Monday, March 24, 2014

Black masculinity and the violin

This is going to sound odd, but I think that the 2013 calendar year was the year for African American male violinists:
The film, 12 Years A Slave, took on the narrative of Solomon Northup, a talented violinist forced into slavery. Musicologist Guthrie Ramsey has already written a great piece on this topic in Gawker, entitled "There Was Music in 12 Years A Slave? Yes. It Sounds Like Get Lucky." In it, he tackled how music functioned, how music *worked* to help maintain social order and perpetuate categories of racial difference. For example, Northup is at one point "ordered to be human Muzak" at a slave boutique where people are being sold. In another instance, slaves are singing a song about running away as their master preaches to them a Christian sermon. (For more information, please read Guthrie Ramsey's piece in Gawker here:

I must confess that I still haven't seen the film yet because I'm a scaredy cat (if you know me, this confession will come as completely and utterly unsurprising) but I'm curious to know how many Americans (regardless of ethnic background) were taken aback to see an African American man playing the violin. "Huh," I imagine they said, "that's unusual. I've never seen something like this before." Being a black male violinist must have been such an irregularity/oddity throughout American history, right?

Hold on a second there. It would be wrong of me to make the claim that there were thousands of Solomon Northups just fiddling throughout America since the very beginning, all working on a Mozart violin sonata and complaining about that one passage in the Tchaik concerto. But what I do find interesting is how little people know about African American classical musicians, and, more importantly, how frequently their histories tend to be forgotten or expunged from the record.

A few other African American violinists to think about:
Joseph Douglass, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass's son. He got his big break playing at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and ended up on the faculty at Howard University.

Clarence Cameron White is another example of a working violinist in the 19th century. A product of Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, he lived in London for a time studying the violin. He came back to the States to teach at Virginia State College and Hampton Institute.
Will Marion Cook, also a product of Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, studied violin at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik in the 1880s. Following his arrival back in the States, he studied with composer Antonin Dvorak for a year and then formed a chamber orchestra that toured throughout the United States.
The last name I'm going to mention (and there are others) is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is perhaps the most celebrated black composer in music history. He's not African American, which people forget, but he tends to be smushed into the greater category of "black people making classical music." So fine. Whatever. He was a violin student at the Royal College of Music. Really, I just wanted to post this image that I found of him:
For some reason, my googling of black male violinists a while back led me down a particular rabbit hole that I'm not entirely sure how to get out of just yet. In the process of putting this blog post together, I came across this group:
Their name is Black Violin, and they're a hip hop duo from Florida who play the violin and viola. Here's one of their music videos:

And I don't know if the world can handle it yet, but here's *another* hip hop duo named Nuttin But Stringz who also try to blend hip hop and classical music:
Nuttin But Stringz (lord help me for writing that name more than once) was originally a group that tried out for some reality show and made it to the finals:

What are we to make of these two musical ensembles? I'm both surprised and not surprised by them, I guess. I *think* that they think they're being subversive by combining hip hop and classical violin together. I *think* they think they're being radical by being black male violinists in 2014. And I *think* they think they're trying to raise awareness and encourage money to be funneled into music education programs in African American communities...?

I think they mostly prove to me how histories are forgotten. How the Solomon Northups are made to become oddities. So that when these ensembles come around, we're supposed to think they're doing something new, when really, they're not.

What I do find intriguing about these musicians, however, is how they're performing a certain kind of black masculinity. With Nuttin But Stringz (again! gah!) especially, their exaggerated gestures and stomps seem to be their attempt to align themselves with hip hop, which, as plenty of scholars have excellently pointed out already, has been constructed to be black and male (more so than black and female, white and male, and white and female). Oh, and this black masculinity is, of course, hetero. It's super hetero. Lord help us if we start picking that piece of this performance puzzle apart (said snarkily).

Again, I think that we're supposed to see this as subversive. And perhaps it is. Perhaps there's something radical about having these performers own so grandly and confidently their black male identities while performing a musical instrument that many assume doesn't "belong" to them.

Mostly, though, I'm ambivalent.  Do these groups demonstrate musical fusion/hybridity or are their performative acts further perpetuations of difference? Each ensemble seems to suggest that it's pointing American audiences towards the future, where "classical" and "pop/hip hop" will blend together into a commercial success. Perhaps this will happen. Perhaps it's already happening. I just don't want us to forget our Solomon Northups again.


  1. Rita Dove's book about the violinist for whom Beethoven wrote the Kretzer Sonata:

    1. I meant to type "Kreutzer," of course. And I didn't intend to post anonymously.

  2. Oooh, thank you so much! This looks excellent! I'm going to have to add it to my "must read" list...

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  4. I have started playing the piano 6 months ago by myself and I started making research on Black Classical Musicians which led me to your blog.

    GREAT article!