An Open Letter to Minority Music Teachers

Robinson Headshot

My name is Deejay Robinson and I write this through the tears in my eyes. I want to scream. I want to throw something; however, I am too tired to. Too tired because I have seen the same scene on the television over and over and over again. It is the scene of Black men being murdered by police officers, and a civilian murdering police officers at a peaceful protest. My eyes welled up with tears and my heart sank while watching MSNBC’s airing of the video of a White police officer holding a gun over Philando Castile while he lay dying. His girlfriend is screaming and her four year-old daughter in an angelic voice says, “It’s ok, I am here with you.”

I thought about the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson. I wept over the brazen murder of nine innocent Black men and women praying at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. I screamed for Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin and Michael Gray, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and a host of other names too numerous to list. I agonized over the 8 cops ambushed and murdered in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Then, I remembered that I had seen a similar scene before. The year was 1963 and the picture was in black and white. Black students were being attacked by White police officers who whipped their backs with the powerful sting of water pressure out of a fire hose and unleashed dogs on them.

The two juxtaposed images of Blacks being dehumanized are equal because, in 2016, there is still racism in the United States of America. Racism in America is so deeply embedded in the fabric of America’s society that even our field of music education is designed to protect and perpetuate White hegemonic privileges and power (Bradley, 2006, 2016; Bradley et al., 2007; Butler et al., 2007; Koza, 2008; McLaren, 2007; McKoy, 2013). I also cried that night because somewhere deep inside, I knew that I too, perpetuated white supremacy by bolstering the music of dead White men as superior. And so, I write for those like me who have been steeped in Western European classical music traditions and have imposed Western European classical music on students, on the assumption that their training deemed classical music superior.

I write for pre-service, novice, and veteran Black and Brown teachers who have combed through music education literature desperately searching for pieces by Black and Brown authors that describe many of our experiences in American music teaching and learning. I write for us who have been and are marginalized, isolated, and feel inferior in music education because of conscious and unconscious biases about our dark skin. I write to give voice to our young Black and Brown music learners who will come into the field with questions about acceptance and legitimacy.

Many teachers like myself become educators because we want to make a difference in our communities (Foster, 1997; Kelly, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2005). We want to help raise children who will struggle just a little less than we did. We become teachers in order to ensure that our Black and Brown students “have opportunities to learn from role models whom they can identify with” (Kafele, 2012, p.70). We enroll in music school, pass our classes, learn theory, and pass juries just like our counterparts. Yet, we have also felt our hearts skip a beat when professors and teachers infer that our musics are interesting, exotic, or, not music at all. We have felt competing feelings of tokenization and adulation for being chosen to sing the solo during the multicultural piece or having been told that we are a “natural” at non-Western European genres of music (Hess, 2013, 2015). We have felt awkward as we wore colored sashes and ties and sang African Noels standing in the front of our peers—sometimes the entire choral department and hundreds of audience members. As participants and spectators, we have endured the whitewashing and reducing of gospel music to choreography of step-touch and jazz hands. In an effort to be better teachers, we have turned to literature and research for guidance, and have felt helpless when restructuring curricula because our voices represent a void in the music education literature that fails to address many of our concerns and experiences.

Ken Elpus (2015) put into words what we know and experience everyday: music education has a significant race gap that overwhelmingly privileges Whites and systematically excludes other minorities. In my opinion, Elpus’s research on the demographic profile of pre-service music teachers in the United States exposes how White superiority is intricately woven into America; its principle pillar for maintaining power manifests in the institution of music education. “An aspect of human nature,” wrote Michelle Alexander, “is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others” (2012, p.146-147). She continued on to echo Fredrick Douglass, who believed that power concedes nothing without a movement from the people (p.147).

On April 26, 2016, Michael Butera, the CEO of the National Association of Music Education (NAfME) said, “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field,” and “music theory is too difficult for them as an area of study.” (McCord, 2016; Rosen, 2016). Butera’s comments angered me so much that I burned my NAfME membership card in protest (also see Zubrzycki, 2016). I thought that if there were ever going to be a movement in music education, at least in my lifetime, where the collective field rallied around issues of race, power, and privilege in music education, then, the incendiary comments made by the NAfME leader would be the moment. Therefore, I took my anger to social media.

In my Facebook post (Robinson, 2016), I wanted to make racism real for my friends, specifically my music education colleagues who engage in the work of anti-racist music education, and those who believe music education is colorblind. I sought to expose the erroneousness of such comments while the world was still in shock from two unexpected music entertainment breaking news events about two African-American artists: (1) the death of music icon and legend Prince on April 21, 2016, and (2) the April 23, 2016 surprise release of Beyoncè’s Lemonde, a political and apropos album, arguably created by the most iconic music celebrity of this decade. Furthermore, Butera’s comments directly contradict the statistical data: (a) seven of ten top Billboard artists from 2000-2010 were Black (Beyoncè was number four); (b) Prince’s album Purple Rain, for 24 consecutive weeks was the longest-running album to be number one on the Billboard Charts, and (c) Prince is the only artist, and first African American musician, to perform 21 sold-out concerts in London (Morris, 2014). I do not know Mr. Butera and cannot comment on his character or intentions; however, as a Black man, I cannot separate his bigoted comments from American history—recent and old—or from statistical data, and especially not from my personal lived experiences.

There was also a hidden message for my music education friends as well. I wanted in-service music teachers to know that learning opportunities will be missed when our students are having conversations about Prince and Beyoncè while we are lecturing about Poulenc and Beethoven. I wanted music education professors to be inspired to leave the ivory towers of their academic institutions and engage in conversations with their communities about the state of music education in America. However, my innocence gave way to fear as the 2015-2016 school year closed with no action taken; hundreds of future teachers and musicians received their diplomas, professors left for conferences and summer vacations, and secondary teachers conducted the last beats of the end of year concerts and little if anything has changed. I knew many of us would go on about our lives acknowledging the moment, but too tired to do anything about it. But, “the very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off” (Baldwin, 1963, p.21).

You see, during difficult times my grandmother always said, “Baby, in order to understand the future, you must know your past.” I have been wrestling with trying to conceptualize the present by becoming a student of history and examining the racial upheaval and unrest of 1960s American society. I poured through writings and documentaries about racism in America and racism in U.S. music education. I was often told to root my thinking and writing in more music education scholarly literature as I submitted final papers and manuscripts for publication. I did. I read deeply and widely. Focusing on race, I read Bradley (2006, 2007, 2016), Koza (2008), and Hess (2013, 2015). These scholars among many others have made profound contributions to our field and have paved the way for us to understand how racial biases are woven into our institution. Yet, while their writings provide context and theoretical frameworks to view issues of access and racial inequality in music education, they lack the personal lived experiences of racial marginalization that only one who has endured them can tell. Therefore, I had to step outside of music education literature and find resonance and reference with Black scholars who wrote about what it is like to be Black in America.

The annals of Black history revealed to me the writings of James Baldwin (1963), Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008, 2013, 2015), W.E.B. Du Bois (1903, 1935), and Carter G. Woodson (1933). I learned how African Americans such as Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, and Roland Hayes were ostracized from American music education (Gates & Higginbotham, 20014; Goodman, 2013; Hayden, 1989; Simone et al., 2015). I read about the intersections of race, music, culture, and politics (Abrahams, 1992; Kitwana, 2002; Radano, 2003). Think about this, if we know that civilization began in Africa, could it not also be that music likely began there as well? If so, why do our music history classes begin with European polyphony? Perhaps this thought also led Cater G. Woodson in 1933, the author of The Mis-Education of the Negro to write, “in their own as in their mixed schools, Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin . . . and to despise the African” (p.1). These writings, coupled with music education literature, became my source of strength and reminded me what I already knew, but too often forget: I am not alone, and you too, are not alone.

Let me be very clear, for the heart of the matter is here. Deborah Bradley, Connie McKoy, Julia Eklund Koza, Juliet Hess, Elizabeth Gould, Louis Bergonzi, Roberta Lamb, Brent C. Talbot, and my mentors Karin S. Hendricks, Andrè de Quadros, and Kinh. T. Vu, have laid a strong foundation and continue to build the framework. It is now our responsibility to adorn the walls with personal and heartfelt experiences, just as others have done before us.

Though this letter is addressed to minority music teachers and students, it is essential that all who read this understand that the onus is on each and everyone one of us to work together to ensure that future generations of musicers do not live in a world where one’s musical worth and talent is measured by their ability to re-create whiteness. It is my hope that the following rationale for a new way of teaching music will serve to guide as a teaching model for others to eliminate the race gap in American music education (Robinson, submitted). It was Vincent C. Bates who wrote that music education must “grow from the ground up” (2013, p. 86). So let us transform music education by telling our stories and creating music classrooms that challenge and interrogate hegemony. Let us join together in building a field where each and every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, are able to freely realize their own artistic abilities independent of the color of their skin, where they were born, the person they love, or the sex assigned at birth. My name is Deejay Robinson. I see you. I hear you. I, too, am with you. Join me!


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Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1963). My dungeon shook: Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of The Emancipation. The fire next time21. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Bates, V. C. (2013). Music education unplugged. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 12(1), 24-46.

Black Scholar, The. (1973/74, Dec./Jan.). The Black Scholar interviews James Baldwin. The Black Scholar, 5, 33-42. Reprinted in Standley, F. L., & Pratt, L. H. (1989). Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi.

Bradley, D. (2006). Music education, multiculturalism, and anti-racism – can we talk? Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 5(2), 2-30.

____. (2015). Hidden in plain sight: Race and racism in music education. In Benedict, C., Schmidt, P. K., Spruce, G., & Woodford, P. (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp.190-203). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bradley, D., Golner, R., & Hanson, S. (2007). Unlearning whiteness: Rethinking race issues in graduate music education. Music Education Research, 9(2), p. 293-304. doi: 10.1080/14613800701384516

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Foster, M. (1997). Black teachers on teaching. New York, NY: New Press.

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Goodman, J. (2013). Paul Robeson: A watched man. New York, NY: Verso.

Hayden, R. (1989). Singing for all people: Roland Hayes a biography. Corey & Lucas Publications.

Hess, J. (2013). Performing tolerance and curriculum: The politics of self-congratulation, identity formation, and pedagogy in world music education. Philosophy of Music Education, 21(1), 66-91.

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____. (2015). Decolonizing music education: Moving beyond tokenism. International Journal of Music Education, 33(3), 36-347. doi: 0255761415581283.

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Robinson, D. W. [Deejay]. (2016, May 6). Earlier today, Michael Butera, the CEO of #NAfME, the National Association of Music Education said “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field (music education).” Mr. Butera believes this is because, music theory is too difficult for [Facebook status update]. Retrieved from

Robinson, D. W. (2016). A labor of love: A rational and music curriculum for a more just and equal world. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Minority Music Teachers

  1. Great letter, Deejay. I especially liked “It is now our responsibility to adorn the walls with personal and heartfelt experiences, just as others have done before us.” So true.

  2. Thank you, Terry! I focused on the Black/White dichotomy because it is one of the most prevalent and troubling forms of race relations in America. However, I think it is important for other demographics to write their stories as well. What are the lived experiences of Arab and Muslim students and teachers? What about Asians? What about rural music teaching and learning? It is essential to acknowledge and work toward ameliorating the Black and White power dynamic. Yet, we must also hear from those who become further silenced and pushed to the margins by traditional labels of Black and White.

  3. I agree, DeeJay, that the traditional labels of Black and White limit conversations and sometimes restrict our understandings of the multitude of racisms and their ability to morph as situations change. It is easy to get wrapped up in the specificity of labels like Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, which tend to divert the conversations to concerns about religion without recognition that it is all racism. A similar situation occurs on the terrain of language, as immigrants to the U.S. and Canada can attest. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns in this forum.

  4. Deejay, thanks for your call to action. I appreciate your willingness to speak (with your unique voice) in such a vulnerable way. Your letter provokes several ongoing wonderings for me: I wonder what the music education classrooms you envision look like in practice; I wonder how we rise from the rhetoric of inclusion to realize this ideal; I wonder how those who influence pre-service and in-service teachers better equip them for this type of work; I wonder how those who control the gate to Schools of Music/Teacher Certification Programs (not usually music educators) contribute to this change.; I wonder how we convince all constituencies to value this type of change; I wonder if the time for evolution has passed and calls to action like Deejay’s require a mass revolution at every context of the music education profession – simultaneously.

  5. Thank you Amberlynn and Darrin.

    Darrin you raise really great and important questions. My second grade curriculum is currently in review. It is my hope that the curriculum will serve as a rationale and a model for making music teaching and learning more just and equal. I offer artifacts, sample lesson plans, and implications for both K-12 teachers, university professors, and our executive leaders.

    Most Americans- music teachers included- believe that racism is a thing of the past, only reveals itself in the most extremity of cases, or individual expressions of bigotry. Michelle Alexander (2012) wrote, “racial schemas operate not only as a part of conscious, rational deliberations, but also automatically-without conscious awareness or intent.” (p. 36).

    Music is a social activity and music education is a system of teaching and learning music (Koza, 2006; Myers, 2007; Regelski, 2006; Small, 1995). Therefore, music education is a social system that is not immune to institutional racism. In a professional field that is 86.02% White (Elpus, 2015), it is not unlikely that many teachers are unaware and blinded by race because they do not have to see it. Here wherein lies the problem, racism in music education cannot be viewed only as individual acts of bigotry, but must be understood and analyzed as a deliberate, and sometimes invisible structure, that is intricately intertwined in America and its institutions.

  6. Thank you for the honest message. I think about how you chose to “step outside of music education literature and find resonance and reference with Black scholars who wrote about what it is like to be Black in America.” Just as Music Education history dominates in White vernacular and pedagogies, still, listening to what students “of color,” WANT out of their music education and NEED from education exists but is scarce. Students are expressing themselves about what it’s “like to be Black in America” through their art form, music, dance, poetry, etc…But many are subjected to explore theses ‘truths” in out of school places. Music education has to open space for these creativities to flourish, for self expression to be allowed in critical awareness.

    Students are eager and willing to express their critical consciousness through their art form. Many community organizations support these efforts like Spoken Word , Hip Hop, Jazz, and Afro Punk events. This is not to say that Black students do not want to explore Historically created white musical genres such as classical and traditional band paradigms, but the critical conciousness of “What it’s like to be Black in America” can be expressed in original music, self expressed music, and self created music, Because of this, music education can not continue to uphold a lack of acceptance and tolerance for self expressive forms by Black young leaders.

    Your frustration is apparent and in my humble opinion, it’s important you express at this time. It’s also important to acknowledge that yes we can talk about Asian experience, Native American and many others with just as much truths of marginalizations with different experiences, yet the racial injust so apparent against Black youth in the United States right now can not be ignored, silenced or watered down to a ‘multi-cultural’ awareness.

    Thank you, for your post.

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