Black Artists Revamping Classical Music

The classical music sphere has long shrouded itself in an air of pretentiousness and looked down its nose at anyone who didn’t fit in, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities, and especially black people. The standard for hundreds of years has been aggressively European, specifically French, German, Italian, and, sometimes, Russian, with other cultures forcefully held apart and left unconsidered. Even in America, where black musicians created the basis for modern popular music, the classical music sphere remains white-dominated. However, there is no future for classical music without including musicians of all backgrounds, and that especially includes black artists. In this short article, I cannot cover every black artist making waves in the classical music sphere, but I can highlight four artists who are doing incredible things.
Babatunde Akinboboye is a Nigerian American opera singer who is quickly gaining attention for blending opera with hip-hop to create what he calls ‘hip-hopera.’ He went viral in late 2018 for a video of him singing the aria ‘Largo al factotum’ by Rossini over the beat to Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. Since then, he has released an EP titled Della Citta with three tracks, “Largo (Figaro),” “Nessun Dorma,” and “Cortigiani (Rigoletto),” all three of which utilize the hip-hopera blend of traditional operatic singing over a hip-hop track. Nowadays, he is currently working on an album.As someone who doesn’t enjoy opera or hip-hop, I am surprisingly enthusiastic over Akinboboye’s work. My lack of enthusiasm for either genre has never translated into a lack of understanding of the importance of the art form, and it’s fascinating to watch as Akinboboye bridges the gap between classical and popular music. Opera has long been a near unapproachable art form, but as Akinboboye continues his work, I predict a new wave of interest.
Abel Selaocoe is a South African cellist who blends the classical cello style with traditional South African music. In 2016, he formed a trio called Chesaba that specialized in African music, including many of his own compositions. Selaocoe made his solo BBC Proms debut in August 2021, where, in collaboration with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Chesaba and Gnawa Ensemble, he delivered a stunning performance.
Selaocoe approaches cello in a way that I have never seen before. His music is captivating, blending the unfamiliar African styles with familiar cello into something entirely new and wonderful. Selaocoe is pioneering a new style of music and forcing Western music to consider what ‘classical music’ truly is.
Born in Los Angeles, California, soprano Angel Blue is calling attention to racism within the industry. Blue is focusing on blackface, which is the practice of making white people look black through face paint and wigs, usually incorporating several harsh and fictional stereotypes about black people, during operas. Blue’s voice as a singer is enchanting and hypnotic, and her voice as an activist is moving opera to be a more inclusive space. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she started an online talk show called, “Faithful Friday.” In the talk show, she interviewed people that she found inspiring to help other professional and hopeful artists continue their passion even when there were no performances.
Blue’s voice is truly one of the most lovely soprano voices I’ve ever heard. Her tone is so full and robust, even while she soars into the stratosphere of the female voice. The elegance in which she executes complex arias is beyond impressive, and the breath control she demonstrates is terrifying. Blue has performed in over forty countries, and with numerous ensembles, and, after hearing her, it’s easy to understand why.
Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee, a Pittsburg, Pennsylvania native, is a world-renowned contemporary composer, librettist, flautist, pianist, producer, poet and author. She has composed numerous pieces for multiple different styles, including opera, choir, orchestra, and many more. Dr. Lee has worked as a music educator, and composer for over twenty-five years and her influence on the classical music sphere cannot be understated.
Dr. Lee writes for flute in a way that is transcendent. One of her many fabulous works, “Nigerian Treasures in 3 Movements,” written for solo, unaccompanied flute, is a fascinating listen, and received an award from the College Music Society in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her music enchants me, and her operas are, despite my typical dislike of opera, a fantastic listen.
All four of these artists are incredibly talented, both within the sphere of music and outside of it. The blend of cultures and traditions coming together to create something new does not invalidate the old art forms, but rather invites people in by letting them experience something unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. There is no future for classical music if there is not a dedicated effort to connect and adapt across generations. Akinboboye, Selacoe, Blue, and Cozette Lee understand this and work to maintain their beloved art form while also being open to new ideas and opportunities. Now, excuse me as I scurry off to go listen to these four on repeat, as I’ve been doing for weeks now.

Listen to Babatunde Akinboboye here.

Listen to Abel Selaocoe here.

Listen to Angel Blue here.

Listen to Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee here.