much more quickly than possible at present. This can only happen if there is a mindset that will not repeat the mistakes of music history, where certain composers were forgotten and ignored, despite their prodigious talents.

Specifically, we need to address the fact that there are ‘fewer than 1% of UK Professors who are Black’, with targeted strategies to find ways to making it possible for more Black professors, in the making, to break through the glass ceiling, over a specific timeline that is monitored. We need a de-colonisation of the music curriculum, so that many more music genres can be studied in schools and universities and to incorporate the vocabulary that composers may use in their compositions, so as to reach the new culturally diverse audiences, that have yet to visit the concert hall. We need to ensure that talented black musicians coming through schools, music college and university, have access to recording opportunities, support from publishers and music agents, are programmed regularly around the year in mainstream venues, receive recognition through awards, receive opportunities in broadcasting (radio and television), appearances at mainstream music festivals, and are nurtured for leadership roles in the music industry, commensurate with the right experience, all year round.

These are just some of the hallmarks of creating the basis for legacies which live on in history, which should not just be limited to one month and labeled Black History.

We are all members of the human race, which in turn merits an approach to nurturing talent, with equality in the range of opportunities for exceptionally talented Black musicians to make their mark in History. Only through this will Black History be realised as a part of Plato’s philosophy – ‘those who tell the stories rule society.’

Philip Herbert


Philip's work Elegy (in memoriam Stephen Lawrence) was recently performed in a live-streamed concert by Houston Symphony Orchestra. Tickets to view the recording of that performance are available to purchase from HSO.

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