We are pleased to share reflections from Disabled musicians on the recent Sound Connections “Inclusive Practice in Action” event. The focus of this year’s conference was Diversifying the Music Education Workforce, a topic close to our work here on the Drake Music Think22 programme, so we decided to invite musicians from our network to attend and respond.
This article is by electronic musician Remi Fox-Novak. Our thanks to Remi for his thoughtful reflections.
I am a musician and support worker of people with cerebral palsy. Now working in a care home, but before the pandemic I was working in a day centre where I was able to provide music and sound play activities and therapy to a group of people that struggle to do so many things even I as a fellow disabled person take completely for granted. I am also looking to pivot into a music education career, so I took the chance to view and interact with the Sound Connections’ Inclusion & Diversity in Music Education Conference.
The event was superbly hosted by composer and educator; Brenda Rattray. Using videos, poetry and meditation in remembrance of victims of violent discrimination such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. She balanced provocation with warmth and positive energy, challenging us to think about difficult and sometimes upsetting ideas and memories on a rollercoaster ride of the soul.
Racism & Privilege
In the warm-up session a month prior to the conference, she set the tone with the provocation that racism isn’t about character, that all white people are racist and that racism isn’t a measure of how good a person someone is.
Because this is such a provocative idea, it needs to be communicated clearly.
A white person may not be aware of the privileges racism benefits them. However it can legitimately be said that a person compromises their character if, after realising those privileges, they are then unmoved to act accordingly against the racism that underpins that privilege.
There are different levels of action, of course, and over-throwing structural discriminations of any kind is a tough ask for any one individual. To quote anti racism educator Jane Elliott “We don’t make history, history makes us.”
This idea of all white people being racist is one that I am familiar with through my own personal reckoning with gender equality. I made an effort to become a feminist ally when I recognised my own learnt misogyny. This did not mean that I actively hated women, consciously I thought that I was not sexist.
But through the realisation of my own flawed understanding of women’s experiences and assumptions on what a woman is in general, I uncovered the many privileges I have over women (for one example which there are countless; to be able to move around in public after dark without fear of being sexually assaulted.) This awakening made me proactively challenge every notion and given I had about women, so that I could extend my privilege to women and act appropriately in a manner that communicates my understanding of the inequality of sex.
Moving back to the event, Asif Sadi, global Head of Diversity for Adidas, opened proceedings. He spoke in his keynote about the need for companies to acknowledge the intersection of characteristics. Individuals cannot be categorised by a single characteristic, e.g. the experiences of discrimination for a non-disabled lesbian white woman will not be the same as the experiences of a disabled heterosexual black woman, even though they are both women and may face discrimination for being so. Asif Sadi sums it up “Intersectionality means we have multiple layers to our unique identities.”
Beyond that he talks about the need to create a culture of belonging within the workplace, as this would improve the productivity of those who are employed. This point I felt has broad implications, especially in the sense of class relations when multinational companies can dominate a market demand, but don’t contribute to the community beyond being an employer.
The other point he made that stood out to me was getting organisations to realise not just the moral or legal cases for diversity and inclusion, but also the business case. He claims that organisations that are diverse and inclusive are more productive and profitable.
Much of the conference was an opportunity to listen and examine the lived experience of various people.
The middle phases of both days had segments entitled ‘provocations’, where six speakers had a thought or challenge to the conference attendees. Of these, the ones that stood out most to me were from poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Jamel Carly and Deborah Williams.
Manzoor-Khan’s provocation was “safety for whom?”, referring to how institutional structures and anti-terror programs such as the ‘Prevent Strategy’ are not about protecting minorities, but rather keeping an eye on them for the safety of the non-Muslim status quo.
Jamel Carly works in early years care and education. His provocation was “Are You Lost?”, talking about how he and other Black males are always asked that question when they arrive to work, training and interviews by security staff, receptionists etc when men that look like him are assumed cannot possibly be working in those fields.
Deborah Williams posed the challenge to those in music education management to delegate 25% of their work load and pay cheque to an appropriate person that is authentic to that project – seek insider expertise and not attempt to cover it themselves by reading a book or two. For example, rather than a white person whose background is western classical music assuming knowledge of Afro Caribbean musical heritage to teach to a diverse classroom, actually bring in someone who has authentic lived experience that a minority student group can relate to.
There were also a series of pre recorded interviews with music educators on various angles like how to get into such a career. Sophia Fox talked about the importance of musical play in young children which chimed with my own thinking in my work place with using music and sound as a way to enrich ones quality of life.
Clarence Adoo, paralysed from the neck down from a car accident, talked about playing music with Headspace putting together an ensemble of non-disabled and disabled musicians and being struck by how few musicians there were like him. Also he touched upon well-meaning organisations that were unsure about how to go about diversity and inclusion in fear of getting it completely wrong (which echoed in my mind the challenge from Deborah Williams.)
But what comes next?
I want to be frank and truthful about some of my negative feelings about the event. The zoom discussion groups that I participated in were slowed down with guilt spiral confessionals. This in itself is a positive thing. Becoming aware of the privileges that historic white supremacy gives to those who spoke up about their guilt is a step in the right direction in becoming allies.
The problem is I have seen this movie before in other inclusion forums. It feels like such slow progress to get enough people to not just be aware and on board, but to be able to reflect outwards rather than at their own moral failings.
A sense of dread seemed to percolate into the group chat about the next step.
What happens next? Will those who have been awakened to the challenges of diversity and inclusion make big enough steps so that in a years time, the next diversity and inclusion conference doesn’t feel like déjà vu?
In one of the last zoom discussions of the event; participants were encouraged to go into break-out talks to think about what we were each going to do about inclusion going forward. One, hosted by John Kelly, stressed that it’s a very difficult challenge and I felt the weight of that going into my breakout. I can’t say that I have full confidence in my ideas in how to move forward, but from listening to reflections within the breakout and after in the final reflection session, I realised that class hadn’t been explored as much as I personally feel was necessary.
Those who fund and structure the sector are most in need to hear and understand this message. So many changes need to come from the top. This is much easier said than done and that was acknowledged in the final Youtube chatroom. Also, coming back together after the breakout zooms, there seemed to be a resignation as to how to get the most powerful people in the industry to events like this, judging from the comments to the video stream.
We can’t just rely on those in positions of power for radical change, just as in general we cannot leave it to Adidas and other capitalist institutions to graciously give out power just because they realise that diversity is profitable. Pressure needs to be applied and privileges need to be spread from those with it to those who can wield it at all intersections.
Finally, I feel the conference did not address how to counter the forces that actively strive for inequality by those who benefit from us being a divided population. The current climate of media outlets actively encouraging division with culture war distractions is alarming, especially as it backed with such effective propaganda. Our message of inclusion is spun to represent the exact opposite, with terms like ‘woke’ being misused so much it becomes the new ‘political correctness gone mad’.
As allies in the conference, we all have a part to play. Ultimately the leadership in music education have less to gamble in making waves compared to those who have spoken out in their work places and have then been alienated or even lost their jobs. So the challenge is how do we get the message up to the top, to amplify the changes needed? So that when we regroup we can make bold work towards progress.
There was a lot to digest across the two days. I regret not touching upon the rest of speakers as everyone had fascinating insights into their authentic experience in and out of the music education sector.
With the challenges of hosting a conference remotely, the organisers did a fantastic job and I commend everyone behind the scenes. The pandemic has given us so many new problems that could exacerbate inequality. So in a years time it could be a blessing to make marginal progress rather than sliding backwards.
Listen to Remi Fox-Novak’s Drake Music Emergent Commission, a slice of psychedelic techno titled “Laissez-Faire”.
Read the other reflections from the Sound Connections Inclusive Practice in Action conference