In 8th grade I found myself in somewhat of a musical identity crisis. I began taking private voice lessons and my loving teacher began to learn the ins and outs of my voice. Up until this point I had been singing alto in school choir because that is where I was most comfortable in my church choir. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t chest notes as high as Beyonce and that if I was gonna salvage my voice without feeling strained while belting uninhibitedly, I needed to live comfortable in alto land. This alto reality was shattered when my teacher (a wonderful classically trained soprano) began to awaken the mysteries of my head voice/falsetto range. We were warming up one day and my teacher turned to me and said, “Why have you been singing alto, you’re a soprano??!”
I left my lesson in a funk. I was not ready to accept my soprano identity because I knew that blending head voice wouldn’t suffice in church choir. I was sure the undeveloped high tone would be too soft for the Black church. So, until undergrad I negotiated these musical identities by putting the two parts of my voice in separate boxes. My churchy/soulful chest voice, and my operatic voice.
As a naive singer, I failed to see that the voice is one entity with all of its colors, tones and qualities working together with both the head and chest voice complimenting each other. What made matters worse were the limiting perceptions of others who knew nothing about classical technique. I’d had people tell me to, “sprinkle some soul” into my classical singing, as if adding a run or melisma would “blackify” the melody. I tried to sing without yelling in church choir and thought, maybe it wasn’t “spirited enough”.
After finishing high school I was offered a full scholarship to study voice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was excited, but still somewhat hesitant to claim my classical technique. Yet, I felt that this was God’s way of telling me that there was much more to my voice and journey as a singer. Freshman year was eye opening on so many levels. All of what I knew about singing from a technique standpoint was further refined with the goal of smoothing out my vocal registers to achieve one voice instead of a sound with disjointed parts.
I was so comfortable sliding and scooping because black culture legitimized that specific technique. When I got to undergrad, I had to consciously remove that approach to my classical technique. Did sacrificing cultural norms in favor of musical clarity mean I was letting go of who I was??? Or, was the act of letting go of what I thought I knew about being a black musician, actually reshaping cultural expectations?
As I finished my freshman year I slowly came to accept my own voice and the colors of both my higher head voice and warm middle range. Alas, there was a big place in my heart for classical music to dwell. I was greatly inspired by my voice teacher Dr. Louise Toppin who was also a black soprano. In so many ways she taught me how to be proud of my voice, not just as a black woman, but as an artist. Even as my vocal identity became definitive, I found myself wrestling with other concepts.
How could I claim an art form that was not initially created with me in mind? What is the significance of singing to crowds who are often full of old white people? How do I approach auditions when “white female with long flowing locks” is often the soprano troupe? I didn’t just want to be “the help” in every opera production or be limited to particular shows. As a singer I love Porgy and Bess (the music is incredible)…..but I also secretly hate the thought of being trapped for all eternity in that one show.
Music is more than skin deep. You may see a singer move on stage, but their real job is to use sound to pierce your soul—and touch a part of your humanity. Knowing what I know now, If I could go back to my 8th grade-self I would tell her that it is possible to be both proudly black and incredibly in love with classical music, they are not mutually exclusive. While my blackness informs my approach to the art form in a unique way, it in no way solely defines or limits my artistic identity.
Today being a black opera singer isn’t necessarily any less complex. Yet, my love for the craft is stronger and the need to explain why I love what I do has diminished with self awareness and acceptance of my own vocal talents. This doesn’t mean that I live in a bubble where everyone is equally as accepting. Every blue moon I get people that come up to me and make highly problematic statements. I once had a violist say to my face, “I didn’t know Black people could sing opera”……. (facepalm).
I’ve had colleagues and listeners come up to me and search for the language to classify the black voice in words that are honest, but non-offensive. People know there is something different about black voices, they hear it. Yet, some fail to come up with ways to say it without exotifying or commodifying the black singer as the “other.” Likewise, I can show-up to hair and make-up at companies and their go-to style examples still do not apply to chocolate girls with natural hair.
And then we get to the discussion of spirituals. “So I’m sure you’re great at singing spirituals right??” Just because singing, “Give me Jesus” has cultural and personal significance, doesn’t mean that I’m the one authoritative voice of a large and wide reaching genre. Also, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only style I can sing with heart. Cultural agency does not include limiting the evolution of a genre or a people. Black female singers are not reserved for one style or one vocal tone quality. We can do it all.
I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Oh wow, you sound like Leontyne”. On one hand, this is an enormous compliment coming from the informed person (Folks, Leontyne Price is a goddess). On a separate note, this comment has at times come across as narrow-minded because it’s become a default response for people sifting to connect blackness and opera. For many who don’t know the breadth of opera singers of color, Leontyne has become the “token Black”. Heck, lots of people who identify her don’t even know what she sounds like, they just know that she was black and sang opera. There are tons of black female opera singers, both past and present, who have left a notable impact on the world and inspire me on a regular basis. Some of these outstanding women include:
Reri Grist, Janai Brugger, Shirley Verrett, Jeanine De Bique, Cynthia Haymon, Patricia Miller, Martina Arroyo, Brandi Sutton, Barbara Hendricks, J’nai Bridges, Angela Brown, Barbara Hill Moore, Pumeza Matshikiza, Grace Bumbry, Denyce Graves, Florence Quivar and Pretty Yende. The list could go on an on.
Despite public perceptions, cultural/social expectations and industry norms, I’m constantly affirmed when I hear a sista sing proudly. At age 23, I choose let my art and personhood speak for itself. God made no mistakes when he uniquely crafted every individual. With that in mind, I look forward to sharing beautiful music with the world in my skin, and never in spite of it.