Staccato Highlights: Black History Month

~ posted by Judlyne Lilly Gibson, KMFA Saturday afternoon host

If you’ve listened to Staccato this month, you’ve been hearing some of the best African-American students studying classical music in the Austin area and perhaps in the country. I wanted to highlight these students in observance of Black History Month and to dispel some myths about Blacks and Classical Music.

What I found surprising and refreshing is that one of my own mis-perceptions rapidly faded away after speaking to these students.

Javier Stuppard, Huston-Tillotson College

Daniel Fears, Javier Stuppard and Meredith Riley were all asked how they felt about being African-American in what is still considered to be the domain of White Americans. Yes, they noticed they were either the only one, or one of a few in their classes and performance groups, but that’s where it ended. Once the music starts, they say, there’s no difference, no hesitation, no sense of exclusion. They don’t really even think about it.

This is the 21st century after all, and for someone like me, who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and the turbulent Sixties, this was another indication that (as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it) history has a long tail. That the often violent struggles of 40 to 50 years ago are bearing fruit. Ask Mezzo-Soprano Barbara Smith Conrad about that. She was the UT student who in 1957 was refused a role in an opera because of her race. She’s returned to UT several times to bask in the glow of appreciation and honor.

This is not to say we’ve reached nirvana. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education published a study from 2002 along with a National Endowment for the Arts survey that found that African-Americans with a college degree were three times less likely as whites to attend a classical music performance, the opera, or the ballet. Whites are five times as likely as blacks to be involved in the performance of classical music. Whites are twice as likely as blacks to sing opera or to act in a musical play.

Meredith Riley, violinist at U.T. Austin

In preparation for this series, I contacted most if not all of the universities in the Austin area in search of African-American classical music majors. The largest response, not surprisingly, came from the University of Texas at Austin, but one response from one university was very telling. This university, which I will not name, told me their one African American student was very good at musical theatre. Still, progress is being made, exemplified by the students I interviewed and the existence of a few African-American opera companies and organizations dedicated to increasing diversity in classical music.

You can hear excerpts from these interviews this month on Staccato, which airs at various times on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays on KMFA. Longer versions of most pieces can be found on the Staccato page at

~posted by Judlyne Lilly Gibson, KMFA host of Saturday Matinee, and producer of StaccatoSaturday Matinee airs from noon until 6 every week. This includes the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts.

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