HALO on Race and Real Talk

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HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

Central to their metaphor is the concept of harmonic tension and release, how much of the musical satisfaction of barbershop harmony comes from living with the unstable sonorities and then carrying them through to resolution. Framing the exercise in these terms serves to validate dissonance and discomfort as part of the process, not something to be shied away from, but embraced in the anticipation of a rewarding outcome to follow.

What struck me about this was how different it is from the way that barbershop culture has traditionally deployed the metaphor of harmony. While tension and release has become well-embedded as part of the coaching vocabulary for the crafting of musical flow, harmony has been framed in barbershop discourse musically in terms of ‘consonance’, construed as a defined universe of chords that will lock and ring, and socially in terms of universal goodwill.

My first published article about the style (subsequently developed into Chapter 2 of my first book) discussed the idiosyncrasy of defining chords that standard music theory would classify as dissonant because of their need to resolve – not least the dominant-type 7th – as consonant, and traced the ways in which the barbershop community frames their music in terms of social values, and vice verse.

HALO’s reframing of this metaphor brought into focus how barbershop culture has largely tried to cope with social conflicts by denying them. Labelling all chords (or, at least all chords that you will accept on the contest stage) as ‘consonant’ is the music-theory version of ‘just be nice’ as a solution to systemic inequality. It may be well-meaning, but it is also self-defeating, as it refuses to allow harms perpetrated in ignorance to be addressed. (In theory, 'just be nice' would address harms perpetrated deliberately, but in practice the person harmed is as likely to be regarded as causing trouble by raising the issue as the person who committed the harm.)

The other theme to emerge from my group’s discussion that I came away thinking about most immediately was the issue of the missing lead line. In HALO’s metaphor, the lead – as the carrier of melody and narrative – represents the lived experience of those subject to racial oppression. Any dialogue about racial injustice needs to centre these voices if it is to be effective.

The question arose: in a primarily white organisation, how does one go about hearing those voices? Many BABS (and indeed LABBS and SAI) clubs have no singers of colour at all. Those that have do at least have the opportunity of listening directly, but by the same token need to avoid making it the job of those few singers to sort everyone else out.

I was feeling this one particularly because the day before I had been in a facebook conversation about the Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center in NYC’s decision to remove ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ and ‘Le Petit Nègre’ from their teaching repertoire in which a bunch of white pianists were all claiming there was nothing wrong with Debussy’s music. I wasn’t convinced that these were the people with the greatest entitlement to an opinion on the matter.

There were some interesting conversations in the BABS session about outreach and connecting with different communities to emerge from this question, including Shana Oshiro’s very wise question: ‘How do you invite yourself into other people’s lives?’ This is also part of a wider discussion around the distinction between connection and recruitment that I may come back to another day – more thinking to be done there yet.

Shortly after the end of the session, my eye fell on an interesting article about the experience of growing up as a mixed-race child in a white family. And it occurred to me that literacy offers one way to hear our missing lead lines. Journalism, autobiography, and fiction by writers of colour all give insights into the lived experience of those subject to racial oppression. The more widely we read, the richer and more nuanced understanding becomes available; the antidote to reducing the black experience down to one token person’s story is to listen to lots of different voices.

And the great thing about reading is that you don’t get to interrupt or answer back. You can’t derail the story by interposing your own needs, though you can stop for a break to deal with those needs without impact on the writer. It also keeps us focused on the fact that the point of listening to those voices is to change the listeners: to increase our understanding and empathy, to help us see things from a perspective that our lived experience wouldn’t give us access to. For the narrators, telling the story is work, and we don’t need to give them extra work by imposing our responses to it on them.

Last year, Philip Ewell got me thinking about the demographic balance of the people I cite, whose voices I amplify. HALO have got me thinking afresh about the balance of whose voices I listen to in the first place. It may be only a small piece in a large and complex puzzle, but it's one I can do straight away. If the only outcome is a slightly enhanced income stream for writers of colour, that's a useful side-effect.

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