In a new podcast, co-host Joshua Thompson wants to share something that may surprise you: Black people contribute to classical music — and we always have.
Words by Crystal Hammon
Explore the archives of Joshua Thompson’s Facebook page and you’ll find the genesis of his new role as co-host of Melanated Moments in Classical Music, a new podcast that highlights musicians and composers of color whose works, despite their greatness, are obscure even to the most ardent fans of classical music.
The idea came about in 2019, when Classical Music Indy (CMI) approached the Indianapolis musician about creating a show that would strengthen the organization’s digital and online content. The opportunity intersected with Thompson’s interests and capitalized on what he was already doing as a performer.
“We really admire the way Joshua approaches classical music as an artist-slash-interpreter,” says Jenny Burch, CEO of Classical Music Indy, referring to Thompson’s piano concerts of masterworks by composers of African descent, augmented by short introductions that add context. “I could listen to him all day.” His passion for engaging audiences is an obvious plus, but it’s Thompson’s personal experience with race and his zeal for researching musicians of color that makes Melanated Moments such a draw for listeners.
In 2017, the artist began to share the hidden histories of musicians of color on his personal Facebook page. Disturbed the resurgence of racial tension in America, he saw it as a way to add something constructive to the national conversation about race. The act of sharing also helped him deal with conflicted feelings that began when he started studying music as a child. He loved classical music, but he had also been alienated by it.
In a high school of nearly 5,000 students, Thompson often felt like an anomaly. “I was one of only a handful of black musicians in my high school orchestra,” he says. “It really messed with my head. I wondered, ‘How is it that I like classical music, but I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me doing it?’”
A podcast can be a content-hungry beast, but with a three-year backlog of research-based posts on social media, Thompson was primed and ready to share his passion with a bigger audience. The project got legs when internationally-renowned opera star Angela Brown agreed to co-host.
“I felt like Angela was the perfect anchor,” he says. “She brings in a broader repertoire of opera, so we deepened the pool we can draw [content] from, and, looking at it realistically, she is internationally known. I think that adds gravitas.” The fact that Brown lives in Indianapolis, tours the world as a performer and has a commitment to promoting opera among audiences of color cinched the collaboration.
The co-hosts’ easy rapport precedes the podcast. It began in 2016, when Thompson had an opportunity to serve as Brown’s piano accompanist for some local concerts. Thompson was star struck. “I was terrified of Angela,” he says. “Let me tell you, it’s a daunting thing to play with a world-renowned opera star, but she is so wonderful about removing the mystique. She’ll tell you, ‘Baby, I’m just Angela.’”
Early on, the duo scheduled a rehearsal at Brown’s home. Thompson arrived feeling overwhelmed, and the practice got off to a bumpy start. “She paused and said, ‘It’s clear that you are kind of intimidated and all in your head. Let’s just do this later.’ We just hung out and talked. That was her way of being completely human, and letting me know that we were working in a partnership with each other.”
From then on, Thompson was comfortable working with Brown as a peer. They went on to complete other joint projects such as grant-writing for Morning Brown Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation she started in 2016. Their conversation on the podcast reveals the relationship they’ve forged since then. “She’s a friend, a colleague, and more importantly, she’s a mentor,” he says. “That triple combo — you don’t find people like that very often. When you do, you must recognize and take care of them.”
On Melanated Moments, Brown and Thompson make classical music approachable and pleasurable for listeners by stoking curiosity about little-known composers of color such as William Grant Still. “He was a very religious and spiritually-based person, and that’s infused in his work,” he says. “His music is stunning, but having that personal story behind it makes it more fascinating.”
As musicians, Brown and Thompson say these stories keep classical music fresh and relevant no matter how many times they perform a piece or how old it is. They hope the podcast has the same effect on listeners.
The format is designed for people who like swallowing information in small bites. Each episode runs 15 to 20 minutes, but listeners still get something substantial to chew on. Thompson and Brown go down the rabbit hole, offering provocative insights and credible resources to help listeners close the knowledge gap afterwards.
“There’s something to be said for formatting and framing things in a way that gives people information they want to hear, but not all of it,” Thompson says. “If they so choose, we’re giving them the names, the links and the resources they need to go learn more on their own. I think that’s a much more personal experience.”
See Joshua Thompson’s TED talk, where he and dancer Vajaun Savage demonstrate how artists of color can use creative endeavors to make a resounding impact on the world.