Adrienne Baker '07 works to bring composers of color front and center
Ask people to name African American musicians who’ve influenced American pop culture, and the names will likely roll off their tongues: Beyoncé, Jay Z, Pharrell, Nicki Minaj. But ask them to name African American composers, and they’ll probably draw a blank.
Adrienne Baker ’07 wants to change that. The Boston resident and flutist, who describes herself as a “socially conscious musician,” is on a mission to celebrate musical composers of color by bringing them out of the wings and onto the stage.
“In 2015, only 4 percent of those employed by American orchestras, both men and women, were musicians of color. This includes Asian, Hispanic, and Black musicians,” says Baker, who graduated from IC with a degree in music performance. “Orchestras certainly don’t reflect the demographics of those seeking music degrees and the curriculums are only beginning to represent the diversity of our country—and the world. I have always been aware that I did not see very many people who look like me along my musical journey.”
That journey took her from her childhood home in Wilmington, Delaware, where her mother often played piano in the house (and got Baker started, too, at an early age), to Ithaca’s School of Music. While at IC, she studied abroad at the college’s London Center. IC has a partnership with the Royal Conservatory of Music, which enabled Baker to work with renowned flutist and teacher Susan Milan. “The ability to study aboard at the London Center my junior year was particularly meaningful and formative,” Baker says. “Ms. Milan pushed me to a new level, which at that time I did not know I was ready yet to achieve. I am still extremely grateful for this opportunity.”
Although her experience in London helped Baker discovered her love of classical music, she found that her curriculum didn’t introduce her to anyone who looked like her. Exposing composers of color to lay audiences, she realized, was a need she felt called—and compelled—to fulfill.
After graduating from IC—and at the suggestion of a friend and fellow flutist—Baker joined the Boston-based Castle of Our Skins, a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating black artistry through music. It was there that she met female saxophonist Seychelle Dunn-Corbin. In 2016, they formed NorthStar Duo. The group travels throughout the greater Boston area, exposing audiences to the work of black composers through the unlikely pairing of these two wind instruments.
Between performances with NorthStar Duo, Baker is busy promoting The Women’s Equity Project, a concert and panel discussion that will be held August 16 in Boston. The project marries two of Baker’s passions: women composers and pay disparity, both in music and across professions. Baker says she got the idea years ago, when she worked in academia. Baker’s job was part of a “closed shop” union, meaning she had to join. In time, she became vice president of her bargaining unit and a member of her contract negotiating team. “I became even more passionate about pay equity and how it affects musicians, particularly women,” she notes.
Baker is active in Boston, too, as a part of IC’s alumni community. She’s volunteered time with other alumni to play at special IC events, and participates in the networking activities, having recently served as a School of Music ambassador.
Although she admits to having a “near-crippling” fear of performing in front of an audience, Baker says she’s driven by a need to lend her voice to others so they can feel stronger and more capable.
“I want audiences to know that black composers have written both post-modern and classical music. I want them to know that black women composers have arranged and written jazz. I want children in the audience to know that the saxophone isn’t necessarily an instrument for a boy, but that girls can play it, too, and play it well,” Baker says. “Audiences should know that classical music is more than just the symphony and ballet. It’s the result of traditions, stories, community, and family.