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How a Twitter debate about race rejected classical music norms and created space for new forms of appreciation.

“Ok, who had the #BeethovenwasBlack on their 2020 plot twist bingo card?” read one tweet. “Allegedly #Beethoven used to powder the f*** out of his skin and used body doubles for portraits. Hopefully he was finessing to get paid the dollars he deserved and it wasn’t from self-hate,” claimed another. “That ‘Beethoven was black!’ thing hasn’t got much convincing evidence. Stop repeating it,” retorted a third.

During the summer of 2020, an intense and unlikely debate took Black Twitter by storm: the race of Ludwig van Beethoven. The German composer, one of the most well-known names in classical music, was thought to have been of African descent due to speculation that his grandmother was of North African heritage. After the resurfacing of an article published by the Concordia in 2015 that discussed the potential ambiguity of Beethoven’s race, Black Twitter erupted into passionate arguments, ranging from discussions of cultural authority in relation to music performance and appreciation to deconstructions of phenotypic determinism that often appears in debates about racial identity. Hundreds of tweets featured the hashtag #BeethovenwasBlack, a proclamation that classical music can and should be appreciated by Black people. Yet many Twitter users who are also fans of classical music found the debate to be silly, and maintained that there is no substantial evidence that Beethoven was of African descent. What often emerged were heated arguments about race, cultural affiliation, and nationality, many of which relied on racial essentialisms to make a case. The hashtag #BeethovenwasBlack trended on Twitter, catching the attention of popular media outlets and sparking a flurry of disruptive, gleeful, often humorous videos and memes.

As a Black classically trained violist, I was intrigued about the possibility of Beethoven being Black. Although I grew up in the racially diverse town of Columbia, Maryland, I still experienced anxiety about my perceived Blackness, and many of those concerns stemmed from my involvement in classical music performance. When I went to college at a competitive, predominantly white institution, my anxieties deepened—I was the only Black person in the 80-member symphony. My personal experiences with this discomfort, which I encountered first through the body and later as color-blind racism, informed my research on Black classical musicians and the hierarchies that impact music performance and position the Black body as aberrant in these spaces. Ideas of cultural belonging suggest that white musicians, composers, and theorists have a more sophisticated appreciation and understanding of classical music.

Credit: HELSHIK/SHUTTERSTOCK
Three illustrations of Beethoven

When I came across this debate, I was excited that, perhaps, if Beethoven were Black, my interlocutors would no longer be questioned about why they play classical music rather than jazz. If Beethoven were Black, maybe the racial hierarchies that are bound up in notions of musical genius and virtuosity could be dismantled. Perhaps the classical music canon could be radically re-evaluated. Or maybe the idea of “Black music” could be expanded to encompass classical genres. But Beethoven’s race cannot be verified at this point, and I am not entirely sure that our changing conception of his race would accomplish these social justice goals that inform my research. What can be appreciated are the real-life ramifications of deconstructing Beethoven’s racial identity.

Classical music has largely been presented as an exclusively white, high-culture practice. But Black artists have been participating in classical music performance and composition for hundreds of years. Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (colloquially referred to as “Black Mozart”), for instance, was a French Black composer and a contemporary of Mozart, who wrote several symphonies, concertos, and operas. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a nineteenth-century music critic and composer, commonly nicknamed the “African Mahler” by US audiences during his tours overseas. Florence Price was a twentieth-century African American composer who wrote a few symphonies and a significant number of parlor music pieces. We seldom hear about these composers for several reasons, one of them being the whitewashing of classical music history and canonizing of white male composers. Both Coleridge-Taylor and Chevalier de Saint-Georges were only understood after comparison with white composers like Mozart and Mahler. Such practices make it seem like Black people do not have a place within classical music.

In the Twitter excitement about Beethoven’s race, we encounter a confluence of intersecting conversations on authority, belonging, hegemony, history, expression, shame, and jubilance. For these Twitter users, Beethoven being Black opened up a whole new horizon of possibilities. Classical music has long been guarded through exclusionary gatekeeping practices. In Highbrow/Lowbrow, Laurence Levine traces the evolution of American classical music, from its nineteenth-century status as popular music to its heralded position as a “high” form of expressive culture. As classical music ascended the aesthetic hierarchy, it increasingly became associated with whiteness, wealth, and inaccessibility. With #BeethovenwasBlack, it was finally acceptable to openly appreciate Beethoven as a Black musical consumer. One user tweeted, “Beethoven was black the whole T? I guess I can finally tell everyone I prefer Classical music #beethovenwasblack,” and another responded, “Beethoven slaps different now that he is black #beethovenwasblack.”

Credit: HELSHIK/SHUTTERSTOCK
Three illustrations of Beethoven

Anxieties about Black cultural affiliation and fidelity emerge in this discussion of classical music. Mark Anthony Neal, influential contemporary writer on Blackness and popular culture, touched on concerns about being “black enough” in Songs in the Key of Black Life. Neal endorses Mama Soul’s (Masani Alexis De Veaux) concept of newblackness, which he defines as “the ‘language’ of a blackness that many black folks had been afraid to embrace for fear that somehow it was a reduction or erosion of blackness.” Newblackness is an ideological framework that would embrace the possibility of Beethoven being Black and enable Black music listeners to enjoy classical music without endangering their Black cultural and racial fidelity. It expands what Black cultural expression could mean, look like, and sound like. It makes the tweeted declaration, “Beethoven was deaf and still had rhythm. That was a black man” remotely feasible—within the realm of possibility.

Black Twitter users claimed Beethoven through counterhegemonic—and often humorous—images and videos. In their posts about accepting Beethoven as a progenitor of Black music, Black Twitter users often paired audio from Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos with videos of people twerking, dabbing, smoking a joint, jamming out to a boombox, and dancing in various other ways. It would be fair to say that twerking and classical music could be seen as antagonistic forms of expression, especially considering the history of respectability and comportment within classical music spaces. However, using Neal’s newblackness, I view these dances and responses as oppositional forms of music appreciation. Twerking, bumping, grinding, bouncing, and dabbing were used as an outright rejection of the respectability politics that have been tied to classical music performance and enjoyment.

Twerking is a transdiasporic dance form that emerged from the Black Atlantic. It is often misunderstood or viewed as controversial in the United States due to its sexualized nature. Writing about American culture’s preoccupation with Black visibility, Nicole R. Fleetwood puts forward the idea of excess flesh to theoretically account for the various negative connotations associated with the Black female body. Out of excess flesh came the practice of respectability that was a response to the dominant ways (what she calls the “cultural gaze,” which is often informed by the white male gaze) of reading a Black woman’s body. Fleetwood also suggests that Black women’s bodies are constantly viewed within the context of hypervisibility, what she describes as “both historic and contemporary conceptualizations of blackness as simultaneously invisible and always visible, as underexposed and always exposed, the nuances of which have been depicted in art, literature, and theory.” In other words, the Black female body has been hyperstigmatized by the public, yet completely ignored when it comes to positive depictions in different media. Many of the images that accompanied the #BeethovenwasBlack hashtag featured Black women twerking. But these images were used as a strategy for identity formation and cultural authority. By pairing the music from Beethoven’s symphonies with videos of Black women twerking, perhaps Twitter users are developing a new form of musical embodiment

Credit: HELSHIK/SHUTTERSTOCK
Three illustrations of Beethoven

Some users listened to Beethoven for the first time after hearing that he may have been of African heritage, and described their actions using language that is often used to talk about rap and pop music. “I been bumping his shit all day #BeethovenwasBlack,” tweeted one user, who posted a screenshot of a Spotify playlist featuring Beethoven’s major symphonies. Another user tweeted a similar image, claiming “It’s LIT yall! #BeethovenwasBlack.” Having a sophisticated musical vocabulary is valuable when it comes to classical music reception, and, in certain settings, confers social capital derived from classical music’s association with a highly educated elite. Avid classical music listeners might describe Beethoven’s music as enlightening, dynamic, or musically masterful. However, Black Twitter users deploy slang that was born out of predominantly Black communities to talk about Beethoven and describe his music. While newblackness could be extended to encompass the language that Twitter users employed in their thinking about Beethoven’s perceived race, their language is more a challenge to white supremacy. Through the use of humor, incongruous combinations of music and images, and intentional word choices, Black Twitter users are helping to create space for Black musicians, composers, audiences, and bodies in classical music.

In thinking about the public nature of Twitter, the language Tweeters used, and the central nature of the Black (and often female) body in the images that accompany #BeethovenwasBlack, we can view twerking to Beethoven as a jubilant celebration of self-inclusion in an arena that has been continually positioned as inaccessible to Black listeners. It is a subversive form of revelry that reclaims the musical narrative, creating spaces for Black bodies and redefining what it means to appreciate classical music. Thus, twerking to Beethoven could be seen as an abolitionist act. Through #BeethovenwasBlack and videos of twerking and grinding, Black Twitter users use their imaginative capacity to suggest that twerking to Beethoven is not so strange, but rather a means of announcing their justified acceptance into the classical music community. Twerking refuses the respectability politics that inform ideas about proper bodily comportment and expression in classical music settings. Their tweets suggest a different way to listen to music—one that allows the music to course through the body and emerge out of an overflow of emotion. Black people can listen to Beethoven, even if #BeethovenwasnotBlack.

Twitter users reject the status quo through their juxtaposing of images, sounds, and text. They devise clever ways to put forward a cultural critique of the relationship between classical music and identity politics to offer new forms of self-expression within the context of classical music. They create oppositional forms of musical embodiment and belonging. Their conversations, arguments, and debates have de- and reconstructed race in various ways that open space for conversations on inclusion in the classical world that never existed before. Perhaps, one day, twerking to Beethoven will be appreciated in American classical music.

Authors

Alexis L. Holloway

Alexis L. Holloway is a third-year cultural anthropology PhD student and Dean’s Graduate Fellow at Duke University. Her research explores how the mechanisms of white supremacy operate in classical music performance, examining how racial and aesthetic hierarchies position Black bodies as aberrant in these spaces. As a filmmaker, she hopes to produce a multimodal dissertation, consisting of a written portion and an accompanying documentary that attends to the aural and performative aspects of her research.

Cite as

Holloway, Alexis L.. 2022. “Black Beethoven.” Anthropology News website, February 17, 2022.

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