Black on Steve’s Birthday!

Iconic composer Steve Reich turns 84 today. He was recently alleged to have made some pointedly anti-Black racist remarks in the early 70s.

Today is also a kind of late emergence for me; my first performance on a symphony orchestra program (albeit of a chamber work). As a child, I first heard the n-word, directed at me, in the early 70s.

I don’t need to imagine how white people were back then. I was there. Neither am I shocked to the point of sudden offence by recollections of it today. It was normative then; now it is “partisan.”

The two events above are unrelated, and yet as a simultaneity they’re cause for some reflection in my world. I’ve been a huge admirer of Reich’s music for decades, and have spoken with him numerous times after his concerts. His work has influenced my own as it has generations of other musicians, except that as someone from the African diaspora, I once saw that influence as my own reclaiming of the African diasporic musical ideas in minimalism.

I studied the music of Ghana—the predominant source of Reich’s structural ideas and sound—as well as that of other African nations, at the same time I was discovering his music and minimalism in general. I remember as a student observing his defensive spin on appropriation and bristling at the “mechanized Africans” joke that he wrote in his early 70s book. He was still making that joke in the 2010s. I’ve always loved his music but remained mindful of its composer’s positionality and increasing conservatism.

It would be wrong for me to actually claim Ghanaian musical traditions as my own, though in fact my distant and not-so-distant ancestors came from there and other places in West Africa, and notwithstanding my eternal quest for the roots of my Black identity. Reich got around the problem of appropriating another culture the way white people have for centuries: entitlement.

I can think of a lot of examples of bald-faced Orientalism in my early music, as embarrassing for my lack of originality as for their crassness. I’ve long noted how the lack of performative Blackness in my person and my music creates a distance between me and the Black communities I’ve interacted with. It is what it is. At the same time, I’ve sought to be authentic for who I really am rather than what I might aspire to.

A longstanding power struggle within Black diasporas is over whom among us is truly Black, in terms of cultural heritage and especially skin tone and lineage. Blackness is not monolithic, and neither is that conflict. But we didn’t create it; colonialism did.

Reich, an artist who built their career through exploiting Black voices, was outed as a racist by a white journalist, Val Wilmer, who made their career by exclusively covering Black voices and photographing Black faces. This bears examination. From the get, Black folks aren’t party to the discussion.

Cancelling Reich or anyone else of his generation is disingenuous in this context, especially when led by the white classical music world who’ve generally kept us Black people off the concert stage and out of the canon. And I can tell you, after many years of attending new music concerts, it’s usually been pretty darn awkward being in the audience too, or the post-concert mingle: “Who are you, again?”

Honestly, go cancel Handel for buying shares in the companies that transported and traded Africans into slavery. See how well that will work out.

Conversations on race aren’t going to address anti-Black oppression. Sharing the power is, and that does mean white folks getting out of their comfort zones, taking up way less space and not enacting white gaze. Reconsider your obsession with Black culture and Black pain, profiting from it, if you’re not Black. Are you supporting or dominating?

Conversations are still necessary, but they have to reflect equitable power structures.

I’m not really sure if I have a coherent, fully-formed take on what is happening with my music right now. For one thing, it depends on whether it continues to happen. But I do know that, as with how silence and empty space operate in tandem with musical sound, what is not happening, what can’t be heard or isn’t being noticed, is just as important as that which is.

I’m here. I’ve always been here. As with minimalism in music, what is changing depends upon your vantage point. If change is in fact constant, the answer to when change will happen can never be, “Give it time.”

By elmahboob

Bruce A. Russell aka Ibrahim El Mahboob (b. Kingston, ON, 1968) is a composer and self-taught pianist living and working in Toronto (Tkarón:to, the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat). He studied at York University with James Tenney and Phillip Werren. He has composed music for the Madawaska String Quartet, Modern Times Stage Company, McMaster Dancers and choreographers Pam Johnson and Tracy Renee Stafford. Interest in his work increased in 2020, with performances by Arraymusic, Prism Percussion, Second Note Duo, San Juan Symphony and Idaho Falls Symphony. He was host of Radio Music Gallery, and has written for Musicworks and I Care if You Listen. His interests are in 20th and 21st century concert music especially postminimalism, and music of the African diaspora including notated and non-notated forms. He is a parent of three and is employed in the financial sector.

1 comment

  1. I’ve only just become aware of these comments by Steve Reich. My first thoughts are that the man lacks respect for the music he appropriated and himself, should I pity him? Probably not.
    The music I love is music of black origin I never lose sight of that. My family is of mixed ethnicities, but most people would identify me as Caucasian. Love is love and we all share a common ancestry which I try and communicate as often as possible.
    I enjoyed reading your piece and will endeavour to seek out your work.
    Much respect.

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