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Reginald Mobley | St George's Bristol

In Full Colour: An Interview with Reginald Mobley

From art to science and beyond, the work of historically marginalized groups is being shared and celebrated. Often except, that is, within the world of classical music. However, by recognizing, performing and celebrating works by a plethora of black and minority ethnic composers, we can begin to revel in the full vibrancy of classical music and shift the narrative for fellow fans across generations to come.

In May, acclaimed Countertenor Reginald Mobley will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music on the stage at St George’s for a carefully curated programme to explore a different vision of Baroque. Sons of England will delve deep into the alternative histories and lost gems of the English Baroque, culminating in a new commission inspired by Ignatius Sancho by composer Roderick Williams. Ahead of this spell-binding concert, we caught up with Reginald Mobley to find out more about Ignatius Sancho, what you can expect and how together we can shift our understanding of musical history to shape a shared future.

“Sounds, vibrations and frequencies can’t be owned and there’s a practical magic in music that creates a space for understanding and compassion.”

How did your love for music first develop? Who and what inspired you in those early stages?

When I was young I sang in my church choir—it was a small gospel choir—and I enjoyed singing until I discovered that I loved playing with Transformers more so I stopped! It was really in middle school when I picked the trumpet that I realised that I really liked music. We played a Bach piece and it was the first time I really knew I was listening to Bach and I was insatiable at that point. But I still just liked music—I didn’t love it yet. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I started singing again that I really found a love of music. As a matter of fact, today is the birthday of my high school choral teacher who set me on my path to choosing music as my career. To her I’m forever grateful. To my mother, my aunt, my grandmother—to my whole family—I’m forever grateful. And to Bach I’m forever grateful! And all the music that has surrounded me my entire life—it was always moving and changing and inspiring me, whether it was Bach and Handel or Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Music just is for me.

How does this continue to guide and direct your artistry today?

Honestly and personally, I don’t think that music necessarily tells you anything—I think music asks you. It may strongly suggest but it never tells because it requires you (the performer and the listener) to really make music happen—for it to really live and truly be something. I think what it asks in those situations is for you to bring your sense of self, your sense of integrity and sensibility to the stage. So I’m always self-evaluating and wondering whether I am on the right path. Am I serving myself or am I serving others? A professor asked me long ago what my philosophy about music was. That’s always guided me—to always ask these questions and never settle. To always ask if I’m serving my goal and serving others through my own passion. As long as I can come somewhere close to ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’, I feel like I’m still on the right path. I check in with old teachers, I check in with friends. As long as I don’t put myself before what I’m doing, I think I will always be somewhere on the right path as a musician, as an artist and as a craftsman.

What potential does concert curation hold for you to rewrite the narrative and celebrate diversity within classical music?

I don’t know if I always agree with the idea that the narrative needs to be rewritten as much as I think it is just in dire need of being corrected or shifted. I don’t think it’s necessary downplay or ignore the contributions, and the importance, of Handel and Mozart. But we should be also be discussing his complicity in slave trade investments, as well as his status as a major queer composer. Just as we shouldn’t diminish Chevalier de Saint Georges as the ‘Mozart Noir’ (instead I prefer to refer to Mozart as the ‘Bleached Bologne’), but focus on and celebrate whom President John Adams referred to as “the most accomplished man in Europe”. It’s about no longer curating music history to only favour straight white men, but to give the Arts its due in the fullness of diversity that formed what it is now.

Why is the music of Ignatius Sancho so important and what does it mean to you?

Imagine a major Hollywood production about an orphaned African boy who—after being born on a slave ship—found himself shuffled and sold as a slave in England. Eventually he meets a nobleman who helps him learn to read, write, compose, and play. Then after seeking his freedom, becomes a composer, shopkeeper, a “Man of Letters” who was known in important British literati circles, and eventually becomes the first Black man to vote in Parliamentary elections in the UK. Would you believe this was a true story? Or would you think this was a new installation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Ignatius Sancho is the PR campaign classical music doesn’t deserve, and yet he was ignored by music history until recently. It’s not only an incredible story, but his path and struggle is a massive inspiration to someone like me. He’s the proof that my belonging in classical music didn’t just begin when Dvorak met Harry T Burleigh, but that people that look like me have always had a place.

Your Grammy-Award nominated album and project, American Originals joins forces with Because to speak out on behalf of diversity and equality. What first inspired this project and its artistic drive?

The backgrounds of these projects have always been there. As a classical musician in the West, I’ve always been aware and made aware that as a black person and as a queer person, I am in an insinuating circumstance. I am a black body in a predominantly white space and that never felt right—it never sat right for me. And I’ve always fought to find out more myself whether or not there’s been proof of a wider diversity within classical music. Not just in terms of people of colour but also in gender identity and orientation. And the answer is YES, of course—obviously—because music has always been played by humans and humans are a spectrum. So, that underlying principle and the fact that I’ve always found myself surrounded by incredibly wonderful and thoughtful friends who all feel the same way means I’ve been given the space to develop the idea that music doesn’t belong to any one person—any one type or any one brand—it belongs to everyone. Sounds, vibrations and frequencies can’t be owned and there’s a practical magic in music that creates a space for understanding and compassion.

As is the UK, we’re still struggling with the race issue and we can’t seem to find a time or a place or a position where we can truly have a conversation and perhaps work towards finally correcting this 400-year error once and for all. But I truly believe that within music and with projects like this that speak for diversity, compassion and understanding, I think this space can be made. At least it might wedge the door open so someone somewhere down the line might be willing to talk about this and do something about it. So everything I do, whether it’s in music, activism or playing video games, is always working to a goal of absolute equity, absolute parity and absolute understanding of one another.

You’ve said before about music’s ‘innate power to change people’. In your opinion, what effect can music and the spaces music creates have on an audience as they re-emerge from artspace to community?

I don’t know if you were around a few years ago when there was a huge global lockdown and everyone was stuck in their homes? I see everything—good or bad—as a teachable moment. I learn lessons from everything and everything to me has a silver lining. In this way, I think there is something to be learned from a contagion or a virus like that—it’s the idea of creating a mind virus and planting the seed of a questions that just can’t sit within one person when they leave the space. It’s the idea of using music to wedge hearts open. It’s about connecting with the audience—whether that’s through song or through speech—and suggesting to them that there is a path forward beyond the concert hall. I never want things to end at the front doors of a hall or a space. The idea is to implant that urge and that mind virus that when they leave—whether they register to vote or decide to donate to a much-needed charity or even allow someone to pass them on the highway—it’s the idea reaching one person at a time and making them think that there may be a kinder, more equitable way of living. I do agree with the power of music—not to the level that it heals bodies in the way that medicine does—but it does heal souls and hearts. I think as long as we understand the power and responsibility that exists in the arts and what we do, I think we can convince others to sign up with us.

Look at the accomplishments of Ignatius Sancho who was born on a slave ship and look what he became by chance. We’ve taken the rights, laws and responsibilities that he used to become who he was—we’ve taken those away in so many places. Ignatius Sancho could not happen in the United States today. So it’s up to us to be bold and speak on behalf of others. The ‘other’ is always us. That’s what I hope people will take from Sons of England—that they will see that despite the various beginnings of these composers—they all work to one goal to create an incredible musical heritage in the UK. I hope we will prove that we shouldn’t just be looking for the next Purcell—we should be looking for the next Sancho. We should be looking so that everyone who could give something to all of us is given the same opportunities and rights as the person next to them.

And all the while subtly altering the audience’s expectations of what they’ll be left with after a classical concert?

Oh my god, absolutely! Honestly, we’ve patronized audiences for too long—we’ve catered to the lowest senses but we need to push. If they come into that space, it’s our responsibility to give to them—to give all of us to them.

We can’t wait for your upcoming concert Sons of England with the Academy of Ancient Music. What can our audiences expect?

Ha. I would expect a LOT of singing. But more than that, this is a chance to hear and give credit to some of both the known, and forgotten, musicians who contributed to the depth and brilliance of music (and the Arts) in Britain. This will be displayed through lute songs, sonatas, dances, arias, and styles all across the landscape of 17th and 18th Century England. And it ends in a modern response to whom I consider central to my interest in this music.

Words by Louise Goodger