Episode 6 of CFA Community Conversations

Tanyaradzwa A. Tawengwa, DMA Vocal Performance candidate, is a champion of music. The inaugural Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence at Boston’s prestigious Castle of Our Skins spoke with us from Philadelphia this summer to highlight her journey from Zimbabwe to Kentucky, finding every opportunity to celebrate the music of her homeland and the complicated history of Western classical music. Her work to empower children and educate music patrons speaks to her passion for music, family, and country. 

She also spoke with Dr. Everett McCorvey for our CFA Community Conversations series and, among other things, they discussed their mutual love of the mbira.

You just finished working on a summer camp program that you founded, tell us about that? 

Yes! It’s called the Zimbabwe Kids Summer Camp. I’ve been in this country for 12 years and so I know what life is like for an expatriate, so I wanted to create this cultural enrichment experience that showcases these children, their stories and their experiences. It’s also a chance for me to share my love for Zimbabwean artists. I feel that as Zimbabwean artists, we don’t typically get considered beyond simply our entertainment value.  

We are often sidelined by our own community because we haven’t really created a culture of us being consumers of our own stories. This is tied to the existential issue that comes with the fracturing of the self that happens through the colonialism of the self. I went to an English-speaking school, I started playing piano at 8, cello at 12, all this in Zimbabwe, Africa. Yet, never was I taught any Zimbabwean art or culture. Part of where we are now, educators like me know it’s our responsibility to reimagine what that education process looks like. Artists are best equipped to do that – so why not deploy the them? There’s the idea of the artist as the “image maker.” I came across this concept through the work of Dr. Mhoze Chikowero, an African historian in the History Department of University of California, Santa Barbara. His book African Music Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe talks about Zimbabweans winning independence 1980, and the role that artists played in the revolution as the “image maker.” 

You said in your Medium article entitled ‘Western Classical Music is Racist” you wondered “why I must serve as a visionary on behalf of an actively racist cultural tradition that has failed to reform itself” - and your answer was that collaboration is needed. Meaning collaboration from black artists such as yourself?  

We think as races in binary terms – white vs black – but that’s a construct. And to deconstruct that we must deconstruct what we consider being human even means. This paradigm of thinking about race in binary terms has been so apart of white supremacist, colonialism thinking for so long, we’ve built boxes around ourselves. We put these vast human spirits into these boxes, and they just don’t serve us. So, we can’t just wish racism away. We are talking about real systems – this is systemic at the same time; we must collaborate with these organizations to bring about active changes.  

What kind of responses have you received from the article and speaking out against the racism you experienced at Glimmerglass?  

What a journey. This time last year, being in the young artist program, who knew where we’d be today? It was a complicated experience, because I learned a lot about myself. I met a lot of incredible peers and colleagues, and it’s in them that I have hope for the opera industry. The ways in which my peers are taking their artistry so seriously, in terms of how art ties into and endorses some of these white supremacist ideals, which in the past, people have just accepted as tradition, I feel we are in a new era of the art form. That gives me a lot of hope. I’m committed to being a truth teller. All I know is what I’ve lived, and that’s the only story I can tell. So, that’s what happened. So that’s the story I had to tell at the time.  

Tawengwa is currently working on her dissertation, and is creating a critical edition of an opera by African-American composer Edward Boatner. UK Voice Faculty Dr. Cliff Jackson, who was Boatner’s accompanist in New York during the 1970s, introduced Tanyaradzwa to Boatner’s unpublished opera “Trouble in Mind: A Slave Opera.”        

In one of our classes, Dr. Jackson came in with the score Boatner gave him and I literally felt chills. Boatner intentionally didn’t write [a full orchestral] score because he said slaves didn’t have an orchestra. So it is really driven vocally, with sparse string instrumentation and some unfinished arrangements that I would like to flesh out as I get to know his style more. I’ve always had a love for — searched voraciously for — Black creators of opera, so I could make sense to myself. 

You came to UK through a chance encounter meeting Dr. McCorvey at an audition for the American Spiritual Ensemble in New York City – tell us about that.  

I got an email from my old voice teacher who told me about the American Spiritual Ensemble auditioning the next day – so I didn’t have time to prepare so much. I got the last appointment of the day, and decided to accompany myself at the audition. I started to sing “Balm in Gilead” with my instrument, the mbira. Afterwards, Dr. McCorvey said to me, “You know that instrument changed my life.” When he was a doctoral student in Alabama, a Zimbabwean group came and performed - it was the first time he’d seen an all-black performance group, and I actually know the group he was talking about! We immediately had this very deep connection, and I told myself - wherever this man was, I had to go, I wanted to go study with him.  

Once accepted into the American Spiritual Ensemble, Tanyaradzwa connected with many UK alumni who were also performing in the group. Dr. McCorvey encouraged her to apply to the UK Masters of Music in Vocal Performance program, where she placed second in the Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition. 

What was Kentucky like for you – moving to the American south? 

I had been looking into the work of African-American Southern composers and I knew I had to spend some time there. I had been talking about it with my friends before the American Spiritual Ensemble and the University of Kentucky came into my life - I told my friends it was something in needed to do, to live in the south. I was also looking forward to the respite of a slower placed life than New York City. Princeton solidified this idea of artist as image maker, and the importance of scholarship in craft. After I left, I knew I still wanted to sing and I wanted a black voice teacher so I wrote it in my journal. I never had a black voice teacher in my life and I wanted one. 

Everything I had heard about the UK Voice Program was in line with what I wanted. I wanted collaborative energy and to make wonderful friendships with my peers. I wanted to be able to ask of any faculty and voice teacher if I needed something without it being a territorial issue. The UK voice teachers are family – it's a beautiful atmosphere. When I talk about my experience at UK, a lot of my friends who had gone to conservatory are shocked. I came into a classical voice program as a black woman and came out whole and happy...that’s not common. 

I started with a two-year master's program, and now I’m in the final year of the doctoral program. I was excited when I got to UK to find other South African singers in the program, and also by the number of African-American and other international students in the program. I value diversity in spaces - not only diversity but inclusivity. At UK, when I wanted to sing Zimbabwean music, I was encouraged. There was space for me to bring who I am and my musical traditions and to share that with my peers. I was able to perform my master’s thesis for UK's World Music Festival in 2016. I got to bring together singers together to tell the story of my family in “The Dawn of the Rooster” and I’m so thankful to Donna Kwon, who served as the point person for that piece.  

The same thing with performing for Trevor Noah. Dr. McCorvey encouraged me to take that on, and it’s wonderful to have his encouragement that allows me to bring my full self to the space. During the semester, if I had an outside gig, as a graduate student I was encouraged to take those opportunities.  

Dr. Pelkey has been very supportive. He made it possible for me to attend the Colour of Music Festival in South Carolina, which is a festival for black classical musicians and celebrating their works. It was important for me to go for my research and to network and afterwards I got invited to present my research at the University of Michigan. Dr. Pelkey supported me fully. Dr Pelkey has done a lot of work to make resources available and that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about inclusion – providing resources for all artists. I felt like since he's also a scholar, he understands the necessity of research.  

For more information about the School of Music, visit https://finearts.uky.edu/music.