Music is an important part of Black culture, dating back to the days before slavery. It has always been a way to connect to the past for many Black people across the world, and Black Americans use it to paint a picture of their environment. The most common genres of music in Black culture are rap, hip-hop, R&B and Jazz. But one genre often excluded is classical music, for various reasons.
Lara Downes wants to change the perception of classical music and how not only the Black community can relate to it but the world.
“I have for a long time advocated the highlights Black composers had on classical music, which many people only associate with White European people,” Downes said as she described the misconception of classical music. “There is a strong tradition of classical music in America, and a big part of that is because of Black composers and artists.”
Downes is a well-known figure in the classical music world as an award-winning pianist, earning the 2022 Classical Woman of the Year by Performance Today. She is a radio host & residual artist at Classical California KUSC station. She is also the creator and curator of Rising Sun Music, a recording series that shines a light on the music and stories of Black composers over the past 200 years, featuring her collaborations with a wide range of leading instrumentalists and vocalists, including Davóne Tines, Will Liverman, Nicole Cabell, and Regina Carter.
“Classical music speaks to human emotions, history, and experiences, and it’s a shame that historically it’s been confined and chained into an elitist place that a lot of people don’t have access to,” Downes said. She also points to the lack of musical education youth receive in public schools, which contributes to the lack of knowledge and interest in the Black community.
“A huge part of this is the lack of representation, as many Black kids don’t see people they can relate to, and sometimes it would risk them feeling uninvited not only in music but in life in general.” Downes said.
Classical California is now hosting an event to launch their new program called “I Believe” to educate youth and change their perception of classical music.
“The program is inspired by a composition written by Marget Bonds, a Black American composer, and pianist in the 1930s who played a role in the classical music world,” Downes said as she described the origins and purpose of the program. “Seeing the impact she made with her music inspired me to start this national initiative asking young people to leave their mark in the classical world and the world in general as they can be the people to inspire the next generation.”
The “I Believe” program launches on Feb. 8 at the Watts Learning Center Charter Middle School, where students will learn about the origins of classical music, Black composers, what a “credo” is, and how this empowers our youth, and recorded personal I Believe statements to be used in the future.
To learn more about the program and sign up for it, visit https://tinyurl.com/nb9ma2h5.