The Case of the White Black Panther Orchestra

When Black Panther was released, it was hailed as “a vision of unmitigated black excellence,” a landmark cinematic event that celebrated Black culture in an unprecedented way, featuring both a Black director and a primarily Black cast. Showcasing Black excellence and ingenuity, the movie provides an empowering message to audiences: It features strong Black characters that are revered as heroes, an important counternarrative in an industry where Black characters are often portrayed as slaves, drug dealers, or other negative stereotypes. From the warrior T’Challa to the ingenious Black female scientist Shuri, the film is saturated with inspiring role models for Black youth. With its biting social commentary, its occasional digs at colonialism, its historical roots in the Black Power movement, and its powerful portrayal of women, Black Panther is a beacon of Black representation in an industry sadly still plagued by issues of equity. This positive representation is a powerful thing and audiences have embraced Black Panther for its celebration of Blackness.

Black Panther’s musical score has also been garnering a significant amount of attention and critical acclaim, even peaking at #1 on Billboard’s World Album Charts. As a music professor and researcher who has spent time living and studying musical cultures in West and Southern Africa, I was particularly impressed with the deftly composed soundtrack that struck a near-perfect balance between the sweeping cinematic qualities expected of a superhero movie soundtrack and gorgeous African traditional musical elements. Senegalese musician, Baaba Maal’s vocal stylings transport us to Wakanda, piano, harp, and strings intertwine with the fula flute, polyrhythmic talking drums are complemented by regal brass, and swelling strings are featured alongside West African kora and balafon. Elements of hip hop like the 808 are also woven in, adding to the rich tapestry of musical fusion.

The critically acclaimed score was written by Swedish composer and three-time Grammy Award nominee Ludwig Göransson and is undeniably a musical triumph. Informed by the composer’s fieldwork in West Africa, it is an homage to Black musical culture that features a decidedly African aesthetic honoring the voices of the West African musicians that inspired it. It is clear that the issue of Black representation that was so important to the movie Black Panther extended also to Göransson’s musical process and product, a lush and musically complex score that rings with Blackness.

But there is one issue of representation that no one seems to be talking about: The missing Black musicians in the orchestra that recorded the score that embodies the fictional African country of Wakanda.

Göransson’s Twitter feed is filled with pictures of the composer working with Senegalese musicians including Afro-pop musician Baaba Maal, tama player Massamba Diop leading a talking drum ensemble, the Seck family of Sabar drummers, balafon player Ibrahima Ndir Yoff, and singers Mami Kanoute, Fatima Diop and Cissi Kanoute. He effectively documented the collaborative process that inspired the film’s score and led to the development of a soundtrack in which Black musical representation was a priority.

Interspersed between these rich photos of Black West African musicians recording their unique cultural musical expressions, are pictures and videos of the Western orchestra in the recording studio at Abbey Road: a sea of White musicians. Videos reveal only one, or perhaps two, Black musicians visible in the entire 92-piece orchestra. The visual contrast is stark and startling. While great effort was made to center African traditional sounds and native musicians, the obvious lack of Black musicians in the Western orchestra is obvious and disturbing.

This disparity, while startling, also reflects the reality of the classical music industry and the persistent underrepresentation of musicians of color in American symphony orchestras.

The League of American Orchestras reported that despite efforts to diversify the field, more than 85% of the nation’s orchestral musicians are White. While the number of Asian/Pacific Islander musicians grew between 2002-2014 from 5.3% to more than 9%, the number of African American musicians employed by orchestras during that period remained consistently around a mere 1.8%.

Many orchestral organizations are concerned with a lack of diversity as evidenced by the range of diversity initiatives they sponsor. Orchestras have utilized diversity fellowships as a means of attracting and supporting players of color, a mechanism which, according to a report by the American League of Orchestras, has been successful in providing opportunity but has yet to truly move the needle in terms of effecting broadly measurable change in the representation of Black and Hispanic musicians in American orchestras.

Youth initiatives like the Atlanta Symphony’s Talent Development Program, Boston Symphony Orchestra-affiliated Project Step, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Young Strings program all target young, underrepresented musicians, providing opportunity and support for instrumental music study among minority youth. The hope is that by cultivating a new generation of orchestral musicians of color, the field might start to see a more diverse workforce of musicians represented on professional orchestral stages across the country.

The conversation about minority representation in orchestral music often extends to the field of music education: Research has shown that White students are similarly overrepresented in school music ensembles with Black and Hispanic students making up only 15.2% and 10.2% of ensemble enrollment respectively. Certainly, American El Sistema-inspired organizations like Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, People’s Music School in Chicago, and Kids’ Orchestra in Baton Rouge, are increasing access for students in underrepresented communities, but representation of musicians of color is a problem in music education just as it is in our orchestral organizations.

Despite all of these diversity initiatives there remains a persistent underrepresentation of Black musicians in American orchestras and many wonder why we have had so little success in diversifying. To be sure, some might contend that perhaps there simply aren’t enough Black musicians in the classical music business. In fact, the Chineke! Orchestra, the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, and Orchestra Noir are three American orchestra that feature Black classical orchestral musicians, demonstrating that there is no dearth of talented players. Black conductors have also taken to the podium, with historical pioneers like William Grant Still,  Everett Lee and Henry Lewis and more recently, Roderick Cox,  Jeri Lynne Johnson, and Michael Morgan serving as important exemplars of Black representation in orchestral conducting.

Perhaps the larger problem has to do with a culture of classical music that has historically prized Euro-centric values and a canon created by primarily White men. As British composer Eleanor Alberga asserted, “the classical music world is not very inclusive and I suspect there are wider issues here [related to] unconscious racism and class.” These are long-standing problems that we have yet to solve.

But let’s get back Wakanda: What hope do we have of diversifying classical music if a project like Black Panther, a self-proclaimed celebration and centering of Blackness, completely overlooked Black representation in its orchestra? To have an overwhelmingly White orchestra record the soundtrack to an historically Black cinematic achievement seems an impossible oversight, a travesty, an almost laughable, heartbreaking testament to the unbreakable Whiteness of the symphony orchestra.

Enter The Re-Collective Orchestra, a group of Black orchestral musicians pulled together by conductor Matt Jones to make a quiet, musical statement about the Whiteness of the Black Panther orchestra. The orchestra convened in New York City in March to re-imagine “All the Stars,” the title track from the Black Panther album. Watching this incredible all-Black orchestra in the studio is like watching the Black Panther Orchestra that should have been, an ensemble of Wakandan musicians bringing the Black Panther Universe to life through song. They complement the beautiful cast of Black Panther, a true Wakandan Orchestra that makes what Re-Collective creators call “a sonically and visually powerful statement: WE ARE HERE.” You can watch and listen to the recording here.

The Re-Collective Orchestra draws our gaze to not just an egregious personnel snafu (the hiring of an almost entirely White orchestra to represent the Black universe of Wakanda) but to the larger issue of diversity in classical music. During a time when diversity is at the forefront of the American consciousness, in the era of #timesup and #oscarsowhite, when people are speaking up on behalf of marginalized and underrepresented groups, it is important to acknowledge that the classical music industry remains far behind in terms of diversifying its ranks.

This case of the White Black Panther orchestra stands as a reminder of just how far behind we truly are. Although Black Panther as an enterprise represents an incredibly powerful step forward in terms of Black representation in Hollywood, peering behind the curtain at the Western musicians behind the score reveals an appalling lack of attention to diversity. We must work toward amplifying the voices of Black artists and musicians, so that we might achieve a truly diverse industry that reflects the rich diversity of our society.

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