Slippedisc editorial: Why Seattle was so wrong to book the rapper

June 10, 2014 by norman lebrecht


Plenty of views have been voiced, one way or another, as to whether the Seattle Symphony was right to book a sexist rapper for the summit concert of the League of American Orchestras conference. We have heard from participants that this was just a few minutes of a program that contained several world premieres for symphony orchestra. We also know that the video has been seen by 1.5 people in just three days. The Seattle Symphony has proclaimed it a triumph.

All well and good.

Here are a few reasons why it’s the worst possible signal for the orchestra world to be sending out at the end of its darkest American season.


sir mixalot

1 A song in celebration of women’s bottoms is (a) degrading to women, (b) demeaning to men, (c) bad for box-office; those bottoms need to be sat on audience seats.

2 Full orchestra used to be the loudest sound on earth. Now it is drowned out by a rapper’s amplification. Thanks for reminding us of that defeat.

3 Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. We stand for plurality, diversity, inclusion. Thanks a bunch, Seattle.

4 Symphonic music is fighting for its survival. This past season, one orchestra was locked out and others went bust. The audience is aging and shrinking. The genre is losing mass relevance. Those of us who uphold it do so out of conviction, arguing that we are saving a chunk of western civilisation and resisting dumb-down demands from politicians, marketing experts and society at large. Seattle surrendered to those demands. At a high visibility moment in the orchestral calendar, it handed the pass to the enemy. Thanks again, Seattle.


Comments (35)

  1. 3 Feet Haydn Rising says:

    “Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. We stand for plurality, diversity, inclusion”
    Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Do you disagree? If so, state your case.

      1. Martin Locher says:

        I see nothing wrong in using a live orchestra to produce popular music and by watching the video I saw many women not bothered at all by the men admiring their backsides.

        Rap might have been a purely Afro-American genre. Go to Switzerland though and you’ll find dozens white, Swiss hip-hoppers worthy of attention. Even with suberb lyics very different from the “I have car and lots money, you have tits so come to me honey” stupidity which seems to sell records.

      2. Grandmaster Fasch says:

        Here in 18th century Germany we’re a little more cautious about assuming we are the diverse, pluralistic, inclusive musical culture (the default musical culture, right, against which others are measured?), and it’s those pesky “Afro-Americans” being divisive with a divisive century++ of the most important developments in global popular music – divisive blues, divisive jazz, divisive rock and roll, divisive R&B, divisive funk & so forth, of which hip hop is a c.40 year old worldwide phenomenon, influencing music in nearly every language and/or concentration of melanin on earth. I guess we in 18th century Germany would be less hasty to generalise about that sort of thing, to directly state “Afro-American” as coterminous with “divisive”, the opposite of diversity, inclusion & pluralism. But what do I know, I’ve been dead for 256 years.

        We might also consider that those in crystal palaces probably aren’t best placed to throw stones about gender and ethnic diversity, & whether the blanket labelling of rap as a “male genre” is borne out of deliberate erasure of decades of virtuosic and brave artists of every gender, or perhaps not scratching much beyond the surface of years internal activity and critique within global hip hop and in academia. Meanwhile we in 18th century Germany look forward to centuries of chuckling along to “Purché porti la gonnella/Voi sapete quel che fa”, but unfortunately it hasn’t been written yet.

        1. Max Grimm says:

          Well said!

    2. Roger Klorese says:

      I’m appalled at the hubris of the criticism. The concert was not primarily “the summit concert of the LAO conference.” It was first and foremost this season’s Sonic Evolution concert, and it belongs not to LAO, but to SSO, Ludo, and, most important, to us, SSO’s audience. We are the ONLY reason you orchestra wranglers aren’t flipping burgers. Concerts and collaborations like this one are why SSO has an audience with significant presence below retirement age (and in this case, voting age) – it is how the art will survive and advance. You LAO folks are invited guests in our musical home. Act like it.

  2. Eric says:

    My biggest argument here is that, while some can discuss the merits of programming this at all, it was programmed AMONGST other other works included four world premieres by rising composers. So, they got a young audience in by luring them with this oddball decision, but paired it with other new works for the genre – all in front of this coveted young audience. I appreciate them balancing the program and trying something new.

    Also, this song was meant as humorous when it came out in the 1990s…so, there’s that, too.

    1. Roger Klorese says:

      The young audience comes to Sonic Evolution as much to explore the new works as to hear the guests – in fact, the kids were there to hear Pickwick, since “Baby Got Back” came out before a lot of them were born.

  3. Doug says:

    Agree with you entirely, Norman. I had no idea this was at the League conference. Now my stomach has completely turned. On the other hand, it’s predictable.

    As I tell my colleagues, although classical music remains closest to my heart as an artist, as a managerI will never work for an orchestra again.

    1. Roger Klorese says:

      If you persist in that attitude, there will be no more orchestras remaining to work with.

      With [untitled], with [untuxed], and with Sonic Evolution, Ludo has shown that music does not have to die in a pristine hermetically-sealed vacuum full of blue-hairs. It’s sad that you prefer to suffocate than live.

    2. Roger Klorese says:

      And, by the way, it wasn’t “at the League conference.” The league conference was a guest in our musical home. And, apparently, an incredibly ungracious one.

  4. Daniel says:

    Yes! God forbid, an orchestra demonstrates that it has a sense of humor and isn’t entirely consumed by some righteous, ill-fated battle against the amplified “enemy.” Goodness.

    This was, indeed, a pretty quirky choice. But, I don’t think that anyone who isn’t radically out of touch with American pop culture would see it as anything other than silly – and maybe a little bit awkward.

    1. Doug says:

      If “fun” is the driving force behind an artistic venture, may I suggest disbanding the orchestra and starting a circus? I hear they are more profitable. People are willing to pay an arm and a leg for popcorn and cotton candy.

      1. Daniel says:

        I would be totally on board with this, except that most circuses have also been sullied by amplified and popular music.

      2. RobMcTenor says:

        So Doug, if an orchestra is having fun, they should disband? Should opera companies that perform comedies disband? Should pop’s concerts be stricken off orchestra seasons? Should theaters stage only tragedies? Why is “fun” a dirty word?

  5. m2n2k says:

    Including this song on the program is a questionable decision, but the four points offered by NL’s editorial are not convincing.
    1. No proof that it is “degrading”, “demeaning” and “bad” has been shown here.
    2. Any performance in which amplification is used together with symphony orchestra reminds of the same thing, so in that respect this example is not any more evil than any Three Tenors concert has been in the past.
    3. If we truly stand for “plurality, severity, inclusion” – then a symphony orchestra’s participation in performing a “male Afro-American” song is precisely what we should be supporting. All those mostly white women happily enjoying the song on stage directly contradict the statement that the genre is “divisive”.
    4. Other kinds of music are not our “enemy” but our competition. You do not defeat your competition (or even your enemy) by pretending it does not exist. The only way to survive is by being better.
    The subject of symphony orchestras’ participation in performing various kinds of popular music is worthy of discussion, but vilifying those whose tastes are different from ours serves no positive purpose.

  6. Jeffrey Levenson says:

    THIS is what great orchestras do.

    1. m2n2k says:

      Truly great ones do much more than that.

  7. joebass1 says:

    Mr. Lebrecht,

    I see your “moderator” has took down my comment. Allow me to illustrate my point with a modicum of diplomacy.

    I find your comments regarding our concert involving Sir Mix-a Lot both racist and sexist. Let’s break this down point by point:

    1. A song in celebration of women’s bottoms is (a) degrading to women, (b) demeaning to men, (c) bad for box-office; those bottoms need to be sat on audience seats.

    Okay, “a song in celebration of women’s bottoms” is clearly not your proverbial cup of tea, but you don’t have the moral authority to tell women OR men that they must find it offensive. It’s chauvinistic, and it dis-empowers women to make that choice for themselves. As you can see in the video, there are plenty of women (of all shapes and sizes, bless them) that take full ownership over their own bodies. They were there by choice, and they danced on stage by choice. Your comments have shamed them. Shame on you. Besides, it is a little hard taking you seriously when the two following posts after this diatribe against the Seattle Symphony, are entitled “What We Need is More Pole Dancing Clarinettists”, and “Naked Rio Pianist Releases World Cup Anthems”. As for being “bad for the box office”, you couldn’t be more wrong. We had a full house for this concert. Maestro Morlot, at the beginning of the program asked a show of hands for how many were there for their first time at Benaroya Hall. I would estimate about 200 hands went up. That can’t be bad for the box office.

    2 Full orchestra used to be the loudest sound on earth. Now it is drowned out by a rapper’s amplification. Thanks for reminding us of that defeat.

    This is nonsense, and I think you know it. Amplification has been used in classical music since their has been amplification. Let’s look back: From Clara Rockmore’s use of theremin as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charlie Parker with strings, to just about EVERY SINGLE pops show on the planet including the likes of Il Divo and Andre Rieu, it has been an important part of bringing classical and other music to the masses. For you to single-handedly blame rap music is narrow-minded and wrong.

    3 Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. We stand for plurality, diversity, inclusion. Thanks a bunch, Seattle.

    These two sentences seem highly incongruous to me. Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. You seem to work from within a very narrow construct of not only what Rap was historically as a genre, but what it has evolved into. Here in Seattle we have a Grammy Award winning rap artist named Macklemore. He is white and he preaches tolerance anti-homophobia and nonviolence, which speaks to the second half of your statement. An artist like Macklemore is a rapper who ABSOLUTELY stands for diversity, plurality, and inclusion. There are many, many other rap artists who stand for the same types of principles. For you to trash rap music and follow it up by saying “we stand for plurality, diversity, and inclusion” is simply not true. By the way, who is this “we” you keep referring to?

    I will refrain from picking apart your 4th point but to say, that no, symphonic music is not fighting for its survival. There are, however, orchestras that are, but there is a difference. As we witnessed the past weekend, symphonic music is very much alive. We performed on Thursday evening Henri Dutillieux’s 2nd Symphony and the full Daphis et Chloe ballet of Ravel to an adoring audience, followed by Friday’s Sonic Evolution program with Sir Mix-a-Lot, Pickwick, and three world premiers by Luis Tinoco, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Du Yun, and again on Saturday to a full house for the Dutilliex/Ravel program. I have never been more proud of my orchestra for the vision, ingenuity, and passion for infecting with passion a new generation of symphonic music lovers. Our genre is gaining mass relevance faster than you can imagine. The only thing holding us back, are the nay-sayers and doomsday-predictors such as yourself who the general public regard as an authority on such matters, telling the unassuming public that we have lost our relevance, and are therefore dying. Simply put, Mr. Lebrecht, if you don’t like it don’t go and don’t listen, but leave those who do to exercise their own right to enjoy what they want. Whether that’s Sir Mix-a-Lot or Henri Dutilleux. Oh that’s right, we do all of it, and a hell of a Wagner Ring cycle too.

    Joseph Kaufman
    Assistant Principal Bass
    Seattle Symphony Orchestra

    1. Thomas Bergeron says:

      Thank you Joseph.

  8. Jason says:

    I hope Seattle does more of them and I hope I’m next on their sub list for that show.

  9. Paul Mann says:

    For heaven’s sake, it was a bit of fun. I think Western civilisation can probably take it.

    Mr Lebrecht’s claim to stand for “plurality, diversity, inclusion”, sits uneasily with his definition of things like this as “the enemy”. It’s all music, whether NL approves of it or not.

  10. Mark Rudio says:

    Your conclusion may be right, but your reasoning is illogical and offensively racist. Plus, you’re ten days late:

  11. Josiah says:

    I am appalled at your critique of the collaboration between the Seattle Symphony and Sir Mix-A-Lot. As a musician who plays a wide diversity of styles of music, including symphonic orchestral music from the European tradition (which forms the bulk of my experience and education), I will state bluntly that your review sounds ignorant at best and bigoted at worst. A lot of what I had to say is expressed in Joseph Kaufman’s response, but there are a few other things I’d like to note.

    > 1 A song in celebration of women’s bottoms is (a) degrading to women,
    > (b) demeaning to men, (c) bad for box-office; those bottoms need to
    > be sat on audience seats.

    Wow, is this loaded with judgmental assumptions. There are certain things missing from the orchestral music world that seem to insulate us from new listeners. I’ll list three: (a) humor, (b) a frank expression of human sexuality that is relevant to contemporary understanding, (c) any musical expression rooted in the experience of people who are not white men. I could go on, but instead I’ll quote trombonist Sara Mayo, who sums my reaction up quite succinctly: “Yes, there were a bunch of women on stage, of all shapes and sizes, celebrating a song about a non-Hollywood female shape. Thank god there’s a man here to explain why they were wrong. How dare you ladies have fun and feel attractive!”

    In my words: please don’t use your shame regarding women’s bodies to shame others’ expressions.

    > 2 Full orchestra used to be the loudest sound on earth. Now it is
    > drowned out by a rapper’s amplification. Thanks for reminding us of
    > that defeat.

    Was it really? Look back about a century or a bit more, when dance halls across the US went through a shift from loud banjos to quiet guitars, it was a scandal! A couple decades later, people were again scandalized when guitarists opted to amplify to better fill larger rooms filled with noisier dancers. What, really, is the point in reducing the world of music to a zero-sum competition?

    > 3 Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. We stand for plurality,
    > diversity, inclusion. Thanks a bunch, Seattle.

    How dare you?

    Really, I mean it, and if you respond to nothing else in my post, I hope you respond to this. I presume you’ve done your research and know that until a couple months ago, the most famous rapper to come from Seattle is Sir Mix-A-Lot. A collaboration of our most established orchestra with our most established rapper is exactly the opposite of divisive. It’s exclusive, as classical music always has been: a showcase of some of the most eminently capable musicians in and from the Pacific Northwest. And yet, it was decidedly inclusive. He invited people from the audience on the stage. He, as Sara pointed out above, celebrates the beauty of people whose bodies have the audacity to not conform to the holy ideal of Hollywood. How is a collaboration between an established mostly-white orchestra (with a mostly-white audience, to boot) and a popular musician who happens not to be white, and not from an established classical music tradition—how is this not inclusive? How is this divisive? When you listen to the audience reactions, how on earth can you tell the world that this is anything other than a celebration of diversity and inclusivity? You insult my city, you insult hip-hop and rap music and musicians (presumably out of ignorance of the music and traditions, rather than malice), you insult the Seattle Symphony, and you do so by being non-inclusive and recoiling from what happens when someone outside the establishment is given the microphone for seven minutes.

    Shame on you.

    > 4 Symphonic music is fighting for its survival. This past season, one
    > orchestra was locked out and others went bust. The audience is aging
    > and shrinking. The genre is losing mass relevance.

    I’ll have to unpack this item piece by piece.

    Symphonic music is not fighting for its survival. Symphonic music, with its roots in a European aristocratic tradition that has been supplanted (in the US, at least) with consumerist capitalism, struggles to monetize a very human need for audiences and musicians to connect. We’re not in competition with rappers, we’re not even in competition with the recorded music that seems to make us redundant. We’re in competition with the artistic and entrepreneurial laziness that keeps the established good-ol’-boy’s club from being shared by people who are not white men, who are not Serious Artists. Orchestras may not be particularly relevant to the way most people want to connect to music, but the solution is not to make it more serious, more pure, but rather to diversify, explore, and invite—while at the same time educating future audiences by teaching them to play music, of any tradition, so that they learn to value the exchange of sharing music as performers and listeners.

    > Those of us who uphold it do so out of conviction, arguing that we
    > are saving a chunk of western civilisation and resisting dumb-down
    > demands from politicians, marketing experts and society at large.

    Pfah. If I wanted to work in a museum, I would. I play music for people, and am happy to perform for you or any other potential audience member the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franco Donatoni, Evan Flory-Barnes, or Sir Mix-A-Lot. We don’t “save a chunk of western civilization” by only playing canonized work: again, I don’t work in a museum. We do so by continuing to inject new life into the art form, inviting new work into the canon, and maintaining the traditions of education and excellence that got us to where we are today.

    > Seattle surrendered to those demands. At a high visibility moment in
    > the orchestral calendar, it handed the pass to the enemy. Thanks
    > again, Seattle.

    You’re welcome. Come back any time, but please stop referring to our collaborators and friends as enemies. You embarrass us when you do.

    1. Brian says:

      Josiah, chill out. It’s just a concert.

      1. Tom says:

        Did you mean “Chill out, Norman, it’s just a concert”? Josiah didn’t have any complaints about the concert. In this case, re-read Josiah’s post and what he was responding to.

        Or maybe you meant to say “Chill out, Josiah, it’s just racism”? In this case, please do society a favor: crawl into a hole and die.

  12. Chris Van Hof says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, I am really shocked at your cognitive dissonance regarding your comments about women and race in this shot-from-the-hip commentary. Should we stop performing “Elektra” or “Salome” because they are degrading to women? Should we stop performing “The Ring” because it is degrading to Jews? How about “Showboat” or “Porgy and Bess” and their dated depictions of black people? SSO is–just like Bach, Haydn, Strauss, Stravinsky, Adams, Reich–incorporating vernacular music into their presentation of art.

  13. Robin Bermanseder says:

    And in Vienna, a previously respectful composer has presented a thoroughly subversive and divisive play, totally disregarding conventions. It could stir up hatred between the classes. Who does this Mozart character think he is?

  14. Garry Kling says:

    Oh my god Becky, look at his righteous indignation. It’s like, so big. It looks like one of those classical critics. But, you know, who understands classical anyway? *scoff* They only talk to him, because, he acts like a total prude, ‘kay? I mean, her indignation, is just so big. I can’t believe it’s just so outdated, it’s like, out there, I mean – gross. Look! He’s just so … white!

  15. RobMcTenor says:

    Why should Josiah chill out? Lebrecht is the one who seems to think the fall of modern civilization stated in a Seattle Symphony concert!

  16. Jen says:

    I think it’s astoundingly obvious that the concert isn’t what Josiah is upset about here. (or the rest of us, for that matter) Rather, we are all railing against the “mansplaining” and unsubtley racist blog post about how combining rap and an orchestra is somehow degrading to an entire city and genre of music.

    Combine that with the fact that it has become an ironic manifesto to exactly the problem with the genre in which I make my living, and you become a true lightening rod for the ire of the classical community.

    Look, no one says you have to like rap combined with orchestra. That’s ok. We play stuff for you, too. A wise YouTube video once said “it’s ok to not like things. It’s ok. But don’t be a dick about it”

    Remember, an orchestra is just an ensemble which is capable of anything it wants to do. It has, as a medium, absolutely no entitlement to you, personally. It can, and SHOULD, be deployed in as many creative ways as possible.

  17. Tom says:


    Are you a music critic? By that, I mean, do you professionally analyze music? In specific, does the opinion

    Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre.

    reflect professional, careful, and thoughtful analysis on your part? Because to me, a lifelong fan of both classical music and rap, I can see where you’re coming from — and ‘thoughtful’ doesn’t enter the picture. What I see is a kneejerk reaction wherein you repeat the same trite, surface-level refrain: Rap is causing the ruin of society.

    On my way into work yesterday, I heard a wonderful interview that I think you should pay attention to: In it, Jian Ghomeshi and Russell Simmons discuss the violence, sexism, homophobia, and materialism so prevalent in rap. To paraphrase Simmons, rappers are some of the best reporters on Earth. They describe the injustice and violence they see in excruciating detail, and bring their insight of society’s “gritty underbelly” to light in ways that the mainstream press never will. In short, rap draws its material from, and exposes the ruin of society. And here you are, shooting the platform that the messenger stands upon.

    At the surface, I would describe your critique as racist, sexist, exclusive, and hateful. Further reflection reveals a sloppy critic who neither read nor listened to the lyrics of the piece he was “critiquing” — as other commenters have noted, Baby Got Back is meant to bolster the esteem of women alienated by the bulemophiliacs at the fore of women’s fashion design.

    Now, of course, you are not accustomed to language used by Sir Mix-A-Lot, so some misunderstanding is to be expected. But one has expectations of an experienced and professional critic: careful, measured analysis. Your critique could not possibly be farther from that.

    You managed to issue your critique within a few hours of the performance in question. After a full day of responses, you have issued exactly one response — a challenge for one commenter to elaborate. Will you respond to your audience [redacted:abuse]?

  18. Kathy says:

    Shorter this: “I don’t like this song, so I’m going to pretend it’s about the world ending because a symphony orchestra performed something popular with good humor.”

  19. Allan J. Cronin says:

    I agree with you, Joseph. Inclusion is essential to building audiences and repertoire. Adventurous programming succeeds only some of the time. That is the adventure.

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