When NMAAM opens Labor Day Weekend, it will be the first of its kind museum to explore the complete history of African American music. With exhibits featuring artifacts and interactive experiences that take visitors as far back as the pre-Emancipation era and right up to today, guests will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to trace the birth and evolution of every genre of popular music, and connect the dots between the historical moments and movements and the artists, albums, and songs that shaped the American soundtrack.

For Women’s History Month, NMAAM is celebrating Black women who’ve made an impact on music with our first-ever Hear Me Roar! campaign. Be they singers, songwriters, musicians, or music industry executives, we’re shining the spotlight on Black women’s myriad creative contributions to music and culture. Last week, it was all about Black women in rock music. This week, we’re shifting gears a bit to talk about Black women in classical music.

Classical music?

Yes, classical music. While classical music traditions may not derive from the African American musical experience, Black women vocalists, composers, conductors, and musicians have made their mark in the genre for generations. Coloratura Kathleen Battle, mezzo soprano Denyce Graves, and the late Jessye Norman have wowed audiences the world over with their ground-breaking operatic performances; Tony Award-winning lyric soprano Audra McDonald seamlessly transitions from portraying Gershwin’s Bess on stage to embodying Lady Day herself on screen. Artists such as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Alicia Keys translated their classical training into soul, R&B, and pop; and many of the beloved classically-trained music teachers in our communities bring their unique sensibilities to gospel, jazz, and even hip-hop.

Here are just a few of the Black women who’ve broken barriers in classical music.

Nora Holt

Born Lena Douglas in the mid-1880s (her birth year is unconfirmed) in Kansas City, KS (she changed her first name later in life, with Holt being her husband’s last name), composer Nora Holt studied music criticism, composition, and musicology, and was the first African American in the U.S. to earn a Master’s in music composition upon completion of her studies at Chicago Musical College. She co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), an organization devoted to the preservation of African American music, with Henry Grant in 1919. 

Shirley Graham Du Bois

Messner and Anisfield-Wolf Award-winning composer Shirley Graham Du Bois was the first African American to have her compositions commissioned by a major operatic company. The musician, playwright, author, and activist studied music composition at the Sorbonne and later, Oberlin Conservatory of music, where her opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, debuted in 1932. The Indianapolis, IN native served as the director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project under President Roosevelt’s WPA, and continued to produce and curate theatrical experiences for Black artists and audiences. In 1951, she married NAACP co-founder, scholar, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and later emigrated with him to Ghana. 

Carolyn Utz

Bassist Carolyn Utz holds the distinction of being the first African American musician to perform in the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra, predecessor to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Utz became a member of the former in 1944, and played with the orchestra for 30 years. The Ohio native, a graduate of Ohio State University, conducted the Top Teens Orchestra from 1974-1991. 

Mapy and Ezinma

In the early ‘00s, hip-hop artists began incorporating new sounds into their music by including instruments such as the violin. Israeli-born Miri Ben-Ari became one of the most prominent new faces in hip-hop, adding classical flavor to hits by Jay-Z and Kanye West. In more recent years, violinists like Mapy and Ezinma are bringing fresh energy to hip-hop, R&B, and pop. Mapy, aka The Violin Queen, was born in Réunion Island and lives in Paris. With a style that blends hip-hop, soca, and dancehall, Mapy has turned heads performing with Pharrell and opening for Young Thug. Lincoln, NE native Ezinma (affectionately called Classical Bae) cites Beethoven, Billie Holiday, and Parliament among her influences. Having such a diverse musical palate no doubt prepared her to share the stage and the spotlight with the Queen Bee, Beyoncé, and living legend Stevie Wonder.

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