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Why This High School Band Is Only Buying Music From Composers Of Color

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Spring Lake Park High School junior Kia Muleta has been playing the clarinet since fifth grade. Kia wants more diversity in her band music. She is often the only black student in band, where most of the music was composed by white men.

There's a bulletin board at the front of the band room at Spring Lake Park High covered in portraits of the composers who wrote this year's music selection.

The bulletin board isn't new, it's there every year. What's new are the faces: Instead of primarily white men, there are faces of women and composers of color.

This is intentional. The band directors at Spring Lake, outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, have pledged to include at least one piece by a female composer and one by a composer of color in each concert, for each of the school's bands.

"We made a commitment this year to only buy music from composers of color," says Brian Lukkasson, one of the directors.

He says it's been hard, but not because those composers aren't writing for band. They are.

"It's really hard to find music because there's just not a lot of composers of color that are being published," Lukkasson explains.

Composers of color and women are shut out of the canon, and often stereotyped, so Lukkasson usually has to network with his colleagues to find their music.

Like Viet Cuong, a Vietnamese-American who wrote the piece "Diamond Tide," inspired by the scientific process of melting a diamond.

"I really, really want other students of color to be able to feel like they are welcomed and appreciated anywhere," says Kia Muleta, one of Lukkasson's students, "that they don't have to check themselves at the door."

Muleta is a junior, she's been playing the clarinet in since fifth grade and she says the students sitting around her are usually white. She is black. And she says it bothers her that the composers they used to play were usually white.

"There's a kind of an ideological segregation of who can and cannot be in band, based on who the composers are, and what the music is like."

This year they're playing "Of Honor and Valor Eternal," a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, African-American military pilots. It's by Ayatey Shabazz, a black composer from Mississippi. Shabazz says his grandfather knew one of the airmen, and stories he heard as a child inspired the composition.

"The more you practice talking about race, culture and ethnicity the more comfortable you are," says Nora Tycast, one of the other band directors at Spring Lake. She and her students wrote to Shabazz to ask about the composing process.

Kia Muleta says the mix of composers on the bulletin board may seem like a small thing, but it's not to her. She says new faces up front are a signal difference is welcome here.

Copyright 2017 Minnesota Public Radio. To see more, visit Minnesota Public Radio.

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