The Black Faces of Classical Music

I’ll be writing and sharing a series of articles discussing the presence of black composers and artists in the western classical music world. I’ll be drawing attention to black artists of today and discussing the influence of classical music on black people and vice versa. There will also be contributions  featured from students, teachers and eminent artists sharing their experiences as people of Afro-Caribbean heritage being successful in the industry.

The further I delved into classical music and immersed myself in it, the more I realised that there weren’t many artists who look like myself i.e. of African/Caribbean descent. So I decided to explore…

I’m sure many  people have heard of Scott Joplin but how about other black composer/performers such as Joseph Bologne (Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges),  Joseph Antonio Emidy and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

The Black Faces of Classical Music Explained

Read about my black female inspiration for International Women’s Day 2017

Check out the links below to discover young black artists.
Introducing: Caroline Modiba
Introducing: Shannon Latoya Simon
Introducing: Lufuno Ndou

Here is Julian Joseph’s interpretation of Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River” No.10 from 24 Negro Melodies Op.59.

Introducing: Lufuno Ndou


The first time I became involved in classical music was in primary school. Only a few of the children were given the opportunity to play violin, a few others the recorder. I remember very little about playing the violin at this time, other than playing my violin17888646_10210120982955219_2003672998_n to family when we visited South Africa and seeing the number of children playing instruments fall as we got to end of primary school. I didn’t play the violin much when I started secondary school but having had the play it always kept me connected to classical music. As a singer, and also as a dancer and actor – as someone whose appearance may often be a factor to my performance – seeing people of colour in the industry is so important to me.17901755_10210120982995220_1578615655_o

The first time I saw Caroline Modiba, South African soprano, perform in Birmingham Conservatoire, I cried so much. It was a little bit embarrassing. But I saw her and I finally believed for the first time since beginning my studies in Birmingham Conservatoire that I could actually be good. I saw her and thought ‘I could be like that.’ Even just knowing that Maureen Braithwaite is teaching in the Conservatoire is incredibly encouraging.

When I took my ballet exam, I was told we had to have our hair in a bun. My natural hair was too short to tie up so I had my hair braided a few days before, just so I could put it in a bun for the exam. In all my short time of being on stage, that was the only situation where my being black was brought to attention. In classical music, especially as a sing
er, I haven’t yet been deeply affected in a negative way. I think the Conservatoire’s accepting atmosphere has helped. But I haven’t had any particularly positive moments that that were due to me being black either. What I mostly worry about is how I’ll be affected when I’m in the real world, trying to get roles and work.
Like when I see agencies are casting roles and the descriptions will say something like “fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes.” Seeing open auditions for princess parties is another time when I have felt particularly black – there are only so many Disney princesses I could play! 17909527_10210120982915218_266639503_n
There are already so few shows and roles written for people of colour, and with that in mind I wonder if there is a limit to my success. On the other hand, I want to think that’ll I’ll be able to change how things are, or maybe I’ll be able to encourage young people to be more involved in classical music.

For more information go to her website and be sure to follow Lufuno’s instagram: @lufuyes


Female Inspiration – International Women’s Day 2016

It’s International Women’s Day 2017. It is vital that globally we take a day to acknowledge and be aware of the wonderful women who are positively contributing to the improvement of our world (past, present and future). As a young, black female, I’m constantly reminded boy the media and society that I’m in the minority in most aspects of life. The following women have been sources of inspiration for me. It’s fantastic to see strong  black females especially in the arts and the music industry – long may it continue.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

This cellist-singer-songwritter-composer has been an inspiration of mine every since I started learning the violin. I went on a mission to seek out black string players and I came across Ayanna. At the beginning 2017, I wanted to go to one of her gigs at Kings Place in London and I couldn’t make it and the tickets had sold out. I was so disappointed and that was that… Fast-forward two weeks and I actually got to meet her when on a mentoring day with AYM. She performed one of her songs, did a short Q&A and shared her music journey. I asked her what advice she’d give to young musicians like myself. She said “Be the best version of You”

Laura Mvula

Ever since I first discovered Laura Mvula (I think it was when she’d released her album Sing to the Moon) I’ve been in love with her song, her style and her vibe. Then, to my absolute delight, I found out that Birmingham Conservatoire was her alma mater and then I became obsessed. To know that someone so multi-talented (she plays/played the violin too) had come from my place of study gives such a boost. I’m an avid Instagram follower and I love her transparency. When I went to see Snarky Puppy on their tour in November 2015, Laura did an impromptu performance of her song Sing to the Moon with Snarky Puppy and it was mind-blowing. Not only is she a singer-songwriter but she’s now composing for the Royal Shakespeare company.

Pretty Yende

It was only recently that I’d become aware of  Pretty Yende. She’s a South African  soprano and she seems to be taking the world by storm after her breakthrough at the New York Metropolitan Opera . Like a typical young person, I scroll through Instagram  many times a day and I’d constantly see Pretty Yende pop up and I just had to find out more about her. A graduate of the young artist’s programme at La Scala Milan, she actually was first inspired to take up classical voice after hearing music on a British Airways advert!

Ingrid Silva

The short film above is what first made me aware of who Ingrid Silva was. I found the video so inspiring. In some ways her story is not unusual in the sense of many people start from humble beginnings and work hard to achieve their dreams. I genuinely connected with and was affected by the short film. It made me think about my own personal journey with my craft. However, again scrolling through Ingrid’s Instagram, seeing the amount of works she does just to give back to her community it’s really inspirational and confirms the importance of arts in society.

Millicent Stephenson

Saxophonist Millicent Stephenson has been another musician who has been on my radar since I was very young. I remember seeing her either on the tv or on a leaflet or poster, thinking “it’s the lady the with the gold sax”. A few years ago now, she won an award and that really symbolised progress and success for me. I believe she also runs workshops and conferences in Birmingham particularly for young women – I missed that last one but I’m definitely keeping my eyes and ears peeled for the next workshop. Also, Millicent Stephenson really synthesized many genres  that aren’t necessarily directly linked to the saxophone into her playing. She inspired me to do the same with the violin and integrate gospel songs, reggae etc. into my repertoire.

Tai Murray

Tai Murray was another internet based find for me. I think I was searchig some YouTube videos on the Ysayë solo violin sonatas and Tai Murray came up. Before her, I had never seen  or heard a black virtuoso. I had heard many great black violinists in other genres but never a black violinist with such dexterity in the classical industry. She is a huge inspiration because as a black violinist, she has helped to paved the way for people like me to follow.