“we are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins
and some of us have said so be it
if i am in jail my castle shall become
my courtyard will bloom with hyacinths and jack-in-the-pulpits
my moat will not restrict me but will be filled
with dolphins sitting on lily pads and sea horses ridden by starfish
goldfish will make love
to Black mollies and color my world Black Gold”
In her Poem (for Nina), Nikki Giovanni knows she can do nothing to change the color of her skin, and resolves to celebrate who she is. So it also is with Boston arts collective Castle of our Skins, which takes its name from the first line of the poem. Founded by violist Ashleigh Gordon and composer/performer Anthony R. Green, the organization strives to move past tokenism of Black artists in classical music via a holistic approach to education, outreach, and engagement with the surrounding communities. Their programs have included poetry, dance, and local Black vendors and artisans selling their crafts to the audience; they often feel more like a gathering of like-minded people than a traditional concert.
Below, Ashleigh and Anthony explain how the collective’s mission expanded beyond presenting music by Black composers, let on how they find some of the rarely-performed repertoire they present, and share some excuses they’ve heard as to why people don’t program music by Black composers.
What is the mission on which Castle of our Skins was founded?
Originally, Castle of our Skins started with the mission to promote the music of Black American composers. With our own exploration into this rich world of Classical music and the lack of inclusion we saw in concert halls in Boston and abroad, we felt this made sense. After some time, though, we wanted to explore other areas of Black culture and artistic genres, works by composers from across the Black diaspora, and invite others–regardless of race–to join in our exploration. Our mission now is to celebrate Black artistry through music. With a more expansive mission, we are able to invite composers from any ethnicity, age, nationality, race, etc. to submit a proposal for a work inspired by some prompted aspect of Black culture. Past examples of this include selecting proposals from composers around the country for art songs inspired by Black writers or string works inspired by Black art. In both cases, none of the composers we selected to realize their proposals were Black, but all spoke to the growth they experienced in diving in and learning more about Black culture.
True to both missions, though, are our goals of fostering cultural curiosity and the idea of celebration. With so much media stigma and historical negativity centered around Blackness and Black culture, we wanted to intentionally showcase the beauty, richness, and successes of our culture through our programmatic efforts. We use our public programming as a way to educate, through music, other artistic disciplines, spoken word, and history. It’s important for us to not only program great music, but to also welcome some much needed conversation and thought provocation. If we can have a hand in changing the narrative around Black culture and the music of Black composers, then we’ve done our job.
You don’t just play new music by Black composers; you program music of the past as well. What resources have you used to find music by Black composers who are no longer living?
Luckily Castle of our Skins came up well within the age of Google and the internet. There is quite a wealth of articles, databases, radio interviews on various platforms (iTunes podcasts, SoundCloud, live streaming archives, etc.), LISTSERVs, and more, where information about Black composers from any time period throughout the world can be found. Regarding our favorite sources, we have signed up for the AfriClassical internet blog/LISTSERV, which has daily posts and emails regarding activity of Black composers, performers, and other topics such as history, visual art, networking, fundraising, and more. It is a companion to AfriClassical.com, which also has a wealth of information about Black composers throughout time, from around the world. The recordings and anthologies produced by Videmus Inc. have also been incredibly helpful as well.
Castle of our Skins also had the privilege of receiving a research grant to study at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, which exposed us to books by Helen Walker-Hill, Aaron Horne and others, countless scores by composers who were new to us at that time, articles, collections, recordings, and more. When we began this research in 2013, we learned of an already thriving and growing community of people also interested in Black composers of the past and present. We have had the honor of working with a variety of composers, scholars, writers, and historians, and continue to make connections through active social media, networking events, and performances.
What kind of connections have you made in the Boston community? Have you made any that aren’t typical for a classical music organization?
We love to collaborate! It’s been quite fun getting to work with some powerful artists, institutions, and organizations throughout Boston. We’ve had the pleasure of working with other arts organizations like the Boston Lyric Opera and New Gallery Concert Series, and look forward to collaborating with Handel and Haydn and the Front Porch Arts Collective in our upcoming season. We’ve also built connections with institutions like the Museum of African American History, Celebrity Series of Boston, Copley Library, and Boston Children’s Museum, with whom we continue to do concerts and educational programming.
Some of our favorite atypical connections have come from artists outside of classical music. We’ve worked with historian and fiber artist L’Merchie Frazier on a number of events, spoken word artists/poets Amber Rose Johnson and Regie Gibson on original collaborative projects, a variety of local entrepreneurial craftswomen including Haitian fashion design Joelle Jean-Fontaine, and filmmaker and transmedia artist Daniel Callahan on the score for his upcoming feature film debut. Also with Daniel, we co-produced an elaborate “MassQuerade Ball,” where various communities of color were celebrated and attendees encouraged to converge via the arts. We brought together Japanese Taiko drummers, Afro-Brazilian capoeira performers, fashion design, spoken word, film, and of course music in a night of celebration. The more atypical the pairing and multi-disciplinary the connection, the more intriguing we’ve found our outcome to be.
Are there challenges inherent in attracting a diverse audience?
I’m sure any organization in town would agree that there are inherent challenges in attracting audiences, especially diverse ones. With Boston’s densely populated and competitive artistic scene, it’s not only difficult to attract, it’s also difficult to retain. Parking and transportation expenses/difficulties contribute to the challenge, as do the cost of tickets.
We’ve fortunately created an organization that is unrivaled in Boston. Our unique mission, inter-disciplinary events, and intentionally inviting approach to programming have helped attract a broad cross section of Bostonians. While the nature of our work focuses on Black culture, our audiences range in ethnicity, age, gender, and location. As our programming includes much more than just music, audiences have told us our concerts make them feel “full,” like they’ve just devoured a three-course meal–that they feel satisfied and fulfilled from the music, other arts, and inclusion of history in our programming. The “tapas” approach to offering a variety of experiences in each concert has helped us attract a diverse audience drawn to any (or all) of our many offerings.
What’s the worst excuse you’ve ever heard as to why people don’t program music by Black composers?
A typical response we hear from people is that they don’t know of many (or any) Black composers, works that fit whatever instrumentation they need, or where to begin searching for composers and their compositions. Of the more egregious excuses we’ve come across in recent times, the likening of the lack of equitable programming to subpar quality as a result of race is definitely one of the worst we’ve heard. The idea that there is an inherent inferiority and inability to create something of great beauty because of one’s race (or gender, or sexuality…insert really any qualifying characteristic, it seems) is really quite baffling. Such is the reason why Castle of our Skins is proud of its work in promoting cultural curiosity. An ignorant mind is slow to change, but the curious one is open to learning and growth. By reaching both, Castle of our Skins will hopefully create a climate of wonder and break down stereotypes within the field; all while uplifting this incredibly worthy and deserving music.