A Diversity Introspection

While issues of inequality and discrimination against minorities are steeped in our history, I feel like many of us were living in a denial bubble about our own contributions to this by passing it off as a systemic problem that was both beyond our control and ultimately not our responsibility. As individuals, we could say, “Sure, there’s discrimination in this country, but that’s not me. I treat my minority friends with respect as equals.” As music performers and organizations, we could say, “Sure, a majority of our programs feature composers and performers that happen to be white men, but we didn’t deliberately program because of that.”

As organizations with hiring power…any truth that our lack of diversity has no racial bias no longer feels like an acceptable justification for homogeneity.

The unrest around the tragic and unjust death of George Floyd has thrown this kind of self-absolution in a new light, forcing individuals and organizations big and small to take a hard and honest introspective look at our personal and societal prejudices, and for good reason. As organizations with hiring power or, in my case, concert programming power, any truth that our lack of diversity has no racial bias no longer feels like an acceptable justification for homogeneity.

The primary reason I started nienteForte in the first place was to inspire people in the same way that I had been inspired by a contemporary music concert during my undergraduate years, a concert and a career shift that has made me who I am not just as a composer but as a person. As I’ve reflected on that pivotal moment in my life, I’ve come to realize that exposure to that concert, while significant, would have been nothing without the immediate sense of acceptance that the composition department and the new music community gave me almost immediately. That sense of inviting and inclusion is vital to this mission of contemporary music inspiration – if a Black person, woman, or other minority looks at the performers on stage and the composers programmed over a season of concerts and does not see one of their own, that inspiration potential could be left untapped because of an implied unspoken message that this isn’t and will never be for them, and thus I will have failed in my mission to inspire.

if a…minority looks at the performers on stage and the composers programmed over a season of concerts and does not see one of their own, that inspiration potential could be left untapped because of an implied unspoken message that this isn’t and will never be for them.

The knowledge that I’ve contributed to this systemic issue in any capacity is a hard pill to swallow, especially as a minority composer myself. I can cite reasons explaining why I’ve fallen short. I can cite ways in which I’ve tried and even succeeded in representing diversity in my programming and respecting minorities in my life. But reasons are not excuses, and self-pats on the back for doing some good no longer feels adequate. To not seize the opportunity to contribute to the rising momentum that demands a change that this country desperately needs feels irresponsible and immoral. A single moment in time changed my narrative decades later; this single moment in time has that same potential for our whole country, and it is my sincere hope that it can serve as the first page in a new chapter in our history that ends with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and any other issues regarding diversity or inequality no longer needing to be spotlighted or even celebrated because they simply exist as normal ways of life.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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