Ep. 61: The moral, artistic, and economic power of color in classical music; with Afa Dworkin

Sphinx Virtuosi at New World Center; Photo by Scott Jackson

September 22, 2020

Intentional gate-keeping has taken place throughout history to keep classical music white. Afa Dworkin discusses the implications of the genre’s color spectrum from a moral, artistic, and economic perspective.

Afa Dworkin; photo by Kevin Kennedy


Joining me today from the great state of Michigan is Sphinx Organization President and Artistic Director Afa Dworkin. Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in Violin Performance from the University of Michigan School of Music, where she is now a lecturer. Her career as a performer has taken her to Russia, Switzerland, Austria, and the US. Ms. Dworkin is a recipient of Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award, and has been named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Influencers in the nation and Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40.


  • Thanks to a tweet by listener Anita Holford, I recently came across a flow chart created by Portia Maultsby that depicts The Evolution of African American Music. And this chart shows how so many of our musical genres had their origins in African music, including jazz, blues, rock, soul, rap, hip hop, gospel, swing and other band music. And it really caught my attention, because when I took college music classes, I don’t remember hearing much at all about African music or composers of color, other than a little paragraph about Louis Armstrong – or a chapter specifically about world, or ethnic, music. And if we talk more specifically about classical music, we hear even less about composers of color – or women composers, but that’s a topic for another day!
    • (UPDATE 2/12/21:) Thanks to Dr. Portia Maultsby for sending me the most recent, updated version of her diagram! Thanks for also letting me know that this diagram is now available on a T-shirt by a DJ Collective in Los Angeles.
    • (UPDATE 4/3/22:) Thanks to Dr. Portia Maultsby for sending me the redesigned, interactive timeline based on her work!
      Created by Carnegie Hall, it explores the evolution of African American musical genres spanning the past 400 years and covers over 50 African American musical genres and styles ranging from spirituals and ragtime to jazz and hip-hop.
  • I was really intrigued when I recently came across an organization I wasn’t familiar with, called the Sphinx Organization. Sphinx is the leading advocate for transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts worldwide.
  • I recently listened to an episode of the podcast “How Music Does That,” by Dale McGowan, entitled “As White as Classical: Classical music isn’t that white by accident – and it can’t afford to stay that way.” McGowan is a professor, and this was an eye-opening episode (for me) that explored the intentional gate-keeping that took place throughout history to keep classical music white. This involved, among other things, theater and music critics admitting to meetings where they voted to pan a performance solely because “the colored boy had gone far enough” or “we were only going to let so many negroes through.” Black music and composers were kept out of history books. And the list goes on.
  • Afa gives us a brief overview of the history of the whiteness of specifically classical music, and also her perspective on where we are today as it relates to the color of the classical music world.
  • Sphinx is all about “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”
  • “As we’re figuring out why classical music is on life support, it’s worth noticing: the tradition in need of saving isn’t the one with black roots. That side of the musical world is doing just fine. It’s the one that worked so hard to stay white. That’s the one that needs help.” – Dale McGowan, “As White as Classical
  • Afa discusses purposeful exclusion of color she observes within the classical music world.

Connect/Other Resources


Afa shares with us the “Sizzle Reel” from Delights and Dances, by Michael Abels, one of the greatest cinematic music icons of today.  This has become Sphinx’s soundtrack.

Closing Words

Wow. What incredible music and playing – my forearms and hands are tired just listening to that, and I’m really reminded of the similarities between athletes and musicians!

Thank you so much to Afa for sharing with us today, and for all that she and the Sphinx Organization do to enhance lives with music. I really appreciated her input and her practical recommendations.

A shoutout today goes to listener Mary Beth Millner for a great idea she posted on social media related to Ep. 59 How does MUSIC learning impact OTHER learning? This episode featured Dr. Anita Collins, whose new book was released September 1. The book is called, “The Music Advantage: How learning music helps your child’s brain and wellbeing,” and it discusses the research on music learning’s foundational relationship to other learning, including reading. Mary Beth commented that this book “will become my new baby shower gift!” GREAT idea! I am stealing this idea and it’s already been added to my list of gift idea.

Well, fall is well underway – all the schools in my area are back in session, leaves are starting to turn color here in Minnesota, and there is a chill in the air. I absolutely LOVE this time of year, and I’m including some links in today’s show notes for previous episodes that are evergreen and especially applicable this time of year:

Here at Enhance Life with Music, we take a look at the benefits of music and its impact on our everyday lives through the lens of science, medicine, sports, education, entertainment, business, service, and history. If there’s a topic you’d like to hear us talk about, please let me know. You can connect with me on social media, email, or my website.

Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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