Decolonise the Curriculum – Music

This guest blog comes from Jimmy Rotherham.

I am currently in the process of organising an online conference on this subject and do hope you can join myself and some incredible, award-winning contributors including Nitin Sawhney (nitinsawhney.com) Pran Patel (theteacherist.com) Michelle McCauley (Decolonizingthemusicroom.com) and Nate Holder (nateholdermusic.com) on 13th May at 3.00 (watch this space)

In this blog, I wanted to outline my motivations for organising such a conference, some of the topics covered and some thoughts from some of our fantastic speakers.


A few years ago, I attended a conference for Primary school music specialists. A superb gospel choir came to perform for us, and two things really struck me. The first thing was seeing committed atheists, bouncing around the concert and heartily singing about how much they loved Jesus! The remarkable power of music to bring diverse people together.
However, I became aware of something else that day, which I really couldn’t believe. Almost everyone in the audience attending the conference was white, and the choir had only one white member. I checked the date and the time. It was indeed Britain in 2017, rather than Alabama in the 1930s. In a multicultural society like Britain, how on Earth did this come to pass?
I am good friends with the organisers, and they are not only very liberal but also very welcoming and inclusive to everyone. Does the fault lie with them? I don’t think so. Unlike 1930s Alabama, there were no signs saying “whites only”. No overt racism. It was clear that it was something more insidious and structural.


A few weeks later, I spoke at a very high profile music education event, sharing my work at Feversham, working with a 98% EAL intake, mostly from a Pakistani/Bangladeshi background. After my talk, two Asian teachers approached me. One was in tears, overjoyed to see BAME children receiving such a thorough music education, and we discussed how sorely under-represented BAME voices are in the sector. I was curious – just how many primary music specialists come from such a background?I know that they are many people from BAME backgrounds working in secondary schools as music teachers or peripatetic instrumental teachers. There are also many in primary schools who have been appointed “music co-ordinator” – however, they were not “music specialists” and define themselves as “non-musicians” – they were selected on a short-straw-drawing basis – perhaps for their management/organisation skills. They have not been trained as musicians, nor as music teachers. I put a call out on Twitter to see if there were any music specialists from BAME backgrounds working in primary schools. The results were interesting. I discovered two BAME music specialists this way – despairingly, they were the same two teachers who had approached me, in tears after my talk!
This was not exactly a scientific study. I would love to be wrong about this. There clearly must be more than the two people I could find. However, it became clear to me that BAME educators are sorely under-represented in my niche professional sector. The workforce of music teachers in secondary schools seems to be more diverse, but not much more.

My school happened to be putting on a conference for BAME leaders in education, so I tagged along, and over lunch spoke to attendees about their experiences in music education. Lots of them had had a fantastic experience of music education, but it became clear that this was happening outside of their school life. Most felt like music in schools was “not for them”, and they were grateful to be able to fill those gaps by attending churches to receive their musical education.

Around a year after this, after a year of several keynote talks, mostly to exclusively white audiences, I was asked to do a presentation on the importance of teaching about “black” music for “Black History Month”. I did not feel entirely comfortable with this – surely this is not a job for a white guy from Leeds? However, it became clear that the organisers had had the same problem as me – they were completely unable to find any BAME primary music specialists! So, on this understanding, I agreed to do the talk. I did feel very “white” at that point, and as the audience were health care professionals rather than music teachers, for once my audience was diverse.

I was relieved that the talk was well received. The audience didn’t care that I was a white guy talking about all this, they were just grateful that the issues were being discussed at all. Also, I was in no way disingenuous. Whilst I love the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy in particular (I’m a Romantic at heart) my musical heroes are mostly black – Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix – or Asian – Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, Ravi Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Karsh Kale. I would listen rapturously to all this stuff, trying to emulate the wonderful sounds from the privacy of my bedroom. Meanwhile, my friends (who were all white, in the Lincolnshire market town I grew up in) listened to Coldplay, Travis, Blur, Oasis – all quality acts but they just didn’t move me in the same way.

The only band I could find to play in was a punk band – over whose driving thrash I would interweave elaborate and ornate piano parts. The NME described my playing as “ironic”. It wasn’t meant to be – I was just a square peg in a round hole. Meanwhile, my piano teacher discouraged me from pursuing jazz and improvisatory work. It just wasn’t needed for the ABRSM classical piano exams I was jumping through. So I have some sympathy with musical outsiders and with the BAME leaders who felt that formal music education “wasn’t for them”. I was staggered when I discovered you could actually study jazz as a degree.

So I had my formal education and my informal musical education. There are many accounts of how, in the days of US Slavery, a parallel musical community emerged amongst the slave population. According to David Metzer,

Christianitytoday.com explains how “Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins…Slaves forbidden by masters to attend church or, in some cases, even to pray, risked floggings to attend secret gatherings to worship God.


His own experience of the “invisible institution” was recalled by former slave Wash Wilson:


“When de n**gers go round singin’ ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ dat mean dere gwine be a’ ligious meetin’ dat night. De masters … didn’t like dem’ ligious meetin’s so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”

This was the birth of jazz and popular music as we know it today. Perhaps to call this “Black Music” is an over-simplification. Although rooted in the music of slavery, it was a fusion of a range of cultures; the driving rhythms and expressive vocalisations of African communities, the Western classical and Gallic influence of French colonists, songs of slavery and marching music.. The first jazz record, “Livery Stable” was in fact created by Sicilian band leaders whose parents immigrated because of the fruit trade. It’s interesting to compare the music of two giants of this era the “Louis” – Armstrong and Prima. Despite sharing a first name, distinctive gravelly voices and often producing almost identical sounding music, Prima was a white man born to Sicilian parents whilst Armstrong spent his youth in poverty in a tough black neighbourhood known as “The Battlefield”. Meanwhile, The New Orleans musician Jelly Roll Morton considered the Cuban influence of the tresillo/habanera rhythms (which he called the “Spanish tinge”) to be an essential ingredient of jazz. For me, this is music at its best – inclusive, vibrant and alive in the community, bringing together the participants to create art which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Almost all of this can be heard in one piece of music – Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”. Quotation of a traditional American hymn, “The Holy City” suggests hope for racial equality. The major key original is transformed into a minor key, and features the kind of elaborations and expressions outlined above by Metzer. The second section uses the more “Western” sounding harmony, before returning to a trumpet solo with further elaborations based on what Ellington called his “Jungle Sound”. If the opening contained grains of hope for a positive future for racial equality, this is thrown into sharp contrast by the quotation of Chopin’s Funeral March as the finale to the piece.


In contrast to the “melting-pot” of New Orleans, the history of classical music is mostly one of exclusion . According to James Doeser, in the US,
“the proportion of non-white musicians represented in the orchestra workforce – and of African American and Hispanic / Latino musicians in particular – remains extremely low. The wider orchestra field – conductors, executives, staff, and board members – also remains predominantly white. In some cases, such as among conductors, there are indications of positive change; in others, there is an absence of change”.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a phenomenal musician who has given hope to many BAME musicians interested in pursuing a career in classical music. An exceptional cellist, he won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 and last month was honoured with “Best Classical Artist” at the Global Awards 2020. However, his upbringing was far from a typical experience for black British youth. Being born to a financially secure middle-class family (dad is a luxury hotel business manager, mum is a university lecturer) inevitably gave him some advantages. However, this was not the key factor in his success. His parents went out of their way to provide every musical opportunity for him as a child, giving up their weekends and travelling hundreds of miles to transport their children from one musical opportunity to another. He also was very fortunate to have an incredible music department in the state school he attended, which his family speak fondly of. It’s heartbreaking to hear his mother, Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, talk about how that school music programme no longer exists, hoisting up the drawbridge to cut off such opportunities for the next generation. Sheku donated £3,000 to the school so that children following in his footsteps could continue cello lessons. This is symptomatic of a wider problem which affects all music in the UK – an education system which is seeing music education decline so steeply that people from all walks of life are affected. Discussing issues like “decolonisation” and “inclusivity” are something of a moot point if a music programme doesn’t even exist in a school! We should also consider what may have happened if he had been pushed away from classical music based on racial assumptions.

The issue of ethnic diversity in the music curriculum gained publicity in the Stormzy vs Mozart debate which raged on social media. Unfortunately, I found most of the discussions to be somewhat reductive on a number of fronts. Firstly, Stormzy is not representative of all non-Western Classical music (and nor is Mozart fully representative of the richness of classical music). I often read the debates whilst contemplating what any of this meant to the Muslim Pakistani/Bangladeshi community I serve. I was also a baffled onlooker throughout all the binary debates on Twitter – “knowledge vs skills” “child vs teacher led” “exploration/discovery learning vs direct instruction” – I’ve always tried to have my cake and eat it by including all of these in my pedagogy. I was equally baffled by people at either end of the debate who were advocating for NO classical music or ONLY classical music to be included in the curriculum. Like food, I think we need a balanced and varied diet. When I pointed out that I would be appalled by a school only offering classical music, a leading music education academic responded with this comment:

I was blown away by this statement. It’s a big insult to the majority of musicians from around the world who are “non-classical” musicians, but sadly typical of the elitism of many in the classical music world. You may not like Miles Davis, but to call him a “cheeseburger” is an insult to the majority of musicians from around the world. However, thankfully, I don’t think such attitudes are prevalent amongst music educators.

Conversely, a curriculum which would deny opportunities in classical music to children is equally problematic. I know of schools which teach Nasheeds to Muslim children but give them no opportunity to learn about the great classical composers.

As outlined previously, primary music education is dominated by white people (look at the ethnic/social diversity of the DfE’s Model Music Curriculum panel which I was a part of as a prime example of this). However, that is not to say that most music teachers are somehow racist, insensitive or disinterested in cultural diversity. Quite the opposite is true. Thankfully, we rarely see pieces like this, which were common in my youth, being part of the curriculum:

n fact, we see the sheet music market now making real efforts to be diverse – a quick Google of “multicultural songs” bring 11,000,000 results. However, I would argue that a “diverse” and “multicultural” curriculum does not go far enough. If the classical/traditional British folk music is enhanced with songs from Ghana and South America, what relevance does that have to British Pakistani children? Including a song from Mali in your curriculum is all fine and well, but if the African child in your class is from Kenya, will it speak to their cultural roots?

The first school I worked in (many moons ago) had a large intake of British Pakistani children, and were given a rich diet of music including Bollywood and Bhangra. Whilst both genres are hugely popular in Pakistan, a minority of British Muslims see music as being “haram”. At Feversham, we have found that such families are more than happy to attend Nasheed concerts at school – they either see this genre as being a halal form of music, or don’t consider it to be “Music” as such, in the same way that the call to prayer is not considered to be “singing”.

In his talk on “Decolonising the Music” Curriculum, Nate Holder looks at the AQA GCSE syllabus. At the top of the repertoire list are classical orchestral works by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. These composers are given a specific name, and a specific ensemble – there is nuance, recognising that a piece written for a string quartet is a different subgenre to a symphonic piece. Further down the list we have “Fusion music incorporating African and/or Caribbean music”. Not only is African and Caribbean music conflated, but “we know that the Caribbean consists of 13 different countries and territories, each island with its own unique way of expressing itself through music. When we think of Africa being comprised of 54 different countries, each country with many different peoples and tribes, to call something’ African music” is kind of strange.” We see “African Drumming” groups in UK education all the time. How often do we see someone running a “European String Group”? We don’t do that because we are very specific. Also, when we explore the choices of “World Music” in our syllabi, the popular genres, from Indonesian Gamelan to Gambian drumming are the products of former colonies.

OFSTED and the DfE often speak of “Cultural Capital” as something we as teachers must provide for children. This is fraught with issues which could have a negative impact on society. The term “Cultural Capital” was coined by Bourdieu, who argued that the primary function of education is to sustain the culture and privilege of the dominant groups in society. This is similar to Althusser’s view that schools act as “ideological state apparati” – embedding dominant ideologies in the minds of children. Given that Bordieu saw cultural capital as being rooted in the arts, it is perhaps surprising that the arts are not seen as a core element of education, despite great thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Biesta arguing the case.

Given that the DfE’s interpretation of cultural capital is closer to Hirsch’s model of “Cultural Literacy” than Neo-Marxist models, this means children are seen as being mostly devoid of cultural capital, and our role as educators is to “civilise” society by teaching them, in Arnold’s phrase, “The best of what has been thought and said”. Given that history has largely been written by white men, this brings up the question – “thought and said by whom?”. And how is “the best” defined (it may surprise many people that the best selling poet in America is not Robert Frost or Walt Whitman, but the Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi) The idea that children are cultural blank slates which need to be filled with the right kind of knowledge can be racially problematic if we see our children as uncultured, “savage” minds which need to be civilised. It is also problematic when viewed through the prism of critical race theory – the idea that “white ideology, values and interests are at the centre of all aspects of culture and policy”

Holder makes the point that very few individuals are actively racist and seeking to propagate “white ideology”. This isn’t about individuals, but structural oppression.

This is one of the things which makes challenging assumptions a difficult task. As a white man who makes the effort to be inclusive of other cultures, it can be upsetting to be challenged in this way., leading to denial and defensiveness (“some of my best friends are black”). However, whilst not being a racist individual, I have committed racist acts, albeit in ignorant good faith. For example, until recently, I was using the songs “Canoe Song” and “Land of the Silver Birch” in my repertoire. I thought they were perfect for my curriculum – “multicultural” songs with great pedagogical value. It took a plea from a Native American, Michelle McCauley, for me to realise that these songs actually reinforce racial and colonial thinking.

“[These songs] are not in any way representative of Native tribal music. These songs do not follow any type of drum beat or use melodies that are found in Native tribal music today and are an example of a lack of quality music that exists for music educators to use. As a Native American music educator myself, I cringed the first time I heard these songs because I know the stereotypes they affirm, and because I know that there are better examples of partner songs that do not further stereotype music that only reinforces ignorance of a mischaracterised culture.”

When I put these points to white British educators, some become very defensive, keen not be seen as the slightest bit racist, or worse, seeing it as “political correctness gone mad” It takes humility and understanding to begin to redress the imbalances. Pran Patel, author of the website “Decolonising the Curriculum” said something which really stuck with me. He described himself as a “white supremacist”. I f a person of colour can accept his role in reinforcing the racial status quo then it should be easy for me to.

We are fortunate to live in a connected world. I can check the meaning or pronunciation of a Kenyan song with someone who is actually from Kenya by contacting them online – not so easy back when I was growing up in that internet-free Lincolnshire market town. As McCauley states

“Learning about our music in a way that is authentic, rather than continuing to propagate stereotypes and further spread misinformation, is an integral part of being a culturally responsive and respectful music educator. It’s also easier than it’s ever been”

I’m in the wonderful position of having lots of pupils from BAME backgrounds who harbour ambitions to become music teachers. Whilst it’s almost inevitable that many will grow up wanted to do something else instead. However, I hope that if they do decide to pursue another career, it will be a positive choice for them, rather than them coming to the realisation that this is a white man’s game, and furthering their music education “isn’t for them”.

Ultimately, if we are going to create an environment of inclusion and equality in the music room. Only by getting to the heart of such cultural issues can we hope to fully engage BAME communities – it takes, empathy, flexibility and communication. It will also take some discussion, and giving voice to the marginalised. This is what I am hoping to stimulate in organising the conference. If you’ve read this far (and if you came to this site in the first place), it is clearly a topic which matters to you. I do hope you can join us on 13th May.

Jimmy Rotheram was shortlisted for the Varkey Foundation’s $1m Global Teacher Prize in 2019, a year which also saw him awarded a prize from the Royal College of Nursing for his BAME inclusive music programme at Feversham Primary Academy. He is on the Education Advisory Board for the Benedetti Foundation and advised on the DfES’s Model Music Curriculum Panel. His keynote talks and workshops have included presentations to the Royal Philharmonic Society andThe Music Education Council.

Further watching and reading check out the work of Michelle https://tinyurl.com/yaafoung Nate – https://tinyurl.com/y8rh43pc

If you haven’e seen my Tedx that’s here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JjRQTuzqTU.

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