IN this edition, Miss Briggs reflects on Black History Month and celebrates the work of two trailblazers.
In the midst of Black History Month, it has been a timely opportunity to further explore the rich heritage of music composed and performed by black musicians. It is also a time to reflect upon the struggle and discrimination black musicians faced (and in some instances continue to face), and give them the recognition and attention they have perhaps been denied in years gone by. This led me to think about the Kanneh-Mason family, an extraordinarily talented group of seven siblings with parents of Caribbean and West African heritage, and Florence Price, a female black American composer. Both are inspirational and trailblazers in their own right.
The Kanneh-Mason family have become huge ambassadors for young, up and coming musicians. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is perhaps the most famous within this family, having won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. However, over the last few years the whole family have taken on the role of promoting the work of all composers, whatever gender or race. I was fortunate to hear them perform live at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in the summer, and their charismatic rendition of Saints-Saëns ‘Carnival of the Animals’ will remain with me for a long time. Shortly after the tragic death of George Floyd in America, which sparked the worldwide campaign ‘Black Lives Matter’, the Kanneh-Mason family live streamed a moving and powerful speech about race and violence. In their eyes ‘music is a form of expression, of protest and of hope.’ I encourage you to listen to their performance of ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley: https://open.spotify.com/track/4azi6FkVwlxZWis9mLvkjS?si=2a4369c60790414e&nd=1
Despite being seasoned concert hall solo artists, their collaborative music making is engaging, charismatic and truly shows the joy of making music with others. Also, for budding musicians and indeed parents of budding musicians, I highly recommend Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s (the mother of the family) book, ‘House of Music’, in which she opens up about what it takes to raise a musical family in a Britain divided by class and race.
African-American composer, Florence Price, has struck a chord with me just recently. In 1933 she was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. Interestingly, Jenebah Kanneh-Mason, the fifth sibling, was the first black, female pianist to perform Florence Price’s music at the BBC Proms last summer. Growing up, Florence suffered racial prejudice and although she did eventually win prizes for her music, much of which combined the traditions of classical music with the sound of spirituals and West African rhythms and dance from her own culture, this was not easy to achieve.
Whilst trying to promote her own work, she wrote to a conductor expressing: “To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw her gender and race as obstacles to her career, and this continuously reminds me how fortunate we are to live in a more tolerant society in which people have greater freedom to express themselves for who they are. Artist Randall Goosby (a rising star as a classical violinist) recently spoke out about diversity in the music industry. He addressed wanting to perform music he could relate to, that he felt a connection to and that expressed his own heritage and culture, not just the Western Classical tradition. This is a bold statement but something that needed to be addressed. At the very moving American commemoration concert to mark 20 years since the tragic events of 9/11, Randall played Florence Price’s ‘Adoration’.
I would like to leave this recording with you: https://open.spotify.com/track/6brnswWmZ8Xdf4MWeskofY?si=5eef59d65f2f4010&nd=1
As you listen, I’d encourage you to think about what you can do to ensure we continue to live in a society which accepts people for who they are, celebrates individuals and champions the work of everyone, no matter what race, sex, creed or colour they are.