5 Questions to Dr. Louise Toppin about the African Diaspora Music Project

The African Diaspora Music Project (ADMP) was established by Dr. Louise Toppin in conjunction with Videmus, a nonprofit organization where she is also the Artistic Director. From Videmus’ 30+ CDs to edited editions of Margaret Bonds’ music, this new music database continues Dr. Toppin’s decades of work to increase the accessibility and programming opportunities of Black composers, past and present. Her career connects to the practices of many 20th century Black classical artists: to be a triple threat performer-teacher-scholar was not an exception, nor a rule, but a need — a practice that remains a core part of the Black concert tradition to this day.

When did you get the idea for the African Diaspora Music Project?

The idea for the project developed from my longtime work and research in African American composers. Although there are certainly ways to find information on African American composers, I did not find a resource that not only assisted those who were well steeped in African American history, but encouraged exploration by those who had no knowledge of where/how to begin to explore this repertoire.

It originally began as a way for me to catalog the thousands of scores I had collected throughout my own research and blossomed into a resource that I wanted to share for free with others. The more projects I did teach to others about this music, the more I realized that there were not enough research tools, printed scores, opportunities, etc., so I began to create them.

Videmus has always championed Black composers, especially through recordings. How do you see this database helping to expand Videmus’ discography?

You are correct that recordings have always been an important part of Videmus’ work. As our world has become more digitally driven, Videmus’ recordings also went online as complete CDs. The database allows us to continue to grow our discography by moving away from a model of creating full CDs to a model that allows us to initiate projects to produce recorded content  (individual pieces) associated with the data in the database. I am excited about our ability to pivot in that direction and, in essence, allow more voices to be heard through our website!

Louise Toppin--Photo by Mark Clague

Louise Toppin–Photo by Mark Clague

What have been some of the hurdles in compiling the database? I’m mainly thinking of the balance between allowing visitors access to the music and ensuring the composers/the composer’s estate is adequately compensated when the music is performed/recorded.

We are not providing the actual scores to our visitors because we do not want to run into the issue of composers and estates not being compensated correctly! We provide information on pieces that allow visitors to find published works and contact composers/estates if they want to purchase the music. We have assisted many performing arts institutions and artists with connecting with composers to obtain licenses for performances, recordings, etc. I am a performing artist and very much respect the craft of composition, so I want to make sure people are properly credited and compensated for their work. This has been a point of contention for African American composers in the past, and I want to make sure we treat the music and composers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

As with any project, funding support is certainly a hurdle because of the amount of hours to research, data input, and custom build a site of this magnitude. Locating the repertoire and the permissions is another hurdle. I have spent a long career building the necessary relationships and trust to gain access to the composers, but the hurdles still exist. Lastly, funding recordings of this music, which is critical to entice others to perform the works, is another financial hurdle. We are working on strategies to conquer each of these hurdles!

How do you see this database changing discussions around the accessibility of music by Black composers?

Others have called this database a game changer in our industry already. The primary arguments against the inclusion of diverse repertoire has been the inaccessibility of the repertoire. That inaccessibility perpetuates a vicious cycle (if you can’t find the music and don’t hear it performed, you don’t talk about it and perform it), which I am trying to disrupt. We can’t change the conversation in all segments of the performance and scholarly work if the music remains in a state of invisibility. The database shines a light on the repertoire, its composers, and recordings of the works, and allows us to eliminate excuses and reframe the conversation on what pieces and which composers should be allowed in what we consider “the standard musical canon.”

Composers represented in the African Diaspora Music Project include Regina Harris Baiocchi, David Baker, William Banfield, Margaret Bonds, Uzee Brown Jr., Valerie Capers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Noel Da Costa

Composers represented in the African Diaspora Music Project include Regina Harris Baiocchi, David Baker, William Banfield, Margaret Bonds, Uzee Brown Jr., Valerie Capers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Noel Da Costa

How do you envision the African Diaspora Music Project 10 years from now?

I envision the database continuing to expand via my own research and the contributions of others through our contributions pages. I also see us adding instrumental and keyboard repertoire in the near future. I hope that the project serves as a hub that spawns dissertations, articles, and books on composers who have heretofore been ignored. I also hope teachers, performers, and artistic administrators will regularly use this site to program concerts, repertoire for students, and concert series, making thoughtful programmatic choices to include this repertoire throughout the year on regular subscription concerts and all planned events. I really envision this as a go-to place for online research of this music!


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