5 Questions to Mansi Shah (Colors of Classical Music)

Data scientist and flutist Mansi Shah is the creator and curator of Colors of Classical Music. Founded in 2020, the platform provides a space for BIPOC musicians to share how they are thriving in a field that has largely been designed to suppress their voices and artistry. The Instagram page has featured 90 BIPOC artists, gained nearly five thousand followers, and is continuing to grow in other ways. Currently, Colors of Classical Music and Newark Symphony Hall are collaborating on projects and initiatives to provide communities with the necessary support and opportunities to create systemic change in classical music. 

You created Colors of Classical Music in July 2020. Why did you create the platform during that time, and what were your initial expectations for curating the page?

While the platform was launched against the backdrop of the heightened racial violence last summer, Colors of Classical Music was also the result of a build-up of my feelings and experiences as a classical musician that I felt could no longer be ignored. People don’t talk enough about how difficult it is to “make it” as a classical musician of color. From an early age, we’re steeped in a single-sided false narrative that this music is only composed and played for and by white people. After we graduate, we’re primarily left on our own to seek out the people and spaces that make us feel welcome and with whom we can foster rich musical and professional relationships. I’ve continuously felt a disconnect between this music that I love and my existence in this community as a woman of color.

I wasn’t satisfied with this whitewashed narrative and wanted to connect with other musicians of color who were thriving on their own terms. I kept waiting, hoping that one day I would find the community I always wanted. In 2019, I was lucky to connect and perform with the Metro Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra (MAP) in southwest Atlanta and the diverse musicians there. Abigail Popwell, MAP’s music director, created an open environment that was welcoming to folks from all walks of life–I had found my musical home!

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I left Atlanta in early 2020. But my experience with MAP got me thinking–the communities I always longed for were out there; I just had to seek them out!

I drafted the page in the spring of 2020, and for a few months, it sat there, unpublished. Last summer’s coronavirus-induced isolation gave me time to think, and self-doubt crept in as I wondered if I was alone in these feelings. Would anyone else read these stories? My outrage from the growing racial violence last summer was ultimately the impetus to launch the page. I decided that even if nobody else saw it, I would create the musical community that I’d always wanted to see.

Colors of Classical Music features: Nirmala Rajasekar, Tahirah Whittington, Melissa Sondhi, Danielle Sum, and Samina Aslam

Colors of Classical Music features: Nirmala Rajasekar, Tahirah Whittington, Melissa Sondhi, Danielle Sum, and Samina Aslam

What are some of the challenges that come with creating a public digital space that centers the voices of BIPOC artists in classical music?

One of the biggest challenges is how a digital space such as Colors of Classical Music can be used to build real-life communities, encourage dialogue, and enact lasting change.

I’m grateful that social media allows for this digital, quasi-public space where conversations that center artists of color in classical music can be had openly. This platform serves as a forum where artists of color can connect with and draw inspiration from one another, and where allies can learn more about the simultaneous shared threads and individual experiences in our collective journeys.

My mission is for Colors of Classical Music to invoke a sense of genuine curiosity, dialogue, and willingness to learn from new perspectives, especially from those who may hold different views. There is a fine line between spaces that foster growth and learning, and the polarizing toxicity that often plagues comment sections and encourages erasure, where no voices end up heard. Social media algorithms often facilitate the creation of these echo chambers. However, it is my intention with this platform that folks bring these stories and discussions into their own homes, schools, ensembles, and organizations, and reflect on how they can support artists of color in the long term.

How could a platform such Colors of Classical Music have been valuable to you as a young musician?

There is certainly something to be said about the importance of visual, visible representation, especially for children. Growing up, I never dreamed that someone who looked like me could perform on the world’s most significant stages and ensembles because the people I saw in these roles were so often white males. Music doesn’t fit into the career path culturally expected of me as an Indian-American. Not seeing many other South Asians in the arts made it difficult to voice my passion for music beyond a “hobby.” Thankfully, I was fortunate, at a young age, to find a role model in my first flute teacher and mentor who shared my South Asian identity.

A resource like Colors of Classical Music would have helped validate and emphasize the importance of taking pride in my own musical cultures and their impact on my understanding of music as a whole. I didn’t learn about classical music until middle school–my exposure to music until then was largely through religious songs, Indian classical dance, Gujarati folk songs, and Bollywood. As I started learning about the so-called “Western canon,” I treated the music I grew up listening to with less importance because it didn’t fit into my formalized music education. I am still unlearning these internalized ideals of how and what music “should” be. Seeing diverse musicians and composers blend traditional forms and sounds with influences from different backgrounds would have contextualized my own musical experiences growing up.

Colors of Classical Music features: Bethlehem Hadgu, Garrett McQueen, Carla Canales, Anika Meisel, Robyn Smith, and Kamilla Arku

Colors of Classical Music features: Bethlehem Hadgu, Garrett McQueen, Carla Canales, Anika Meisel, Robyn Smith, and Kamilla Arku

How does your work as a data scientist inform your activism and curation of Colors of Classical Music? What types of data, if any, are you collecting as a result of this project?

I am very aware of my responsibility as a data scientist to use, collect, and interpret data ethically and mindfully, especially given how data has historically been used to undermine and disadvantage communities of color.

We often look at data from the “30,000-foot” view, examining trends and patterns from afar. It’s also important to zoom in, and remember that behind each data point there is almost always a story, and a person. Looking at data in this way prevents it from becoming cold and sterile and ensures we retain humanity and respect for the reality it reflects. This is especially true with race data and ties directly into my work with Colors of Classical Music. I recently learned that the current survey system used to collect race data in the U.S. dates back to the 1970s, and evolutions of this basic framework are still used widely today. Yet, how many of us have had the experience of not fitting into one of these predetermined boxes, or being placed in a category that doesn’t account for the subtleties of our identities? The page provides a space where folks can freely talk about their experiences and musical identities without having to fit into a particular box. Communities of color are not monoliths.

I am also using the data from submitted posts to follow where posts are coming from and am aware that while CoCM’s reach is relatively broad, it is not reaching everybody and is not reflective of all experiences, geographies, or identities. To those reading this and feeling like this is true for them–please reach out! I would love to hear from you.

Finally, with the national and global rise in anti-racism work and race-related data collection since last summer, I want to stress the importance for arts organizations wishing to engage in these efforts to consider the “why” and the “how” before jumping in. It is one of my professional goals as a data scientist to support arts organizations in this capacity. I hope that arts institutions and organizations will consult data professionals, statisticians, researchers, and DEI experts when doing this work.

Colors of Classical Music features: Maya Giles, Clara Yang, Vidita Kanniks, Steven Banks, Maika’i Nash, and Elizabeth Hill

Colors of Classical Music features: Maya Giles, Clara Yang, Vidita Kanniks, Steven Banks, Maika’i Nash, and Elizabeth Hill

Can you share what you hope to achieve by partnering and collaborating with organizations such as Newark Symphony Hall? Specifically, how do you envision these partnerships changing the classical music field for BIPOC artists?

By collaborating with organizations like Newark Symphony Hall, I aim to continue translating these Colors of Classical Music posts and social media conversations to more tangible, impactful actions that will directly benefit musicians of color. These partnerships will allow artists of color to have their work featured at a larger scale and facilitate the transition from virtual music-making back to in-person performances that many artists will be facing in the coming months.

Partnering with Newark Symphony Hall and President/CEO Taneshia Laird has been especially exciting, as the space is New Jersey’s oldest and largest Black-led arts and entertainment venue and has a deep history of providing spaces for Black artists to showcase their work when segregation prevented this elsewhere.

I hope that this kind of higher-level organizational and stakeholder involvement will promote a broader understanding of the issues that musicians of color face, encourage the sweeping changes in policy and practice that many higher-level classical musical institutions desperately require, and serve as an example of what’s possible with a truly equitable playing field.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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