One issue I am exploring as part of my mission to decolonize my own music from western imperialist practice and in turn find a way forward as a classically trained composer of color is the perpetuation of class dynamics in classical music. While musicians, composers, and audiences listen to classical music to witness something profound, it simultaneously reinforces a dynamic between the elite and the common people. That distinction is still strong, and will not break down unless we reevaluate our recital spaces and repertoire.

What I mean by this class distinction is that the upper class, formerly the nobility starting in the Baroque period through the Classical via patronage, desired to listen to music as distinct from their subjects as possible. For example, waltzes in Vienna were not allowed to be too fast because they would mimic peasant dances. Despite the move away from patronage to public recitals in the 19th century, Classical music never ceased to be emblematic of the elite. It’s my suspicion that is why atonal music became popular with academics as a way to contrast from Jazz which was becoming much more popular.

We see this attitude today in recital halls; the strong separation between performer and audience, how performers often don’t even speak, or won’t chat with the audience afterward.

The unfortunate truth is that the classical music industry is one of the most conservative fields in the country. It has fewer women graduate than in almost every field, save for philosophy and an abysmal retention rate for people of color.

While composers are now starting conversations about why that is, I don’t see much reflection on the music we perform or study. Racist repertoires are abundant in the classical canon. I detest Salome for its racist portrayal of my ethnicity. Women don’t have the hope of even surviving in an opera, and solo and chamber recitals are littered with pieces that show insulting displays of exoticism. Folks want to talk about attracting minorities to the field, but why would a Black composer want to hear their music shared in a recital with Debussy’s G*lliwog Cakewalk.

Again, this disparity between the need to diversify the field and a racist repertoire goes back to the idea that classical music’s role is to create a distinction of the upper class as better, smarter, and more sophisticated than the lower classes — It is part of the skeleton that makes the classical music tradition. Asking how classical music can be more diverse is like asking a monarchy how they can be more democratic.

When one goes to a classical music concert, that itself carries a stigma of conservative elitism. One must be well-dressed, must know when to clap and not to clap, must not sleep or make any sound during a performance… and God forbid they sneeze.

A solution is to deteriorate the concept of genre entirely. Genres inherently have their own target audience: when we deteriorate or decolonize the concept of genre, we are then free to decide who our target audience is and tailor a concert familiar to them. Musicians who study classical music today already know how to play for upper-class white people, so why don’t they broaden their horizons and ask themselves what would be familiar to other, often ignored groups? I myself live among the working class, mainly immigrants, who work 12-16 hour days of hard labor. They come home to a large extended family all under one roof to play cards and take care of their kids before sleeping for a few hours. They don’t listen to Bach, but they listen to their own traditional music like “Qadukka al-Mayyas,” a traditional upbeat song for when they want to forget about work and enjoy themselves for once.

One thing I ask myself as I’m composing is, “how do I write music that relates to these people I am close to?” I know these are the people I belong to, and that my responsibility as someone with the privilege of getting a strong education is to help us survive.

I took Qadukka al-Mayyas and put it in a set of canons as J.S. Bach would. In it, I expressed something new and profound, the combination of two cultures, the bridge between my tradition, and this new world I was forced into. Brahms doesn’t speak to working-class immigrants because he’s a white man from a long time ago, but I was delighted when relatives said they connected strongly with my piece, and were relieved to find an artistic expression of the cultural dissonance specific to them that is not acknowledged in the arts.

As for what other musicians can do to decolonize the classical tradition — let them explore as many communities as they can. Go out and study your target audience, and make it specific. You can’t write music for everyone of every race, but you can appeal specifically to people who are often left out. And that doesn’t mean a white guy should go to Harlem and study Jazz to get hip with the Black folk, but that they should learn to feature Black composers instead of average white dudes, and to make sure their repertoire is not rooted in any anti-Blackness.

But also, don’t do it for diversity’s sake. Having a program selling one broad concept of diversity doesn’t do much, and it’s horrible advertising. Get out of your genre, collaborate with rock bands, hip-hop, producers, gamelan, whatever, and now have a repertoire of different genres, you can build a wide set of tools to appeal to any audience you like. For example, instead of a concert of Debussy, how about a concert dedicated to working-class lesbians? Instead of producing a classical concert, how about trying what my collaborator, Ethan Valentin, did in his last concert where he premiered my piece, and invite different groups with a wide range of genres to come together for one night of diverse music dedicated to one idea? Can you imagine, for example, a benefit concert for trans equality that starts with an opera scene, then transitions to Punk Rock, followed by a string quartet playing to an electronica/hip-hop fusion, then moving to a sonic meditation before finishing off with a new Symphony written by a trans lesbian? Doesn’t that sound awesome?

What I have written is one solution, and even though this article is not brief at all, this topic can get so much deeper. The lack of diversity in classical music is not an easy fix, it requires us to decolonize the concept of classical music altogether, and to open ourselves to experience what our target audience does.

If I can sum up my advice for any musician, it’s this: Find your target audience, make sure they’re underrepresented, and get to know them deeply and intimately. Work with them, not on behalf or instead of them, and use your privilege as an artist and a music maker to lift up their voices. Do it with humility, and always do it for them, not for you. It does decrease racism, but it also creates a valuable human connection you can’t get anywhere else. That connection is why I became an artist, and I’m grateful every day I make music for that gift of intimacy between myself and the voices that need to be heard.

What does gender diversity look like? Many writers, composers, and musicians have written various articles calling for greater diversity in the field of classical music, yet very few are willing to increase representation for minorities other than white women. Opportunities for Black, brown, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers remain abysmal with no sign of public support in sight. While it is great that there is finally a growing sentiment among liberal composers that our current lack of diversity is unacceptable, the need to only elevate (white) women adds to the problem. Many of those calling for greater gender representation riddle their calls with cissexism, language which excludes or doesn’t consider the existence of trans or non-binary people. It is not enough to support women; New Music composers and musicians have an obligation to create an intersectional environment to dismantle systems of oppression.
Cissexism is everywhere, and it is found in most articles calling for greater gender diversity. Every time someone says, “men and women”, or “he or her” as if man and woman are the only two genders, is an act of cissexism. To cisgender individuals, it may seem like normal language, but there is a huge population of folks who exist outside the gender binary. When musicians say that composition studios should be 50% female, that is engaging in cissexism. We do not know what percentage of the population is female, we only know that 50% in the U.S. are assigned female.
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A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum.

Gender is not just based on genitalia. We are assigned gender based on whether we have a penis, and are therefore assigned certain roles to perform the gender given to us. But that has nothing to do with one’s gender identity, which is the gender one feels they are, and may or may not align with the gender they were assigned. The individual may decide to not express their assigned gender, but that can be dangerous in a patriarchy defined by violence, so some people do not publicly express their gender identity. This means we do not know how many people identify as women, men, both, neither, or something outside that binary. But we do get an idea of what gender diversity would look like.
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A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum. Patriarchy forces us to our own binary boxes, but if one wants to get rid of misogyny, then those boxes need to be gone, and people need to have the freedom to express their gender however they like. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to convince the classical world that non-binary genders even exist. Many classical musicians are unable to name a single trans composer, especially one that does fit in the male/female binary. Wendy Carlos is the most prominent trans composer today, with very few coming into greater prominence following her legacy. There has yet to be a non-binary composer given the chance and the safety to become successful as a classical composer while being out and having their gender identity respected.
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Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition.

.But even within the gender binary, only a specific type of cisgender woman is often represented. When opportunities arise for women composers, very rarely are those spaces racially diverse. And when there are women of color who achieve success, usually their identity as a woman is highlighted, but their racial identity is swept under the rug. After Du Yun won the Pulitzer prize for composition, William Robin published the article “What Du Yun’s Pulitzer Win means for Women in Classical Music” using Du Yun’s success to trumpet the victory women were celebrating in having all three of the finalists for the prize be women. His article, and many similar articles, spent very little time talking about Du Yun, instead clumping her in with all other female composers. We should applaud the success of all female composers but we should do that by focusing in on their achievements and giving them the individual attention they deserve. It’s possible, and necessary to do both.
Du Yun should not just be remembered as one of a couple women who won the Pulitzer prize. Although no one reported it, I looked through the history of the award and discovered that Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition. As a person of color, Du Yun’s win was the biggest crack in the glass ceiling in my lifetime. Although she is Chinese and I am Lebanese, I feel a great connection to her and all other composers of color, because we are all effected by white supremacy every day. My pride and celebrations for her were also mixed with anger, and I still ask myself, why did no one write about that? I fear there are still some who believe it’s too soon to celebrate the successes of people of color in the industry. Perhaps they fear that acknowledging Du Yun as a person of color would mean that they would have to deal with the incredible lack of racial diversity among composers.
You are the absolute best person in the world 
When I think of diversity, I imagine a space where everyone is free to be who they are. People from around the world, with every possible experience, every culture, millions of genders, and lots of great, unique music. A space where we recognize each other’s humanity and celebrate everyone’s individuality. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done for New Music, and there is no time to waste. White feminism defines itself by creating equality from the top down, with white women first, then people of color, and so on, with trans Black women, femmes, and other non-men at the bottom. The issue is that white women usually have no interest in elevating those below them; people rarely resist the urge to punch down. In practice, this does very little to dismantle misogyny, and only reinforces white supremacy. We need a more intersectional model, where we acknowledge the humanity of all we oppress, and work together to punch up against the systems which created a hierarchy of power in the first place.