The Catalyze podcast: Sanya Shah ’22 on the life and legacy of composer Florence Price

Sep 30, 2020

A performance by Sanya Shah ’22 will release this Friday, October 2, 2020, at 1 p.m. EDT through an online event hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Music.

Sanya (soprano) and UNC junior Lauren Ragsdale (mezzo-soprano) will perform the works of composers Florence Price and Betty Jackson King. Price became, in 1933, the first African American woman composer whose work was played by a major orchestra. King was an African American pianist, singer, educator, conductor, and composer. 

Listen to the episode.

This “Virtual First Friday” series, founded by the department in collaboration with Arts Everywhere, is featuring music by underrepresented voices this semester. You can tune in to the free performance on October 2 through the department’s website or Facebook page, and will be available anytime following the original air date.

Sanya is a neuroscience and music major with a minor in chemistry. The scholar is working to launch a music medicine group through the Alpha Epsilon Delta Pre-Health Honor Society (AED) with the aim of providing patients with the healing benefits of music. The junior is also a member of the UNC Opera and the Carolina Ukulele Ensemble.

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Hey, Sanya, thanks so much for joining the show. 

(Sanya)

Yeah, thank you for having me. 

(Sarah)

How have you been so far? Where are you taking remote classes this semester?

(Sanya)

I am living in an off-campus apartment, so I'm still in Chapel Hill, and I'm enjoying remote classes. You know, there's not much to complain about. It's the best it can be.

(Sarah)

Well, that's a positive way of looking at it, and I'm glad you're staying safe so far. Looking forward to hearing about the October 2 event. You're going to be focusing on Florence Price. Can you share, for anyone who might not be familiar with Florence, of just who she was and the kind of music that she did?

(Sanya)

Florence Price was the first Black woman to ever have her composition performed by a major United States symphony orchestra. And that was Symphony Number 1 in E Minor. And so she did definitely do a lot of orchestral works and also just like minor works for individual instruments and a lot of works for voice as well. Her story is just so inspirational to me simply because she grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at age 16, she was such a prominent musician within her town that she went to the New England Conservatory.

But because she was a Black girl, she couldn't attend without faking her identity as being something other than African American. So her mother told her to pretend that she was Mexican and that is the whole reason that she was able to attend the New England Conservatory or else, being a Black woman, she wouldn't have been able to go. So she went there, and she was easily one of the best students in her year and one of the very few who had two concentrations. I believe it was composition and organ performance.

And then after that, she came back to Little Rock but because of racism, prejudice, and escalating racial tensions that eventually worsened and resulted in lynchings, she moved to Chicago with her family. And while she was there, she met a lot of other influential musicians, artists, and writers, like Margaret Bonds and Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes especially. And while she was there, she ended up divorcing her husband due to financial reasons and moving out with her two children.

So now, at this point, she’s a single Black woman who also is a mother and doesn't have a stable career while still writing compositions and embracing music and teaching at a segregated Black school so that she could give to other Black students whatever she had of growing up with her music. This was a woman that not many people have ever heard of, but really should know. Without her, without that first symphony being played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a lot of other people may not have gotten a similar opportunity.

Her music has such a . . . it's almost a clairvoyant way of telling a story, it seems happy, jovial, motivational–and it's not until you actually listen to the words that the singer is singing to you and actually try to delve into their meaning, that you realize that the theme of the poem doesn't match what you are hearing. In your ears, and it's very hard to explain until you, again, actually hear it, but basically you would think that it's almost like a springtime piece of happiness and frolicking in the flowers or something, but then you realize that the song is actually about oppression and overcoming it and still being beaten down. That's just incredible to me that she's able to juxtapose those two very different themes into one song and multiple songs, actually, and do it in such a in such a seamless way. I've never performed something like this before, and it's really a cool opportunity.

(Sarah)

It makes me think of Billie Holiday's moment in singing Strange Fruit for the first time. She just had so much bravery to do that when she had so many obstacles in front of her. And similarly to Florence, the world was not opening its doors for her, and she was able to get past that. And seemed like she was using music as a way of carrying her voice in and sharing important messages that maybe without that medium it wouldn't be possible to do.

(Sanya)

Yeah, I completely agree. And not only that, Billie Holiday, but the blues singers that came before her, like Bessie [Smith and] Ma Rainey, they paved the way for so much expression for Black women who were arguably the most oppressed then and perhaps even now, for them to express themselves, that they're really icons and people that deserve our respect for giving a voice to those who didn't have one.

(Sarah)

Well, I appreciate what you're doing and getting her story out and informing others at UNC and in the broader community of the importance of her life and the impact she had, even if she didn't realize at the time the kind of legacy she would have. Is there anything else you'd want to add or about the logistics of how people can watch the performance?

(Sanya)

Yes.

So actually, you've mentioned the legacy and that kind of just had me thinking about what I was mentioning earlier about how, like, the pieces all sound motivational and hopeful. But in reality, when you actually listen to what they're saying, they're almost dark. And it kind of reminds me of her life, because when you look at it, what we see of her now is this prominent woman who has paved the way for so many people after her.

But when you look at her story, it was really, really hard. I mean, to be disposed from your hometown and going to a brand new city, divorcing your husband and having financial crises, it's funny that her music is still alive in that way today as a way to give a sound to what we realize, like what we can paint her legacy as. But yes, you can watch the concert on the music department's Facebook page on October 2 at 1:00 p.m. It will be open five minutes before the concert starts itself and then it will also be recorded so you can watch it at your convenience at whatever time you prefer.

(Sarah)

Well, something that I've personally really missed from this pandemic is the ability to hear live music and to be with others and enjoying that. And so we're excited for you and Lauren's performance. And thank you so much for sharing about it today.

(Sanya)

Thank you for having me. 

(Sarah)

Take good care, and stay safe.

(Sanya)

You, too.

*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.


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