Chi-chi Nwanoku’s Case for Diversity

Chi-chi Nwanoku’s Case for Diversity

Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown.

Chi-chi Nwanoku has been creating music ever since she discovered the piano at a neighbor’s home when she was seven years old. Long before she became a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), the eldest child of an interracial union—her father, Nigerian, and her mother, Southern Irish—Chi-chi was raised to know her worth in the midst of racism and prejudice. After suffering from a knee injury as a 100-meter sprint runner, she decided to pursue a career in music. Chi-chi started to play the double bass at 18 and went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music. From there, she studied with Italian double bassist Franco Petracchi. Later, she co-founded the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where she was the principal double bassist for over 30 years.

She eventually garnered international attention that led to accolade after accolade. Chi-chi was appointed MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) as part of the 2001 Queen’s Birthday Honours and in 2017, the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for her services in music. If that wasn’t enough, the British broadcasting network, BBC placed Chi-chi at number 9 on their 2018 Woman’s Hour Women in Music Power List (Beyoncé was No.1).

After witnessing the lack of diversity in the orchestra, Chi-chi started the Chineke! Foundation. “Chineke” means wonderful, great creator in Igbo, the native language of the Igbo people in Nigeria. Chineke! is a place where black and ethnic minorities (BMEs) can shine and thrive as classical musicians. Chi-chi Nwanoku sat down with SoulVision Magazine to talk about her early career, the origins of the Chineke! Foundation, and what it means to be a black classical musician in England.

Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?

I was born in London. When I was thirteen months old and my brother was two months old, my father received a telegram from Nigeria to say that his mother was dying. My father was Nigerian, and my mother was Southern Irish. He bundled us all up and took us to Liverpool, which was one of the ports of the historical slave routes between West Africa and Europe. In those days, that was the cheapest way to get to Africa from England (Liverpool, North of England). We made the two-week crossing to get to my father’s country. I spent the next two years living in Nigeria. I was fluent in Igbo by the time I was three. We returned to London, England when I was three. From there, we moved to Kent near Canterbury.

The village we lived in and the school my four siblings and I went to was basically all white. We were the only black family in the area and I must say, we were very welcomed in our community. I know for a fact that it was because my father was an extraordinary man. Our father was a very calm and respectable person with an aura around him. If he walked into a room, people would naturally gravitate towards him, whether they knew him or not. He was like a magnet to children. On the other hand, our mother was a fiery Irish woman. She was like a lioness when it came to anyone messing with her kids or her husband.

Her family told her never to darken their doorstep again when she married my Dad. If they wanted to behave like that, then that was their problem because she was very happy with him. We were raised by our parents to never doubt ourselves. Our parents had a tremendous amount of trust and belief in their five children; so how could we ever doubt ourselves? They raised five strong black kids, living in a completely white area. It might have been a coincidence that we had such a tolerant, welcoming environment. I don’t know, but I think a lot of it was how my father conducted himself . . . and Mom too.

Do you remember any moments in your childhood where you and your family faced discrimination?

I think because we walked out and went to school without expecting to be rejected (it was our world just as much as anyone else’s world), we were mostly shielded from discrimination in our immediate community. But when we went into Canterbury, we experienced some unpleasant confrontations. Some people would be horrible to our father. People would stand in front of us and block our way and shout abuses at him. It was very distressing as a child, holding Dad’s hand and seeing that.

One day when I was about seven years of age and my brother was about six years of age, we were walking through the city of Canterbury, doing errands. A white English woman was walking towards us with her children. She was determined to block our way, forcing us to stop. She said what was bothering her by unleashing a fury of racial slurs.

My brother and I were frightened. It was a case of, “What can we do? Why is this happening?” Dad just squeezed our hands a little bit tighter, just to say “Don’t worry. I got you. We are fine.” He just stood there calmly until she finished. He then said three words to her: “I pity you.” It destroyed her. That’s what he was like. Through him, we learned to always go higher. He didn’t get into fights with people. What was the point? He taught us to not degrade ourselves by going down to their level.

Sounds like your parents were huge influences growing up.

My parents were incredible. I remember when my father died at the age of 93, my mother just started to go downhill. They had been married for fifty years and for a black and white marriage in those days—they met in the mid 50s—what they had to go through was no one’s joke. They had to fight to be a couple.

One of the most valuable lessons our mother taught us was to always be curious. She went to a school where students were made to recite Latin. It was part of the educational system in southern Ireland to recite Latin because of the tradition of Catholicism. Every day she would ask, “But what does it mean?” and the nuns would beat her. You weren’t supposed to ask any questions. You were only supposed to do one thing: shut up and do as you were told. But every day she continued to put her hand up and ask the same question, “What does it mean?” and every single day, she took a beating. She never put her hand down until one day, they explained.

She encouraged all five of us to ask questions and to be curious. She believed a curious child is a healthy child and a curious child is an intelligent child. She wanted us to go out into the world and find out the truth for ourselves. She explained to us that we will be taught some things from our teachers, but it was important for us to ask questions. Our parents gave us the strength and confidence to know that there is nothing we cannot do, as long as we had a strong sense of morals and we knew what was right from wrong.

Was there a lesson that you learned early on that shaped you into the person you are today?

We know that we have to work twice as hard to get half as far and that is still a fact. It is not a fantasy or anything, it is the truth. The times in which we are living, you know, it wasn’t like this a thousand years ago and I doubt it will be like this in a thousand years’ time. We are called the “minorities,” but there is nothing in biological science that proves that the white condition is any less constructed than the black condition. We are all the same. It is insane.

In the black community, no matter how good you are, you can still get badly treated. My siblings would often get arrested. My nephews and nieces have faced discrimination from the police, driving in their own cars. Unfortunately, we have to teach our children to keep their hands in full view. This is a consideration that no white kid has to learn for survival. 

Did you have difficulty initially starting and finding musicians to play for the Chineke! Orchestra?

Yes. I had to literally find people myself. We don’t have a network like you all have in the States. As black people, we have not had the same shared experience as African Americans do in the States. There was slavery here, but it was more of individual families owning one or a few black slaves each; there were not whole groups of slaves together. Because of this, it has taken longer for us to come together as a support network or a Black community. I had to work very hard to find all the players. Ed Vaizey, the previous Culture Minister in David Cameron’s administration of the British government called me into Westminster to ask, “Why do we only see you regularly on the international concert platform?” I was the only black person in my orchestra. I didn’t know if there was anyone else, seeing as I was the only black person in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where I had been a co- founder and the principal double bass for over 30 years.

The only black people I worked with were three opera singers and a violist. You can’t start a full orchestra with three opera singers, a violist and a double bassist. Anyways, the more we discussed it, the more I thought – “Where is everyone?” I started to focus on the fact I could not possibly be the only active professional black classical instrumentalist in the UK, and people now ask me, “Well why didn’t you think of this before? Why didn’t you create Chineke! ten years ago?” I’ve thought the same but ten years ago, it would not have been well received. England was not ready for it. It was the right moment when I did do it. Even now as I remember asking myself, “why I had not talked about it before with my colleagues?” The answer is that I did not know how my white colleagues felt about having a black person in the orchestra. I didn’t know who to start the conversation with. It was easier for me to simply not have the conversation, so I didn’t. That changed of course and now it seems to be a topic of conversation all the time!

Every great organization has a culture. Can you explain to us, the culture of the Chineke! Orchestra?

We have a certain philosophy with the orchestra. We have a Chineke! Junior Orchestra and the professional Chineke! Orchestra. It was important to have two orchestras from day one: the professional Chineke! Orchestra would change perceptions and create a pathway; the Chineke! Junior Orchestra would be the pipeline. Therefore right from the very beginning, I spoke with all the conservatories around the country because they all have junior departments. I spoke with teachers and then went further and called parents and other initiatives that had been created to support black/ethnic minority children in music. I was able to bring children from all over the country together. You are familiar with one of them because you saw him play the cello at the royal wedding. We’re very proud of Sheku.

The talent and ability is abundant in the Chineke! Junior Orchestra. Their inaugural concert was earlier on the same day as the professionals’ first concert, and the same camaraderie and feeling took place amongst them as with the professionals—they developed an imediate sense of community and belonging when we walked into the same room surrounded by people who looked like us. This was a completely new experience in an orchestra in the UK. If you’re a black classical trained musical child in Canterbury, or Ipswich or Edinburgh, you will probably be the only one. The first couple of days of rehearsals were kind of organized chaos because we all had to get used to playing together. But seeing as we were joined with a collective philosophy of spearheading an important initiative of “change and diversity” in the industry, we were very soon unified. I remember at the end of the first day of rehearsal, nobody wanted to go home. For the first time, everyone felt as though they truly belonged; for the first time, no-one was the odd one out.

Even three and a half years later, it is like that after a concert. Members of the Chineke! Orchestra will be the last people to leave the foyer, bar or other social areas of the Southbank Centre, because we are all celebrating with our guests, friends and audiences. We don’t want to leave each other, because we get so much from just being in each other’s company. There is also no time or place for ego; we have too many lives to lift up. It doesn’t matter how big you are, be you a world-class soloist or someone just leaving music college, everyone has a responsibility to pull the other up. In every Chineke! junior project, there will be a Chineke! professional mentoring every section of the orchestra and overseeing the work. Typically there would be around ten professional Chineke! mentors dotted throughout the Chineke! Junior Orchestra. So, from day one, the juniors have someone that they can relate to because they can see that there is someone who looks like them that has professional status. Through seeing their mentor’s success, they believe they can do the same. It’s family and we have a responsibility to keep lifting each other.

I never had a mentor or a teacher that looked like me. The only person that was like that for me was my father. He sang in the church. He had a good ear. He loved music. My mother would also play the harmonica with her family in Ireland. There was music all around us, but I was the only one who actually studied music. I was meant to. It was my vocation.

What advice would you give to young black classically-trained musicians who would like to have a career in classical music?

If you think you’ve done enough practice, then do some more. Never give up. A “that will do” approach is not going to work; you must be prepared to go that extra step. It will be like this for the unseeable future. We are hoping to have an unbiased approach for auditions, for “blind auditions,” behind screens. If it really only matters how well a person plays, why should it matter what you look like? If you’re the best player and happen to be black, you’ve got a better chance to win the audition if there is a screen and without being seen. All of my black American colleagues who have won an actual position in the orchestra have won them behind screens. All too often when auditioned without screens, black people get eliminated. Some orchestras have called the reasons ‘unconscious bias’, but no, it must be called out for what it is: bias and discrimination. I maintain there is no such thing as unconscious bias. It’s just bias, end of story. Make sure you give no one the option to turn you down due to your ability. With that being said, it goes without saying, expect to work very hard. As my mother used to tell me, hard work isn’t easy.