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Are we failing our black boys?

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Honestly, being a British black man in music education can be a tough and lonely place to be. Off the top of my head, I can think of perhaps 2 other black British male music teachers under the age of 35. Looking back on my music education in school and university, it's not hard to see why there are so few black cis male, non-peripatetic music teachers in the UK.

The disconnect starts at a young age. We often come into classrooms having a strong understanding of what music means for us. Some of us grew up in church and were surrounded by incredible musicians and singers every single week. Musicians and singers who looked like us. Musicians and singers who would teach us by example, and by instruction. We heard intricate harmonies, sweet melodies, understood complex rhythms and rarely saw anyone reading sheet music. As we grew older, we strengthened our understanding of the power music on the weekends, but were confronted with unfamiliar mechanisms of music in our classrooms.

Black musicians in church

Many other children were as unfamiliar with these concepts or timbre and texture as we were. Many of them didn't grow up in church, so clapping in time, singing in tune and playing by ear were a struggle for some. We had a headstart. Some of us were already able and confident enough to play by ear, and in church services, and many teachers identified us as having talent. We knew we'd be able to do really well in our music lessons.

Then we would learn about Negro spirituals. Hearing the word 'Negro' coming from a white teacher, would often cause us to cringe slightly. That word felt so close to another one that we had had directed at us for years, though often in jest – it felt like death by a thousand cuts. Gospel, blues and jazz were often closely followed by the words 'slaves', 'slavery' or 'African influences'. But some of us were from the Caribbean – why then did these conversations always feel slightly awkward? I remember feeling embarrassed, as one of two black boys in the class, feeling as though all eyes were on me every time these words were mentioned. When we'd do reggae, we'd feel the eyes. If we spoke about rap, we felt the eyes. We thought we'd be able to do well in our music lessons.

Then, there were hours of having to read and analyse music we didn't like, and be confronted with words in Italian that we had to learn and understand, even though we struggled in our French lessons. Learning about composers who didn't look like us, watching some of our white friends become excited about songs by The Beatles, Morrissey and Pink Floyd – people we'd never heard of before. Some of us were into dubstep, Jay-Z, Kirk Franklin, SWV, Beanie Man and Aaliyah – people our teachers had probably never heard of before. Even if they knew who those musicians were, we never knew that they knew. Our musical experiences often felt as foreign as the terms 'ostinato', 'musica ficta' and 'allegretto' which were supposed to form part of our lexicon. We began to hope that we wouldn't fail our music lessons.

It's no wonder we hardly see any black or brown men in music education. I was the only black male in my year group at GCSE. The only one at A-Level. The only one during my undergraduate Music degree. The only one in my Music Masters course. I've only ever had one black male teacher in my life. He was my chemistry teacher for two years when I was 11. We don't see ourselves in GCSE or A-Level music syllabuses. We don't see ourselves in ABRSM or Trinity music exams. We simply don't see ourselves represented in music education.

Tony Kofi on saxophone

Yes, today we learn about Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, but what about Dennis Bovell, Courtney Pine, Ken Burton or James Poyser? What of gospel musicians like Guvna B or Volney Morgan? What of afrobeat sby Maleek Berry or Eugy? What of rap music by Ghetts or Avelino? The list goes on...

It's not that black boys don't love music. It's not that black boys are unable to understand many musical concepts. Many black boys have broken into the music industry as vocalists, instrumentalists, rappers and producers, and had long, successful and influential careers. There seems to be a disconnect between the music that happens in the classroom, and music that happens outside of it. If there are very few black musicians being studied, and even fewer black music teachers, who can these intelligent and confident black boys look up to in their music lessons?

“They don’t want to have role models who are footballers, they want role models who they know personally... people who are close at home who they can emulate properly.” - Decima Francis

Are we failing our black boys in music education? Maybe if we open up music education to include more black British men and listen to our black boys' experiences, perhaps more will feel that becoming a music teacher is a viable option. They'll soon realise that their musical experiences, no matter how far removed from Chopin and Mozart they are, are worthy of study and analysis. They'll know that they can teach the music of other black men they love, have grown up with, and have learnt about, like, of Ben Burrell, Lemar, Theon Cross or Labrinth without feeling out of place. Without feeling as though their music has no place in education.

'The researcher found that currently Black boys were keen to learn about different cultures and were particularly enthusiastic to engage with Black history and culture. They felt that this would give them more confidence in their learning and help them to achieve academic success.' (Gosai, 2011)

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