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Music

Chineke! champions black and ethnic musicians in classical music

Chi-chi Nwanoku wants diversity in classical music's very white world to become routine business. That is why she founded Chineke!, the UK and Europe's first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra.

Every orchestra that steps onstage to give a classical concert ends up making music. Very few of them end up making history. 

Chineke! orchestra is one of those few. As the UK and Europe's first majority black and minority ethnic (BME) orchestra, it has been making history since its inaugural concert two years ago in September 2015 when it brought 62 BME musicians from 31 nationalities together at the Southbank Centre in London. The orchestra is based in the UK, and its members unite for each concert. On September 16, they will open Birmingham Symphony Hall's classical season before heading to Ghent, Belgium, three days later.

This past August 30, when Chineke!'s performers filled their orchestral chairs at London's Royal Albert Hall, the orchestra also became the youngest ensemble to debut at Britain's premiere classical music festival, the BBC Proms. Britain's Guardian newspaper called it "arguably one of the most important concerts that the Proms have ever hosted."

That's because the world of classical music is very white. In most of the venues where Chineke! performs, its concert marks the first time a majority-ethnic orchestra – rather than a majority-white orchestra – fills the hall with symphonic strains. From classical ensembles to the audiences that attend their concerts, from orchestra boardrooms to leading music conservatories, BME individuals are few and far between.

"I can count on the fingers of one hand how many musicians of color I had worked with in the United Kingdom," Chineke!'s founder and Executive and Artistic Director Chi-chi Nwanoku said. The double bass player has an electric energy that defies her petite size, and she channels it into Chineke!'s goal of making the word of classical music more diverse and giving BME instrumentalists a place where they feel they belong.

Read more: Contesting media diversity for representation

A white world

Challenging the racial status quo of classical music status was not something that had ever been on Nwanoku's radar. The daughter of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father grew up in Kent countryside outside of London, where she and her siblings were the only black children.

"Apart from my family at home, my whole school life was in a white world," Nwanoku said. A knee injury ended the teenage Nwanoku's promising career as a 100-meter sprinter, so she turned her professional sights to her other passion: music. "Being channeled into classical music kept me in that [white] world. It was never anything that I thought about. For me, that was the norm."

Chi-chi Nwanoku playing her bass (Eric Richmond)

Chi-chi Nwanoku playing her bass

Nwanoku soon established herself as one of Europe's most in-demand bass players. Over most of her 35-year-long career, she was too busy to be preoccupied or distracted by race. Making music was a job. She walked onstage, played, and went home, without considering how her skin color played a role in the broader industry.

In 2014, race suddenly exploded to the forefront of her mind. First came a meeting with then-Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, who was examining why orchestras had so few black classical musicians. For the first time, Nwanoku began to question herself, why she was alone on stage, and why her artistic sector was "so monochrome."

Shortly after, Nwanoku attended a London performance by the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra. She recalled spending just as much time observing the audience as she did listening to the music of the all-black, self-taught orchestra.

"The more I saw the look of surprise on people's faces as they watched this orchestra, the more I thought this is wrong. This is 2014. This is the 21st century. Why should it be a novelty to see people who don't look like the status quo? To see brown-skinned people playing Beethoven and Berlioz so beautifully?"

The next day, the musician who feels that race and ethnicity never played a role in her personal music career picked up the phone and placed calls to Britain's leading arts organizations and centers, announcing her plan to create a BME orchestral foundation.

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Change through music

Chineke!'s inaugural concert in 2015 sold out. The audience was half people of color, half white. "It looked like London," Nwanoku said. She chose the performers based on two criteria: They had to be at the top of their field, and they had to be musicians of color. 

Chineke! Orchestra ( Eric Richmond)

A group photo from 2016

Though the orchestra now includes white members, Nwanoku said it was important to have an exclusively-BME ensemble at the start in order to disprove to others and themselves the racial stereotypes that dog musicians of color. That they can't organize. That they can only be hip-hop, rap or jazz musicians. That the classical music is "white man's music." That BME classical musicians can't be world class.

Nwanoku refutes criticism that Chineke! is discriminatory and underscores that the now-majority BME orchestra is more diverse than many other symphonic ensembles. Its August Proms concert featured musicians from over 40 countries including Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and China, among others. "How can someone call us racist?" she asks. "Find another description please."

Read more: Ukraine experiencing a cultural rebirth, says conductor Oksana Lyniv

A unique experience

Wayne Marshall, conductor of WDR Radio Orchestra in Cologne, led Chineke! in their 2015 inaugural performance. "It was an honor to conduct the concert and an emotional experience for everyone involved," the black British conductor said. "Nothing like that had ever been done before."

Like Nwanoku, Marshall does not feel that race has played a role in his career. "The language of music is open for everybody," he said. At the same time, the conductor does believe that people unquestionably perceive classical ensembles, orchestras, and companies to be white and that BME musicians normally don't have the opportunity to play together.

Wayne Marshall conducting an orchestra (Edgar Brambles)

Conductor Wayne Marshall also performs as a pianist and organist

Orchestras similar to Chineke! exist in the US, such as Detroit's Sphinx Organization, Atlanta's African-American Orchestra Noir, and Philadelphia's Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. But the US has a longer – though far from uncontested – history of affirmative race-based initiatives and organizations.

Read more: Diversity is part of our culture: Encouraging and fostering diversity in cultural work

Shaping BME musicians of the future

Chineke! also has a youth orchestra that brings together BME musicians ages 11-18. Professional BME musicians play alongside the students, giving the youth mentors and role models that look like them. With boosted confidence, the young musicians put themselves forward for competitions and conservatories and aspire to once unknown or perceived off-limit careers.

Welsh cellist Shekuh Kanneh-Mason, who in 2016 became the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician competition, has soloed with the professional Chineke! orchestra multiple times, including at this year's Proms. He calls the project inspiring.

"I rarely go to a concert and see that kind of diversity in the orchestra. Or in the audience," he told the Guardian. "Having [Chineke!] will definitely change the culture."

Diversity should be 'business as usual'

Over the past two years, Nwanoku has received dozens of emails from parents thanking her for starting Chineke!. Musicians of all ethnicities who have played in the orchestra have told her that they have never felt so welcome in an ensemble. 

Nwanoku believes that Chineke! is needed more than ever in today's world of Brexit and Trump. "We have something much bigger than each of us that we must do for our people, for all people."

She plans to grow the organization by expanding international tours, hosting resident musicians, creating an elementary-aged orchestra, and offering diversity consulting services to other orchestras.

"Diversity is business as usual," Nwanoku said. "It must be celebrated all year round." She is working towards that, one note at a time.

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