Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education (part 1)

In 2011 Tyler Thompson, a fifteen year old African American sophomore at the Oakland School for the Arts, made some waves in national and international news as a singer of songs in Mandarin. In 2004 he had already made national news for singing in a children’s Chinese Opera. Here’s an AP Video Piece from ’11 featuring Tyler performing as Justice Bao (包青天),1 a popular figure2 in Chinese history, fiction, television and film, and Chinese Operas.3

“Tyler Thompson is an unlikely star in the world of Chinese opera. The African American teenager from Oakland has captivated audiences in the U.S. and China with his ability to sing pitch-perfect Mandarin and perform the ancient Chinese art form.” (July 27, 2011)

Chinese Music Education in the Bay Area

The featured image with Tyler above is from a rehearsal with the Great Wall Youth Orchestra and Chorus, a Chinese Traditional Instruments Orchestra and Choir based in Oakland, California. The group is composed of Middle and High School students who are a part of the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation4 program founded by Sherlyn Chew in 1995. The program has roughly 700 kids involved in it during any one year.

Started as the Purple Silk Orchestra and Chorus at Lincoln Elementary School, Chew expanded the program so that kids that graduated the K-5 program could continue learning and playing Chinese Music. She partnered with Laney College to form and host the Great Wall Youth Orchestra which has three ensembles for different levels of skill and participation. Laney College also offers classes and lessons in Chinese Music, as well as its own university Chinese Orchestra ensemble for college students.

The Firebird Chinese Youth Orchestra, based in San Francisco, is one of several Chinese Traditional Instruments Orchestras in the Bay Area. Website: https://www.fyco.org/

Anyone familiar with local youth symphonies and music programs will recognize these kinds of organizations and structures. The music, instrumentation and instruction, ensembles, and composers just happen to have ties to Chinese Performing Arts rather than European Performing Arts. For readers of this blog, this is no surprise as I’ve been writing about the Chinese Music ecosystem in the Bay Area for about ten years now. Similar music ecosystems exist around the US, and Worldwide, where large concentrations of ethnic populations exist.


Mariachi Music Education in Chicago

Mariachi in Chicago

This past February, before the pandemic shut down things in the States, I had the pleasure of seeing Mariachi Herencia de México perform at the Ogle Center here at IU Southeast’s campus.5 The evening performance was the culmination of the 21st Annual Indiana Latinx Leadership Conference which was also hosted by IU Southeast. Mariachi Herencia de México also performed and took part in the second Workshop Session of that Saturday.

Jon Silpayamanant with the kids of Mariachi Herencia de México after their performance at the Ogle Center. February 29, 2020.

In Spanish herencia means “heritage,” and César Maldonado created the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) in 2012 as a way to give back to the city, and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), that he grew up in. Since the start of the MHF, the organization has created Mariachi music programs in 8 CPS schools, in mostly low income regions, and works with over 2000 students mostly grades 2 through 8. By 2016 Mariachi Herencia de México was formed picking 16 kids, ages 11-18, by audition to be the touring and performing face of the program.

There are similar programs forming throughout the US, sometimes outside of public school systems but within the Latin communities. One example is Herencia Mariachi Academy of Corona, California that was founded in 2015. For this organization, herencia is an acronym for: Heritage, Education, Reach, Encourage, Nurture, Cultural, Inspire, and Accomplish.

Herencia Mariachi Academy is an organization based in Corona, California. It is composed of junior high and high school students ranging from ages 11 to 17 and was founded in 2015. Website: https://herenciamariachiacademy.com/

After the Mariachi Herencia de México performance I attended that Saturday evening, I spoke to the director of the Ogle Center about the group and about the Latinx Leadership Conference which was hosted at the center that day. The Latinx kids and young adults were amazed and thrilled to see musicians that look like them, playing music that resonated with them, in live performance. These comments and conversations at their Leadership Conference Workshop performance were familiar to me in my experience as an immigrant and as a performer who regularly interacts with different immigrant and ethnic minority communities.

Centering PoC in Diversity

“I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditionally European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family – on white people’s terms.”

Ian David Moss, “Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats” Creatiquity, 2013 February 12

The above quote is something I often come back to because it so clearly encapsulates a paternalistic colonialism found in diversity initiatives of Classical Music Organizations. This is also something that has been pored over in Postcolonial critique, though this field is still poorly understood in the US.

While some folks may be familiar with Edward Said‘s ideas about Orientalism, fewer still know much about the work and critiques by the two others of the “Holy Trinity” of postcolonial theory, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravotry Spivak. There’s a huge body of knowledge, analysis, and criticism from a number of figures born in previously colonized regions and countries that have built on a framework which describes how to empower and give voice to the formerly colonized.

I’ll talk more about this in the next post as well as how to look at diversity through a postcolonial lens while Centering PoC6 and Communities of Color in the US. For those who are familiar with Bhabha and Spivak (as well as other postcolonial theorists), you can probably already see the themes of hybridity and the subaltern coming through with the ethnic groups that are already exercising their musical voices in the US.

The main takeaways I want to emphasize in this piece is that including PoC in diversity initiatives for programming and music education without centering their musical experience(s) and musical culture(s) is like having PoC CosPlaying White European Classical Music Culture and proclaiming mission accomplished. Decolonizing Classical Music is about letting marginalized groups have a voice, but also the recognition that those groups may have already come up with their own solutions that don’t quite fit the White European Classical Music Canon and Ecosystem.

Until that next post, here’s Tom Nicholas’ brief intro to Postcolonialism in his “What the Theory?” series. His usage of the Marvel movie, Black Panther, as an example to illustrate some concepts is appropriate as that film may very well have been many Americans’ first intro to Colonialism and Postcolonialism.7

Continue reading in the second part of this series: Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education: Postcolonialism


  1. Though the AP Video is titled “First Person: Unlikely Chinese Opera Star” the tune featured in rehearsal at the beginning of the video is actually the theme song from the Taiwan 1993 Television Series Justice Bao (包青天; Bāo Qīng Tiān) by Hu Gua (胡瓜) which aired on Chinese Television System (CTS). Here’s the opening sequence and theme song for those interested: https://youtu.be/bZN_Bdsie-U
  2. It should also be noted that Justice Bao is usually portrayed as dark skinned even though historically he was fair skinned. While blackface in the US has a negative connotation and this may be problematic for American audiences it should be noted that “[i]n Chinese folklore and the literary works that followed, creative and dramatic expressions darkened his facial skin tone to encapsulate Bao Zheng’s mighty personality and imprinted a crescent moon on his forehead to represent his righteous and upright character” (Ang 2019). However, there are still many questions and concerns which could be asked about having an African American playing a character often portrayed in dark makeup in the performing arts of China and the Chinese Diaspora.
  3. While there are about five main types of Chinese Opera (Zhou 2017), regional variants exist in the hundreds.
  4. I first learned about the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation in 2013 and discussed the organization in relation to thinking about more diverse Music Education that served the needs of underrepresented populations.
  5. Kirk Randolph, who is the director of the Ogle Center, often announces upcoming events at the center at the beginning of current performances. I regularly play Cello with IU Southeast Orchestra and String Bass with the IU Southeast Concert Band, both hybrid community/university ensembles, so learned about the event before the fall concerts of the ensembles.
  6. Erin Okuno (2018) gives nice rundown of what it means to “Center PoC” at the Fakequity Blog.
  7. While I absolutely loved ‘Black Panther’ – he’s been one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe for, well, decades – it should be noted that there has been some criticism of the film being colonialist itself. I’ll probably discuss some of that in relation to the soundtrack and spare usage of hip hop artist from African diaspora populations. Ironically, this blog used to be a space where I discussed and analyzed comics through a postcolonial lens (from 2004-2008) before I moved it to WordPress and started focusing on music. It will be nice to re-visit some of those ideas again. You can see some of those posts at the old Mae Mai blog here: http://silpayamanant.blogspot.com/


Ang, Jonathon (2019) “Is Justice Bao’s Face Really ‘Black’?” The Epoch Times: Singapore Edition <<https://epochtimes.today/is-justice-baos-face-really-black/>>

Chea, Terrence (2011) “Teen awes with Chinese opera” SFGATE <<https://www.sfgate.com/news/nation-world/article/Teen-awes-with-Chinese-opera-1624080.php>>

Herencia Mariachi Academy (2019) Herencia Mariachi Academy <<https://herenciamariachiacademy.com/>>

The Trustees of Indiana University (2019) “21st Annual Indiana Latinx Leadership Conference” IU Southeast Calendar <<https://events.iu.edu/southeast/view/event/event_id/111929>>

Jordan, Miraim (2004) “Oakland Discovers A Burgeoning Talent In Chinese Opera” The Wall Street Journal <<https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB109961353196765556>>

Laney College (nd) “Sherlyn Chew” <<https://laney.edu/music/music-faculty/sherlyn-chew/>>

Lu, Joanne (2018) “Why Big Thinkers Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Black Panther'” NPR <<https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/03/02/590216283/why-big-thinkers-cant-stop-talking-about-black-panther>>

Mariachi Heritage Foundation (2015) Mariachi Heritage Foundation <<https://www.mariachiheritagefoundation.org/>>

Mariachi Heritage Foundation (2019) Mariachi Herencia de México <<https://www.mariachiherenciademexico.com/>>

Moss, Ian David (2013) “Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats” Creatiquity <<http://createquity.com/2013/02/why-arent-there-more-butts-of-color-in-these-seats/>>

Okuno, Erin (2018) “Five Ways to Center People of Color” Fakequity <<https://fakequity.com/2018/04/20/five-ways-to-center-people-of-color/>>

Purple Silk Music Education Foundation (2020) <<https://purplesilk.org/>>

Quartly, Jules (2011) “Little Cowherd all the way from Oakland” China Daily <<http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-10/26/content_13977590.htm>> (archived here: <<https://web.archive.org/web/20111030152957/http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-10/26/content_13977590.htm>>)

Zhou, Ruru (2017) “Chinese Traditional Operas” Chinese Highlights <<https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/traditional-operas.htm>>


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