I love that moment when the lights in the concert hall dim. The audience fades away, and all I see is the Steinway in front of me. Above the keys, in the black glow of the fallboard, I see the reflection of my fingers, poised for the dance. Everything is white and black, symmetrical and perfect. Everything except me. My brown skin breaks the image I’m trained to see. The juxtaposition never gets less stark. 

Hopefully, it doesn’t strike you as newsworthy when I tell you that classical music has a problem with race. Most nights, in most concert halls, the homogeneity presses in. Generally, I think this is the white music world’s problem to fix. They should be doing outreach, and educating themselves, and agitating—all that “listening and learning.”

As Black and brown musicians, the question is not whether we can “solve” classical music’s issue with racism. Rather we wonder: Why do we try to change a world that isn’t ours? Under that: Can this be our world? And the trickier phrasing: Should it be?

I was trained classically in piano. As an adult, I’ve pursued many other career paths. I’m a writer. I’ve also been a political organizer, teacher, and activist. In each of these spaces I have been confronted by the color of my skin and the cost of my cause. 

Do I belong in these professions, and am I doing right by my community, and is this worth it?

When I am plagued by these kinds of questions, I am pointed towards Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial treatise Black Skins, White Masks. In the introduction, Fanon describes the moment when colonized people lose themselves: when they choose to speak the language of the colonizer over their own mother tongue. Fanon says this moment embodies “nothing more or less than man’s surrender.” If French, for Fanon, is the spoken language of the colonizer, then for us as musicians of color, classical music could be called the colonizer’s musical tongue. As the inheritors of the pride and wounds of the colonized, I wonder if we fail our forebears when we choose to sing the colonizer’s arias—if we’re just asking to have our hearts broken.

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I don’t feel terribly shattered when I sit down at the piano to work through the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” The articulation of my ornaments might be a little disjointed, but I myself feel engaged, expressed, and whole: not torn in two, but fully me. As a young child, I took classical piano lessons and learned how to read Western musical notation, but I also sang South Indian Carnatic music at the Thyagaraja Aradhana and studied on my father’s veena. Eventually, the moment came where I had to choose between the two. In my child-self’s eyes, classical music was shiny and cool, while Carnatic music felt like a chore. Back then, my choice felt easy. If my parents harbored any lingering doubts about its larger implications, they escaped my notice.

In her 2008 ethnography, Musicians From A Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music, Mari Yoshihara, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes how easy it is for young Asian-American musicians to ignore these kinds of sociopolitical considerations if they so choose. After all, we are hidden away in practice rooms, drilling in isolation from dusk to dawn. Our piano instructors are not teaching us about Handel’s slave trade investments or Dvořák’s indigenous enthusiasms while they drill us on our scales. Confronting your own misgivings about belonging and betrayal is messy, unpleasant work. Why would you take it on willingly if you’re not encouraged to?

Dalanie Harris is a Black Eastman-trained bassist and the cohost of the podcast Classically Black. Harris did seek out the history of her community in classical music. Harris’s alma mater is home to the largest university music library in the United States. As the founder of Eastman’s Black student union, Harris actively searched for Black musical legacies. Yet even among the towering shelves of the Eastman library, Harris struggled to find sheet music for works by Black composers. 

The absurdity of Harris’s library experience is heightened when you realize just how instrumental composers of color have been in the development of classical music. Joshua Thompson, a Black Indianapolis-based music sociologist and the cohost of Melanated Moments in Classical Music, told me, “The music is a reflection of the presence and the overwhelming impact of multi-cultures that play upon each other. You don’t get Dvořák without a Harry Burleigh or Robert Nathaniel Dett, you’re not getting Liszt without the Eastern European cultures, and even non-Western music, with this influence of Arab and Moorish and African and all that.” 

“You know, it’s just the biggest ruse ever that we pretend like it hasn’t been there,” he continued. 

Classical music is not actually the colonizer’s tongue. It’s ours, too.

Let’s return to Fanon for a moment. French, in his schema, is unequivocally the language of the oppressor. My own ancestors were colonized by the British in India. Fanon might have said English was the oppressor’s language in our part of the world. But in the 21st century, there are nearly five times more English speakers in South Asia than there are in the United Kingdom. Today, what once was the colonizer’s tongue belongs to us just as much as it belongs to them.

In Musicians From A Different Shore, Yoshihara writes, “Asians did not passively receive and uncritically practice Western music… Asians adapted Western musical elements intelligently and skillfully and melded them with their own musical traditions and cultural languages to create their own music.” Classical music may have begun as the colonizer’s musical tongue, but today, that’s not all that it is. It exists in between the two worlds. It is actually the product of a third culture.

But I didn’t know that, then. When I was training as a young musician, I genuinely thought that classical music was white. I played my Bach and my Beethoven and I never once looked back. The worst part of me suspects that I liked the tension between myself and the composers of my childhood—that perhaps, instead of resisting the whiteness of classical music, I sought it out intentionally because I was using the art form as a proxy for white privilege. I ask myself if, really, I was just trying to be white.

Joshua Thompson told me he’d been accused of “acting white” for following his passion for classical music, but he’d never taken that slur to heart. Instead, he saw it as a subtle tool of white supremacy—which, after all, can be weaponized by the colonized, too. If musicians of color were ridiculed for performing classical music, if their own communities told them they did not belong, then ultimately, the white supremacists in classical music were the ones who came out on top. When we accuse each other of chasing whiteness, what we’re really saying is we don’t think we’re worthy of the artistic freedom white people have. To paraphrase George Lewis: Why should we let white musicians claim the musical inheritance of people of color, while we deny ourselves access to that same wide world?

Yet Thompson now spends his time performing only works by Black composers, introducing that canon to the diverse and decidedly less diverse audiences he encounters across Indianapolis. As a Black sociologist and musician, he sees himself as uniquely placed to expand the idea of what classical music is and who classical music is for in the minds of his audience. Rather than passively accepting the given idea that classical music is the oppressor’s art form, he has taken on the responsibility of presenting audiences with an alternate and more historically accurate truth.

Dr. Samantha Ege, a Black British musicologist, concert pianist, and Florence Price expert, told me that no one who knew her well and truly would ever have seen her classical music practice as a way in which she chased whiteness. That’s not how her loved ones spoke about her musicianship. Instead, she told me, “For those that know me really, really well, on a personal level, they see that this is me at my most authentic self.”

Those were the words I needed to hear in order to let go of my self-doubt and my shame. I have been searching for a way to describe the feeling of homecoming I’ve had since returning to classical music. I bought a piano again this year. I’ve been practicing, really engaging with classical music, for the first time since I left home a decade ago. And I’m so different now, and my head and my heart are scarred by years of activism and racism, and my soul is tired, and my hands are weak. Yet when I sit back down at the piano bench, I feel that weight lift. I feel those years fade. I feel like myself. 

And I’ve felt so guilty about it: like I didn’t deserve that feeling. Like my craving for it was a betrayal. Like I was turning my back on my other self. In every other sphere of my adult life, I have sought to uplift people of color. I have protested, I have published, I have dedicated my professional life to a more racially just society. And yet, in my most private place of joy, at the piano bench, I am amplifying the work of these racist dead white guys. I am filling my soul with what I once thought was whiteness. I have to confront the truth that in my soul, this music, too, makes me feel whole.

Like me, Dalanie Harris was raised between two musical traditions. Before she began her studies in classical piano and bass, she was a gospel singer. She sang in church, as many young Black Americans do. But her focus shifted to classical music as she entered youth orchestra on the piano and the bass, winning accolades and praise. In the third chapter of her life, she has delved into Black music history. 

Harris presented the story of her journey hosting Classically Black as one of self-discovery. It taught her she could approach music outside the classical genre with a scholastic, musicological framework too. And so she has found herself drawn to the world outside, once again. Of her journey from gospel to classical and back, she told me, “Yeah, I made the switch. But now I’ve made the switch back.” On her path to self-discovery, in order to be her truest self, she has had to step outside the bounded world of classical music. She had to go back, and forth, and back again. She has not settled on one answer. 

I’m not sure I should either. I’m what you might call a third culture kid. I’m American, but inside, I also carry Indian beliefs, traditions, and behaviors. I’m Indian, but I’ve never even lived there. I’m hyphenated, created, undefined. I am something messy, something in between: the coherent, full product of two dichotomous worlds. Classical music isn’t some alien other. It’s a reflection of my story. And when I embrace it, and when I reject it, and when I do both at once: each of these is more true than any one stance alone. 

The piano I bought this year is neither fully black, nor white. It’s a warm brown, dinged up, aged, and mature. The music I make there is mine. ¶

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Thulasi Seshan is a writer, researcher, and musician. She lives in Chicago.