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Students write open letter to Faculty of Music with anti-racist calls to action

New undergraduate alliance forms to empower voices, advocate changes
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The Faculty of Music building. MEHRAN KARIMZADEH/THE VARSITY
The Faculty of Music building. MEHRAN KARIMZADEH/THE VARSITY

With over 170 signatures from undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff, an open letter to the Faculty of Music Strategic Academic Planning Committee lists several anti-racist calls for action in order to make the faculty and its curriculum more diverse and inclusive.

In the wake of the open letter, a new student group has also formed to continue the momentum of anti-racism work at the faculty.

Open letter

The letter highlights the inherent Western bias in the way that music is taught and the perpetuation of the idea of Western musical superiority. “The classical music canon taught and performed within this and other institutions is inherently Eurocentric, and a failure to address and actively combat this bias will only promote the image of Western classical music as an exclusive art form, to the detriment of both the music and our society,” the letter reads.

It also draws attention to the fact that jazz “was born out of Black American musical traditions and that these traditions are inseparable from the music as a whole.”

The letter goes on to propose a list of changes within the faculty. These include suggestions for overall curriculum changes, such as teaching diverse composers and performers in music history classes, requiring students to take at least 0.5 credits of courses that engage with world music or music and race, and implementing a mandatory African American history course for students in jazz, among other programs.

The letter also calls on the faculty to invite and collaborate with more diverse guest artists for performances, specifically more Black performers, as well as collaborate with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office to introduce mandatory professional development workshops and anti-racism training for faculty, staff, and students.

The letter further calls on the faculty to do more outreach to low-income schools and schools with smaller music programs in the GTA and create scholarships specifically for its Black and Indigenous students.

Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance

In the wake of the letter, a group of undergraduate music students at U of T have recently formed a club called the Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance (FoMARA). Their mission statement says that it “[aims] to create an equitable and safe environment within the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and empower the voices of [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] members.”

FoMARA further intends to bring “to light issues surrounding racism, systemic oppression, and colonialism through activism, education and collaborative dialogue with stakeholders in the Faculty of Music and the broader community.”

Nikhil James, Vice-President External Affairs at FoMARA and a second-year student in Indigenous studies and the classical program at the Faculty of Music, said in an interview with The Varsity, “After the killing of George Floyd, a lot of students and alumni and staff at the Faculty of Music, each on their own, came out with calls to action for the Faculty of Music.”

“I wasn’t part of the initial letter-writing effort, but after I saw the letters, I [thought that] this is something that I should really get involved in,” James said. “And I think this could become a more sustained effort that we can continue to have.”

James also noted that the club’s work is not complete, and the letter is just a starting point. “I’d like to recognize that this was a reactionary letter to recent events,” James said. “And yes, there’s a lot of time spent on this letter, but it’s by no means comprehensive of all the changes that we want to happen at the faculty and will continue to advocate for.”

James added that with all the work that is being done, the club isn’t simply an advocacy group but also an opportunity for students to actively get involved and make their voices heard. “We’re trying to stay connected to the community, take in suggestions, comments, [and] concerns on how to improve our club constantly,” James said. “So, if anyone wants to get in touch, show up for meetings, any of those things, our doors are open; our ears are open.”

Responses from faculty members

Along with the students who signed the letter, there were faculty members and staff as well.

Nick Fraser, a sessional instructor of jazz who signed the letter, wrote to The Varsity that, “The curriculum for my own private teaching has always been geared towards the study and acknowledgment of jazz as an African-American art form, not only in terms of the study of its historical figures, but also in the inclusion of contemporary black voices.”

He noted, however, that there can always be more awareness about these topics. “Of course, recent events have made me consider how to expand upon this and have made me more vocal about accentuating these facts to students,” Fraser wrote. “I do think that this is a responsibility of all faculty.” He also echoed the open letter’s suggestion that more could be done to recruit students from diverse backgrounds to the faculty. 

The dean of the Faculty of Music has created an anti-racism work group consisting of faculty members, staff members, and two students, including the president of FoMARA. The work group is drafting a response to the letter; however, nothing has come out yet from the group or the dean. “We’re hoping to see that relatively soon because the school year has already started,” James said.

Mike Murley, an associate professor of jazz who is part of two anti-racism work groups at the faculty, wrote to The Varsity, “It is certainly the mandate of these committees to move the [Faculty of Music] in a direction more reflective of Toronto’s diversity in terms of the composition of the faculty, staff, student body, curriculum and overall student experience.”

The Faculty of Music did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

Editor’s note (September 23): This article has been updated to correct that Fraser is a sessional instructor.