My “Mixed” Musical Experiences
I'm a black woman. I’m a biracial woman. Well, one thing’s for sure, I’m a woman who struggled with her identity. Some people take checking an ethnicity box for granted. Checking that box is an effortless action for so many. But for me, that box created so many problems throughout my life. Too many times, IF I chose to check that box, I was afraid. I was afraid because I knew the world we lived in and I knew no matter what, the future was going to be extra bumpy for people like me.
The first time I experienced racism was at 6 years old. I can remember it all so clearly. There was a classmate that would take pleasure in bullying me just because of the color of my skin. I would get my hair pulled. I was told that I wasn’t really a race, but that I was nothing and a mistake. I went home crying a lot those days. As I got older, those experiences evolved, but they continued nonetheless. From kids telling me I was adopted, getting death stares from white adults whenever I was in a place they didn’t think I belonged, getting "petted, to a guy deciding he didn’t have the guts to date a girl who looked like me because he was afraid of what his parents would think. And those were just snippets of racism in my personal life.
In the music industry, racism and sexism, showed up in different ways. I am a woodwind specialist that performs in the classical and musical theatre worlds, as well as a singer-songwriter; a minority in both communities. My nana (who I miss terribly) was the one that told my middle school aged self that I would have to work harder than most to earn a place at whatever table I desired and then work that much harder to prove that I belonged. Sometimes, my hard work paid off. But for those times when it was for reasons I was born with, my confidence tanked. I can’t tell you how many times I would walk into auditions or a first rehearsal and get skeptical/surprised stares and then more surprised stares when they discovered I actually could play. People assuming your skills based on your appearances can really get old. Going to college and performing in Texas also turned out to be quite the rollercoaster. The community was very tight knit and hard to break into. I was looked over way too much and was singled out too often for the wrong reasons in many ensembles. From a conductor yelling at me and only me for an ENTIRE rehearsal because I could do nothing right for him (he never did this to anyone else the entire run), to being held to a higher performance standard than some of my white colleagues, to an instructor telling me that I could never be a multiple woodwinds major because, "I just didn't get it...and" she added, "I would never get it" Now don’t get me wrong, I had some great experiences and met some wonderful people, but in some situations/ensembles, the experiences left me doubting myself, dreading the next show and losing the joy of playing altogether. I smiled my way through those times, but I was a mess inside.
To top all that off, I was recently part of a discussion in the music community where I was basically called the “token” hire to my face. That took my hurt to a whole new level. Wondering if you are only given a performing opportunity because of the color of your skin and not because of your talent is a terrible place to be in. I shouldn’t have to second guess who I am as a player for that reason, EVER. In the songwriting industry, my journey has only just started, but I already have encountered issues with an individual trying to “mansplain” music and industry procedures to me. Why is it a given that any of these things can/will happen? Why does it seem that some of us are born with the cards already stacked against us?
As I get older, I am learning how to better handle these situations. I have also found a local music community where so many musicians make me feel welcome and valued for who I am and what I can bring. I am so thankful for that. But I know there are still many bumps in the road ahead for me. In the past, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be would cause so much pain. I was afraid to speak out, I was afraid to be confident, I was afraid to be proud, I tried to "blend" in (even though most of the time I was the only black, female in a group). But now, I realize that I need to embrace being a black, bold, beautiful, woman who also happens to know a thing or two about music. I have finally reached a place in my life where I can embrace all of me and I just pray that more of the world will be ready to embrace me too.