Black History Month: Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE

I know that for many people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities in this country, their colour and ethnicity has always been at the back of their minds. Regardless of whether they were born in the UK and have spent their whole lives here, they feel an ‘otherness’ that their ethnicity brings. This is obviously something that Chineke! has been trying to help them overcome by making them feel like they belong, and by building their confidence, skills and experience.

For me, the realisation that my ethnicity might have any influence on my work as a classical musician came much later in life. My parents suffered a great deal of discrimination as an inter-racial couple, but ironically, their upbringing helped me to never see my colour. They taught me that I could do anything, and that hard work and perseverance can get you anywhere. As a result, I never lacked the self-belief to forge a career in classical music, even though black classical musicians were nearly unheard of in those days.

While it was great for my career, this outlook affected my perceptions of the experiences of other BME musicians: because I had been raised to believe I could do anything, I naturally and possibly naively did not understand why other BME musicians were not coming forward and forging their own careers in the industry.

In recent years, as the idea for Chineke! took root in my mind, I started to realise that, for so many other musicians, their ethnicity was a barrier both real and imagined. They felt out of place or uncomfortable in music schools and on the stage, and their communities felt that the concert hall was not a place for ‘people like them‘. So, my idea with Chineke! was to help them celebrate their backgrounds, but also to make them much less important to their identities as musicians. Yes, their different ethnicities add wonderful vibrancy and diversity to their stage presence, but they are first and foremost professional musicians. They feel like ambassadors for their respective communities.

There have been some victories in the past decade: we have recognised the dangers of our industry becoming a white, middle-class monoculture, and there is now a broad consensus on the need for more diversity in our orchestras, management teams and audiences. However, despite widespread recognition of the problems, we have sadly not made much actual progress in diversifying our workforce. To start with, I would like to see the average number of BME musicians in orchestras (currently about 1%) be equal to the proportion of the population which identifies as BME (around 12-13%).

I also want to diversify our audiences and fill up our concert halls with new classical music fans! These days, orchestras seem to be competing for smaller and smaller audiences, and a big part of that stems from the major image problem we have as an industry: people see us as elite, unwelcoming and exclusive. We need to open up classical music to everyone, from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and make them feel welcome at classical music concerts.

A big part of doing that lies in giving everyone the opportunity to have an arts education, and placing music back at the heart of our national curriculum. Too often music and other arts subjects have been cut or abandoned completely in favour of STEM subjects. This has been going on for decades, culminating in the new EBacc curriculum, which I fear will be the death blow for pre-tertiary music education in this country. Chineke!’s message is that yes, the STEM subjects are important to our economy and to the development of our next generation, but so are the arts, and we need a firm grounding in both to thrive as a nation and as individuals.

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE

(Main image by Eric Richmond)