In Search of Black Violinists Pt. 1 | Discrimination in Music Education and Internet Discovery

"Black Violin-3" by Chimmih is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
I want to start by asking a question.

But, before I ask, I want you to think of the industry you’re working in and I challenge you to look around in your workplace and industry. Now ask yourself how many Black people are in positions of power or in opportunities where they are thriving at a high level of skill and potential? I’m a musician and played the violin for many years, and I remember growing up playing in orchestras. And as the level of playing got higher, there were only one or two Black musicians in the orchestra. And I live in Long Beach, CA which is a very diverse city, so my location shouldn’t have been the issue.

So, I challenged myself to find seven Black violinists who play classical music just on Youtube. Before we proceed, I know there’s a good handful of amazing violinists who perform in the hip-hop genre, like Black Violin and Damien Escobar (we will definitely discuss them in the future in more detail as they are deserving of their own articles). Many of these musicians have even received classical music training and maybe it was their choice to not go down the traditional classical music route. But what I’m trying to explore is the possibility of a Black violinist who wanted to play classical music, and wondering if they weren't able to because there were too many obstacles pertaining to discrimination and lack of opportunities that prevented them from doing so? Were Black violinists thriving in hip-hop because that’s the only area they could find success due to other peoples’ limiting expectations?

I am very keen on finding Black violinists who play classical music and I can promote them to hopefully subvert societal expectations and implicit biases. Now, my personal Youtube profile already has an algorithm that shows me a lot of content from Black violinists, so I started fresh with a different account I barely use. And because I wanted to not have results filled with famous violinists, who were also white or Asian, I searched for 'young violinists'. I had to scroll down for a long time and the majority of players are still either Asian or white. This ‘research method’ isn’t exact science per say, but I am imitating what an average person interested in the violin might be typing in the search bar.

Now, if I couldn’t find any Black violinists who play classical music, it would speak volumes about the advocacy, educational resources and opportunities available for a Black student who was interested during their early education. The violin is one of the oldest and most popular instruments in the world so there is no reason why there should be a significantly less amount of Black people pursuing violin. Yes, it is one of the most difficult instruments, but Black people are just as capable and driven to play this instrument at a high level.

"Orchestra" by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Maybe you can imagine someone arguing, “but all students in ‘this-and-that’ school were given violins, so maybe they just wanted to play sports or dance?” Well, you also have to consider that people of color are historically marginalized and have a higher likelihood of being low income and having less opportunities. And that, for example, if they are in a single parent household, or live in a one bedroom apartment they’re sharing with other siblings trying to do their homework, they probably don’t have a quiet space to practice let alone have the funds to take consistent individual private lessons. So they have a higher barrier to succeed regardless of their will.

That shows how we can’t stress enough about how important advocacy is; a musical instrument is as important as a textbook or any other learning resource and it’s really my belief that every child should have access to an instrument, private lessons (if they so choose) and a place to practice.

Classical music is not just for the elite and music snobs; it’s for anyone and everyone to enjoy, especially Black people. I’m advocating for more Black classical musicians, not because it’s an activity that can distract youth from crime, but that it’s fighting a stereotype--a horribly false idea that diversity brings down quality and because all people should be free to love and have access to learn any type of music.

Elijah McClain playing the violin.

And I think part of what endangered Elijah McClain were those harmful stereotypes. That he looked supposedly ‘suspicious’ and ‘dangerous’. So, the more we create healthy associations of Black people with having a wide range of skills and aspirations, being the whole people that they are, the more we can fight those unfortunate and unfounded fears that create those stereotypes to begin with; those same stereotypes that do a lot of harm and get Black people killed.

On August 30th, I'll have Part 2 of this exploration where I'll include links of different Black violinists I found (on a fresh Youtube search) along with a few charities and related organizations I’ve already looked into. Beyond these posts, please participate in this long-term and sustainable action of either donating a small amount to similar charities, or find an organization of your own that supports Black people to thrive and reach a high level of skill and potential in your industry. To be continued on August 30th, 2020.

When Part 2 is published it will appear here: 

Joanna Glass is the singer, guitarist, songwriter and violinist of the 2-piece Alternative Rock band Glasspirits. Along with her bandmate drummer and percussionist Abe Perez, they are signed to Gloucester Records along with artists Laura Valle, Mumkai and Dommme.