For the past two weeks I’ve been furious, like every Black person, at the face of yet another tragic killing of an unarmed Black man. But, just as easily as I can identify the source of my anger, I can also recognize that I’m tired of being an angry Black man. I’m tired of talking about race, and the fact that I don’t have the option to remove that thought from my mind — an option endlessly available to my white friends and colleagues — only adds to that anger.
This, however, is not the time to weaponize anger. As rapper Killer Mike said in one of the best speeches to come out of this: “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, and organize”. Now is time to think calmly and critically about the culture at hand, about the subtlest mechanisms by which some people in it — who have every right to be here and live here — are nevertheless relegated as the other. That is exactly why I support and believe in every single word that Toronto-based baritone Andrew Adridge has to say about what needs to change in the opera industry, and the performing arts in general.
I’m very grateful for Andrew’s contribution to this episode of REMOTE, and it’s important to me that his contribution follows that same format as other episodes of this series (which is a platform to check in on performing artists during this pandemic). On top of doing that, he shares a nuanced insight to his experience as a Black artist that, I believe, is exactly the point that needs to be made about the topic of race in the performing arts. At the end of the day I just want to feel normal; I don’t want my participation in your organization to be the result of a corporate-mandated diversity portfolio. Andrew expresses this sentiment in better terms, and also speaks about redefining representation and belonging.
Please share it with your friends on social media, with your work colleagues in the arts, your artistic directors and general managers. With all the fury darting back and forth online at the moment, it is doubly important that other perspectives that are able to address current issues and long-term solutions are also included. I want to also thank Ludwig Van Toronto for creating a space to have this conversation.
How have you been coping with this lockdown?
It has been up and down. Working as a singer and in the hospitality industry doesn’t lend to clear assurance of a future right now. I have had conversations with many people trying to process these feelings and have come to the realization that not everything I am feeling needs to be understood right now. I am allowing myself to roll with the punches a little more and giving myself and my mental health the much-needed space to breathe.
What sort of digital initiatives have you been involved in or planning, in lieu of live performance?
Currently, I am still doing recording projects for my church which has given me the perfect outlet for my artistry in regard to singing. I have also done some other recording projects and participated in the digital media lead up to the rebroadcast of Against the Grain Theatre’s Boheme. Other than that, not many singing-focused ventures, but I have been writing and it’s been comforting.
Any specific books, films, or TV on the go?
James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk has been keeping me company. I have been watching some TV but most of my screen time has been dedicated to playing Call of Duty if I’m being honest.
With everything that’s going on in North America in regard to race and #BlackLivesMatter, what are some of the changes you’d like to see in the performing arts community in Toronto when it comes racial biases and problems with inclusivity?
The trouble with this conversation in Canada is that we live in a country that for all its greatness, has a pretty rough time acknowledging its shortcomings. The big one is its inability to acknowledge that the same systemic issues that are blatant waves in America are also the undercurrent here. Perhaps this is formed from a fear that Canada will lose its lustre, but it is exactly what needs to happen in order to see the change we have been seeking with our hashtags and black squares these past days. I have often pondered on my own reality as a young Black opera singer and I have realized that the way the industry is currently structured, I have no business hoping to be in it. I have never seen a Black artist in Canada at an attainable level. I didn’t know there were Black opera singers until I had at least three years of voice training. I didn’t even see another Black singer on a stage until I was in my second year of undergrad. The fact that this is my reality and that my white colleagues don’t even need to think about this is a problem.
What can be done? Here is a launching point:
The working definition of representation is flawed. It seems that, in Canada, in the desire for representation, the hosting of a Black artist in a gallery once every couple years or enlisting an A-list star to perform a lead role suffices. I would like to brand this form of representation as “Performance Representation”. This kind of representation is more of a tokenization than it is of pure intent, as if there is a quota that can be met certifying you as a progressive organization. The thing that proves this form of representation is flawed, is that it does not help the underrepresented individual see themselves in that role. Quite the opposite in fact; it instills a belief that to succeed means you must be at the top, or you do not have a place in the industry at all. This notion sows seeds of fear in the underrepresented individual that they will never be enough to succeed, enough to “make it”, enough to truly belong.
“Authentic Representation” is the antithesis to this. It is achieved when that underrepresented person can actualize a path to belonging. By that person seeing themselves not only in the lead role but in every vein of that industry. This doesn’t mean that you only hire Black people, but it does mean that you make a concerted effort to ensure that your company reflects a multiracial demographic from the ground up. It means that your organization gets to a point where no one looks at a Black person as an outsider, and where hiring a Black person can be just as normal as hiring a white person. This kind of representation inspires future generations to learn that they can work at any level of art, which in turn inspires perseverance and dedication to that art. It instills the knowledge that yes, doing the work could result in a career as an A-list star. However, knowing that is not the only option inspires the artist from a human perspective not just an industry-based one.
Another barrier to the success of Black folks in opera that needs to be addressed is Blackface. It must be clear; the objectification of Black bodies needs to be done away with entirely. There isn’t room for debate. If an artist steps onto stage in a colour that is in no way reflective of the colour they leave the dressing room in at the end of the night, it is wrong and nothing more. I bet there is a person of that colour that could have done it instead.
Shying away from conversations about race will only perpetuate the inauthenticity of your representation. There is a problem with race in Canada. There is a problem with race in your arts organization because there is a problem in Canada. What is happening in the United States and in Canada isn’t just a law enforcement issue. It speaks to a much larger global issue that it is time we face head on. If we continue to operate under the assumption that there is not a greater systemic issue to blame for a history of misrepresentation of Black people on stage, then we will never reach a reality where Black will feel as neutral as white.