Black people who aspire to careers in music face a number of challenges, from their first forays into music as children and throughout their musical journey as adults. This was one of the takeaways from the roundtable Dark Perspectives: Artists Navigating Spaces February 9.
However, panelists agreed that many barriers facing Black musicians can be overcome, if not circumvented, through mentorship, community connections, and for Black artists and entrepreneurs to literally take ownership of their creative destiny.
Accessibility is a major barrier for many black people when it comes to early exploration of music. “I’m from downtown [New York] where in my neighborhood we didn’t have arts programs,” said Camille Thurman, acclaimed jazz singer and saxophonist and assistant jazz professor in the Department of Music Performance at the Schulich School of Music. “I was literally shipped across town an hour away to take music lessons.”
Thurman said even owning an instrument was something “my mom had to understand, being a single parent.”
always catch up
Several of the panelists, all accomplished artists or music entrepreneurs, spoke about feeling always behind.
“I’ve been through this myself as a student where you walk into the audition and the person asks you to do something that you don’t understand — this or that technique,” Thurman said. “The student is ashamed because he doesn’t know – but he never even had the chance because he didn’t even have the tools to succeed.”
“Often children are already denied access to the arts based solely on their zip code.”
“If we are going to have institutions where we take in more people, it is essential that we establish these links with the community, where there are programs that [offer] free access to music lessons, free programs in summer.
Sarah MK, a singer-songwriter from Montreal, was pursuing studies in health sciences when she decided to apply to the music department of Vanier College as a singer. She passed the audition but struggled with the technical aspects of the music. “I remember taking the theory test and just writing my name and leaving,” she said with a smile. “I was lucky to have remedial classes during the summer and to catch up. I always catch up.
This feeling of being behind is not as prevalent in some local music collectives where collaboration and community are the cornerstones of creating great music.
Sarah MK was one of the first members of the Kalmunity Vibe collective, billed as “Canada’s largest and oldest improv collective known for producing several weekly concerts”.
Kalmunity’s strength is its diversity. “Kalmunity really allowed us to connect with all the different cultures in Montreal,” said Sarah MK. “He also connected English-speaking and French-speaking and vocal artists and musicians. There were musicians who graduated from McGill and others who were self-taught. It’s a really nice place to meet and create music together,” she said.
“I started going to Kalmunity when I was very young, probably around 12 or 13,” says Keita. “At that time, I didn’t even know that I was going to pursue a musical career. I just knew I liked to play music and these guys were playing on Tuesdays. Some of these people became my mentors over the years because I always played next to them and they gave me advice.
Thanks in part to this mentorship, Keita honed his skills and gained confidence, playing at local events with Kalmunity, then touring with them, and finally collaborating with an ever-expanding network of musicians. “I connected with people who allowed me to grow as a musician into the musician I am today,” he said. “Mentoring is one of the most important factors – not just for music, but for everything in life.”
Join the dots
These collective experiences, which emphasize community and peer support, are invaluable in the growth of the artist.
“When I was in college, I was the person in my program who started playing my most recent instrument – and I started playing at 13. Some of these children had started playing at the age of four. They were placed in programs with some of the best jazz musicians in the country who taught them,” Keita said. “Obviously when they get to college they get carried away – and I just run to catch up with them.
“But what I had on them was that I had this community that framed me,” he said. “Your mastery of an instrument is not really what allows you to flourish in the musical field. What really makes you bloom is your ability to connect all the dots.
Jazz ‘is a way of life, a way of being’
“Connecting the dots” is what Thurman would call the community life of music – especially jazz – a central aspect that is often inadvertently stripped away in an institutional setting.
“There is a disconnect between the origin of this music, this source – which is the community – and the institution. In a sense, the institution created a space for the music to continue. But at the same time, it changed the element of his direct involvement in the community,” Thurman said.
“When we talk about learning jazz, it’s deeply rooted in the tradition of mentoring, listening, observing, being in the moment, and learning to collaborate. How do we survive in the moment? she said.
“It’s something that goes beyond mere fact, beyond mere scale, and beyond mere ability to repeat something and execute it perfectly every time,” he said. said Thurman. “This music speaks of a function. It is a way of life and a way of being.
Bypass the system
Often the best way around these barriers is for black artists and entrepreneurs to establish their own spaces in which to create and promote their art.
“With urban music or Hip Hop, a lot of artists come from black heritage, black culture. But the people who work in the offices, make the decisions and deploy the capital are not black,” said Koudjo, a music producer and entrepreneur, who came to Montreal from his native Togo in 2000 to study economics at McGill. “Same thing in the media. Occasionally [there are people who] do not even know the culture who decide to play such or such music, or to give access to such or such artist. This was one of the main complaints I used to hear from artists.
In 2018, with almost no black-owned media covering hip hop or rap, Koudjo co-founded QCLTUR (pronounced culture), a Montreal-based media platform that promotes arts and culture. Much of the content produced by QCLTUR are artist interviews that are posted on social media.
Control the message, expand the fan base
“The main goal was to promote black culture and the culture that we consume,” Koudjo said. “And we want to make sure that the narrative of that culture is aligned with the culture [itself] – because there was a big disconnect with the artists selling music and putting on shows here in Montreal and the coverage they got in the mainstream media.
QCLTUR’s success not only helped increase the visibility of black artists among existing fans, it also helped broaden the base.
“It allows us to be in spaces where we weren’t welcome three or four years ago,” says Koudjo. “This summer, we had reservations at Osheaga. We brought 23 artists with us on stage, which is crazy because 95% of them would never have had the chance to perform in Osheaga.