My Recollections of Racism
My name is Felix Jarrar, and I am a composer/pianist based in Brooklyn. In light of recent events of police brutality and #blacklivesmatter protests, I felt I needed to share my story with the music community. Many of my colleagues and friends have spoken out already against rampant white supremacism in classical music. They’ve given me the courage to speak up and tell my own story.
I was raised by two proud immigrants in Fairfield, Connecticut. My mom was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and my late father was born in the northern West Bank of Palestine and grew up in Jordan. Their diverse experience and ancestry left their mark on me in so many ways. My parents, despite their best efforts, could not protect my sister and me from racist encounters.
One of my childhood memories was a trip to the bank with my mom when I was five. As we were leaving, an angry (white) woman yelled, “N**ger!” and drove off. And later, as a fourth-grader at Catholic school, I did not know how to mark my ethnicity for a standardized test when the only choices for race were ‘white’ and ‘black.’ The teacher, another white woman, decided to make the class vote to decide my race for me.
These traumas, a few of many, affected the way that I, as a brown person, approach society, conversation, politics, my queer identity, and my musical career. Music is my life’s great passion and matches my own diverse background. The fusion of different elements - melody, rhythm, structure, harmony, and counterpoint - into a whole greater than the sum of its parts drew me to classical music in the first place. I found a creative outlet with elements that mirrored my own eclectic identity. Through my career as a pianist and composer, I thought people would understand me as a queer person of color and see music the way I did. However, that’s not how I was treated.
In August 2017, I asked a tenor to sing the aria "Take this Kiss" from my opera The Fall of the House of Usher (based on the eponymous short story of Edgar Allan Poe). In this aria, the Friend expresses his feelings for Roderick through the text, which I adapted from Poe’s poem "Dream within a dream." It is a deeply important piece for me, not just because it defines and humanizes the character of the Friend. The inspiration for the aria drew on my own personal struggle with unrequited love and coming out as a gay man, as an undergraduate in Marlboro College. The opera, and this aria specifically, was my process of coming out to the world.
This tenor agreed to sing it in a concert at the Cornelia Street Cafe, a venue I booked as a graduate student at Brooklyn College. Unfortunately, the tenor emailed me expressing his discomfort at performing the work because his character was gay. He thought I misread what Poe had written and, as a result of my own homosexuality, misconstrued the story. This interaction left me on the verge of tears. He decided not to sing the showcase and refused to accept my perspective, one fueled by the pain I’ve experienced as an out and proud gay man of color. While I was able to overcome this setback and engage another singer for the concert, it was the first of many personal scars that left my heartbroken.
In 2018, my collaborative partner mezzo-soprano Allison Gish and I participated in a masterclass as finalists in a prestigious art song competition in Manhattan. We planned to perform Chansons de Bilitis by Claude Debussy, a work full of delicate and wondrous beauties. We prepared the second song, La chevelure, for a world-famous clinician and renowned French diction coach. As soon as we came to the stage for the masterclass, the first thing he said to me was, “Do you speak English?” He then tried to mansplain the girl’s motivations in La chevelure to Allison while violently clapping a quarter note beat to me to indicate the tempo he wanted. He did not communicate with words as to what his intentions were because he did not believe I could speak English. The immense sadness I felt led me to completely shut down for the competition. I would choke on my words whenever clinicians came to me to ask me questions about what I was playing in the accompaniment for the rest of the contest. It sent me into a deep depression.
Due to the recent media attention for Black Lives Matter and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, many musical organizations and artists have shown solidarity. I have seen beautiful and moving profiles of black artists with the hashtag #amplifymelanatedvoices and emotionally charged shoutouts to POC artists. While, as a brown person, I am not hurting in the same way black folks are hurting, I feel it’s more important than ever for all POCs in classical music to share the experiences and stories that shaped us to become the warriors we are. For, in order to survive this world without white privilege, you have to fight to make art like your life depends on it.
25-year-old Felix Jarrar is a composer/pianist whose output of approximately 95 works includes 8 operas, over 80 art songs, 2 string quartets, and a cantata. Follow his work at www.felixjarrarmusic.com.