In an ideal world, there would be no need for a Western orchestra consisting entirely of black musicians1. But unfortunately, black musicians encounter barriers to performing in ensembles. The barriers are very rarely based on ability, but on skin colour, perception and history of performance. Some parts of the orchestral world has recently had to address this through blind auditions; the prospective musician auditions behind a screen and the panel's choice is made purely on ability.
But still, there are prejudices and slights against black musicians in the orchestral world. This has two effects:
- it is demoralising to the musicians, who clearly only want to make music they like; and
- in terms of aspiration, younger musicians do not see people like themselves doing different things.
Although it isn't the only solution (and there are also problems with it as a solution), having an orchestra composed entirely of black musicians can act as an aspirational driver for younger black musicians. It also highlights the ability of the musicians themselves. When coupled with honest, open debate about these issues in the Western orchestral world, it might serve to help encourage a wider range of people to listen to different music.
That's why an orchestra like Chineke exists. But sadly, Anne Akiko Meyers was moved to comment on the orchestra in a way that (at best) exhibits thoughtlessness, privilege and entitlement. But then she made it worse.
Anne Akiko Meyers labels the Chineke Orchestra as "reverse discrimination": screen shot by Elena Urioste
Some of you will think that's pretty bad already. The hash-tag of "reverse discrimination" is a common dog whistle, used to suggest "political correctness gone mad", or an unfairness towards white people. Here it serves to diminish and ignore the obvious and acknowledged barriers black musicians encounter when approaching Western orchestral and chamber music. This is where Meyers shows her privilege and entitlement: from her comment, it could be read that she doesn't accept that the orchestra should exist. That she aired her views publicly demonstrates her thoughtlessness.
She then made it worse by firstly deleting the comment with no context or reason as to why. She is now aggravating the situation by systematically deleting comments to apologize or clarify her position; or blocking people on Twitter who mention her in connection with her comment. In short, Meyers is displaying ignorance of other views; and as she continues to do this, that ignorance and unwillingness to discuss the issues surrounding her comment will be (and is being) labelled as racism2.
Ironically, Meyers' newest release heavily features Leonard Bernstein and is "an exploration of love in all its dimensions". As Bernstein wrote in the New York Times in 1947, "everything we do to fight discrimination—in any form or field—will ultimately work toward ameliorating the musical situation". How saddening that that cause and those words of love have not been taken up by Anne Akiko Meyers.
partial repairs = constant maintenance; or how to live with your mess
Yesterday, Anne Akiko Meyers delivered a short clarification and apology through an interview on Violinist.com. The first part of the article briefly explains Meyers' actions, and she apologizes; there is then a short, thoughtful article on the issues of diversity in Western orchestral/chamber music. It's then followed by a string of comments that display the level of entitlement, privilege and thoughtlessness that the second part of the article talks about avoiding.
Although I believe the sincerity of the apology—and I maintain that Meyers is not a racist—I still find the apology problematic. Where you won't see the apology is on any of Meyers' pages: she hasn't posted it on her own site, or on her Facebook Page, or her Twitter feed (I had to verify this through the mobile version of the site; I'm still blocked). It's on a specialist site. The problem is that Meyers' apology was copy-pasted (with added spite!) on Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog.
If you make a mistake in the public gaze and the public notices, then the place to apologize is in public, using your own voice. You have to live with your mess.
We have tools at our disposal now that give us the illusion of being "spotless". The "delete" function gives us a perceived permission to be casual with our language; likewise, the "edit" function gives us scope to revise our opinions without showing how that revision occurred. Where and how we choose to continue dialogue is important, possibly even more so now. When we say things on the Web, they remain; it is impossible to tidy your opinions away. "Live with your mess" isn't a call to keep an opinion; it's a notice that we see where we are before we think of tidying, and to accept that we made that mess.
If Meyers were to show her contrition by owning her mistake and sharing the apology on her own pages, it would be a much-needed salve to the wound. There would be no opportunity for wilful misinterpretation from "sloppy muckrakers"; just a loved artist openly admitting to being human, and encouraging dialogue in something she says she believes in. Until then, I suspect that original offence will spread wider than the apology.