How Many Black Classical Composers Can You Name?

This entry is part 07 of 15 in the series Black Classical Music History

In Music of the Heart. a film about violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, Naeem’s mother, Mrs. Adisa, pulls Naeem out of Guaspari’s violin class, and the following dialogue ensues:

MRS. ADISA My son’s got more important things to do than learn dead white men’s music.
ROBERTA They’re gonna learn “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”!
MRS. ADISA How many Black classical composers can you name? How many Black classical violinists do you know?
ROBERTA That doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. Naeem’s learning to play music—and that makes him feel good about himself. Why should it matter who wrote it?
NAEEM Please, Mom? Can’t I be in the class?
Mrs. Adisa puts a protective arm around her son, then addresses Roberta.
MRS. ADISA Look. I’ve seen this before. You white women come up here and think you can rescue our poor inner city children who never asked to be rescued in the first place. No thank you.

At first glance, both sides have a point, here. Guaspari thinks that good music, regardless of who wrote it, need to be heard. I think everyone can agree to that. Adisa also has a point, that classical music is perceived as “music by dead white guys,” and as such, has little relationship to the world or the Black culture. However, there’s a lot missing from the debate. Guaspari’s view, on deeper thought, is seductive but naïve; who wrote something is important. So important, in fact, that hundreds of years after Shakespeare, scholars are still debating his authorship and risking their professional reputations on it. (Not to mention the jokes: “This rivals the new discovery about Shakespeare,—that the well-known plays and poems were not by William Shakespeare, but by another person of the same name!”) Black composers have written a lot of outstanding classical music, and so I’m dedicating the month of February, Black History Month, to showcasing these composers. It’s quite easy to name Black classical composers of note!
It’s lazy to repost content from Wikipedia and other sources, when people can and should read it for themselves. Rather than simply rehashing what’s available elsewhere, I am going to gather as much as I can find about each composer in one blog post.

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