5 Questions to LaRob K. Rafael (bass-baritone, arts administrator)

Having masterfully weaved himself into the Black classical music scene, the Chicago-based innovator LaRob K. Rafael is creating “good trouble” in every aspect of his work. Capturing the essence of John Lewis’ charge, Rafael is advocating for the inclusion and elevation of historically excluded voices in classical music, seeking out artists who have been left out of the conversation and platforming their work.

Rafael moves through various areas of classical music with ease and skillfully makes use of all of his talents. A bass-baritone by training, Rafael began his formal music education at DePaul University, graduating with a degree in vocal performance. While he continues to perform around the Chicago area, Rafael has also worked as an arts administrator with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Ear Taxi Festival, and is an alumni of Sphinx LEAD, a two-year program designed to evolve the industry landscape by empowering the next generation of executive leaders.

Rafael is currently the Diversity and Community Engagement Advisor on the board of La Caccina, an all-women’s professional choral ensemble; a weekend morning host for Chicago’s classical music station, 98.7 FM WFMT; and the Founder and Artistic Director of Hearing in Color. Founded in 2017, Hearing in Color is “dedicated to sharing music, stories, and composers, that have been historically excluded from musical spaces,” reflecting Rafael’s passion to amplify diverse voices in classical music.

I wanted to hear more about the work Rafael is doing in Chicago and had a few questions to ask about what he has been up to.

Hearing Color's 2021 production of Steve Wallace's "Undying Love" -- Photo by Forestt Strong LaFave Photography

Hearing Color’s 2021 production of Steve Wallace’s “Undying Love” — Photo by Forestt Strong LaFave Photography

You cite gospel music and R&B as early influences in your musical life. How has this continued to impact your overall vision as an artist, radio host, and arts administrator?

It was singing in church that showed me the difference between a performance and a connection. As an artist, our greatest accomplishment is when a listener or observer experiences us as a portal into their own emotions. Connecting with art in such an authentic way, that you become the medium for others to express or witness their most intimate feelings. In every aspect of my artistry, I try to assess the difference between merely performing a song or presenting music without any context and creating safe environments for people to be vulnerable and seen.

Chicago is quickly becoming a hub for young, Black classical musicians. How much did this affect your decision to plant roots there?

Chicago is a great musical city with several subcultures. It wasn’t long before I discovered the breadth of black musicians who were connected to classical music. The potential for that hub of musicians to have and create sacred spaces to express all aspects of our identity through classical music is a large reason I find myself blissfully trapped in the Windy City.

Considering the post-2020 classical music community, have you encountered any surprising challenges in your radio work over the past few years?

I think the largest challenge is that classical music and its culture is still catastrophically traditional. Despite the abundance of new music, fresh perspectives, and engaging voices, most institutions with power to affect real and lasting change in the field are upholding an old guard that doesn’t translate to the 21st century. The world is changing rapidly. We should be way more curious about how classical music evolves with it.

LaRob K. Rafael -- Photo by Aiden Kranz

LaRob K. Rafael — Photo by Aiden Kranz

A fair amount of arts organizations have moved to amplifying artists and composers who have historically been left out of the conversation. Thinking about your work with Hearing in Color, have you observed an element that these organizations are missing when doing this work?

Hearing in Color firmly understands that any art that comes from historically excluded communities is best told by those communities. So, our work is grounded in collaboration: we decenter ourselves, and thereby oppressive systems/structures, to amplify more honest, authentic representations of those on the margin. I have too often witnessed organizations that benefit from platforming stories by these communities only to find that any aspect of real engagement was virtually absent. It has to extend beyond optics or metrics and into the fibers of an organization’s mission.

In a time where diversity organizations are being accused of “reverse discrimination,” how do you envision your work with Hearing in Color maintaining its charge to platform historically excluded voices?

Hearing in Color is committed to building a network and platform for historically excluded voices to thrive despite the creative – albeit, familiar – attempts of institutions that would rather upkeep the classical canon than participate in the stories that reflect our world today. It is my hope that this demonstration will inspire us all to be expansive in our approaches to engaging with communities.



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