A RACIST MUSIC – Steven Rajam – BBC – UK

subtitled video | 44 min

Producer: “Please can you advise the viewers to switch on the English subtitles in their YouTube menu?”
[How to Manage subtitle settings]


“A Racist Music” tells the story of John Powell (1882-1963), a musician who was once amongst the most famous in America: a composer and pianist who filled concert halls in Berlin, London and Los Angeles, and who was invited to private audiences with President Roosevelt.

Yet nobody performs – or speaks of – John Powell today.
Because Powell is one of American classical music’s most shameful secrets: a racist ideologue whose music sought to depict theories of racial hatred and white supremacy.

In this feature, Errollyn Wallen – the leading composer of black heritage in the UK today – investigates how Powell used his compositions, and his reputation, to articulate the “superiority” (as he saw it) of white people in sound.

Evoking the sounds of Powell’s native Charlottesville, Virginia – and featuring extensive excerpts from Powell’s own compositions – Errollyn shows how he used his position as a major cultural figure to help personally secure the passage of one of the most divisive race laws in 20th-century American history: the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which scarred the lives of millions of African-Americans. But more than that – we show how John Powell attempted to fuse music theory with theories of race: inserting white supremacist ideology in the seemingly “abstract” notes, tones and rhythms of his own musical creations.

Yet “A Racist Music” is more than the discovery of a long-buried history.
It’s a powerful conversation between the past and the present.

Speaking to leading figures from a new generation of young, non-white classical musicians, we explore how even today, ideas of white, European cultural supremacy still play out in our world.
How while it would be easy to listen to this story and say “oh what a terrible man – thank goodness things are different now” – John Powell’s legacy continues to play out in subtle, insidious and powerful ways that we often wilfully ignore.

We often tell ourselves that classical music – and the arts in general – make us more liberal and civilised people.
But as the feature moves towards its climax, shocking events from the recent past show us that there still exist very real and dangerous links between far-right extremism, classical music, and high culture today.

Presented by Errollyn Wallen
First transmission BBC Radio 3 | Sunday, 24th November 2019

Produced by

Steven Rajam


8 thoughts on “A RACIST MUSIC – Steven Rajam – BBC – UK


    This might be the first time you hear about John Powell, a once-celebrated racist composer and ideologue from the United States.
    Nonetheless, this thought-provoking feature draws you in with dynamic storytelling and, most importantly, many relevant questions:
    Can you separate music from artist’s views?
    Can racist ideas be encoded in notes on a sheet?
    Why modern music theory remains predominantly white?
    Why such infamous figures like Powell should not remain in a dustbin of history?

    The program’s presenter composer Errollyn Wallen says this story should feel “very uncomfortable”.
    What were the thoughts that stayed with you?

  2. As a story this works more on an intellectual level for me. Not so emotional. I get a bit unpatient at the beginning, But the topic grabs me. It feels so relevant. After the focus on the Black lives matter-movement it seems important to tell about hidden structures of racism. Like radio, music can have hidden meaning. And a different meaning for someone who is not like me, a white male. I didn’t really make me feel very uncomfortable, but I’m considering if it should : )

  3. Well, this documentary was a revelation. I had never heard of Powell. I had not really given much thought to the Eurocentric nature of classical music and the many ways it manifests itself. This is a beautifully developed piece,persuasive, pitch perfect. It’s greatest value is to provoke thought. It pushes me to re-evaluate my assumptions about music. Well done Steven.

  4. Such an important story, provided with so many interesting respondents, examples and questions to think about.

    Thank you for making me proud of Czech culture for a while, Steven, and reminding me what should be remembered about Antonín Dvořák.

  5. Hi everyone It is beautiful program about music. Mixing and proportions between music and story is very good.I have learned a lot about “Powell case” and racial supremacy of white music. .But I would like to get closer to Powell as a human being. Who was he as a person, how he looked like, how was his everyday life… I would like to build in my head a picture of this ideologist to understand him and his music better. I have as well a little problem with narrator. At the beginning I hear what I will be listening to and in the end I got an instruction how I should understand what I have just heart and what kind of reflection I should have. I would prefer to find out it by myself. I have one more comment. I know that story is in English but it would be easier for not native speakers to follow it with subtitles.

  6. I really liked this programme! When i was young I played in a symphony orchestra, and we did not think a single thought about who the composer was, and how the composer used the music to impose views onto others. What a missed opportunity! I liked that there was quite a bit of the music of John Powell, and I also liked how my perception of it changed, when it was connected to closer events like Charlottesville. Thank you.

  7. Ondřej Zach, Palacký University, Czech republic

    Hello, thank you for the contribution to the current public debate about the persisting racism in Western society’s culture. The story of John Powell is striking, and the emotional engagement of the Errollyn Walle as a host of your program truly powerful. Aside from the topic of the neverending fight against inequality and the theme of the importance of historical memory, it also brought up an exciting case of the relationship between the artwork and the artist. I wondered what is your view of this as I think the way this topic is treated hereto reveals an interesting paradox. One of the young musicians in the feature describes his experience of hearing some Powell’s early pieces, before knowing who was their composer, and considering them as interestingly inspired by ragtime and blues, among others. It was only after the musician learned of the context of the composer’s racist believes that he resented the music. In other words, his experience seems to prove that music in fact does have a different meaning to the listener than to the author, and can therefore be perceived as an isolated artefact.

    On the other hand, in another paradoxical shift, the show’s host claims authoritatively that Powell’s racism is woven into his musical work. Therefore this work cannot be perceived without the notion of the ideology of its author. Strangely, by declaring this, she is from the ideologically opposite side entering the Powells own position: it was him, who stated, that his compositions were meant to demonstrate the racial superiority of the white class, and as the program convincingly documents, invested a great deal of effort into explaining it to the audience, which didn’t quite get it. Is it the author or music, who is guilty of hate, and can music stay innocent and even betray its evil-meaning author by refusing to carry his thoughts in its tones and structure?

    I do not, by any means, suggest that Powell’s compositions should be played or published without any hesitation and knowledge of the context, and I don’t want at all to downplay Powell’s racism and guilt of hate. And, in fact, I have experienced myself a very personal situation in which a musician I liked disappointed me so much with his ideological stances that I now switch off the radio whenever I hear his music playing. That’s perhaps why I’m fascinated by the issue of the author – artwork relationship, which I find very complex. Maybe this could be a topic for another feature….

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