by Author Matt Griffiths

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Diversity in the arts isn't someone else's problem: it's time to take action

There was a great deal of argument and debate last week about the urgent need for greater diversity in music, film and the creative industries. Firstly, Jada Pinkett Smith, husband Will Smith and others announcing they’ll be boycotting the Oscars due to a complete absence of black nominees in any of the acting categories; Charlotte Rampling then getting involved with the bizarre suggestion that this protest was somehow racist to white people followed by Michael Caine recommending rather patronisingly that black actors should ‘be patient’!

There was a great speech later in the week by Idris Elba in the House of Lords about the pressing need for diversity and representation on our screens, receiving a warm ovation from those present. Then towards the end of the week, the annual ABO conference (this year in Birmingham) ended with a keynote from Ed Vaizey calling for orchestras to be far more diverse in their membership - no more excuses he said, the time is for action and it's everybody's responsibility to do something about it.

These are age-old debates - indeed this has been a regular discussion item at ABO conferences for years and the argument about the Oscars has been around for a while. But in more recent times the debates appear, rightly, to be more prominent and regular.

So what can be done, what should be done? Meeting warm, passionate words with enthusiastic applause is one thing (and the easy bit) - taking action is what matters (and indeed the hard bit).

I would firstly argue for a change of tone. A lot of the commentary is about finding a solution to a 'problem' - the 'deficit model' if you like. But I believe greater diversity is good for business. It's an opportunity. A range of perspectives from individuals from a range of backgrounds makes for good decision-making, makes for innovative content creation: a great film, a great orchestral work, shared learning. Being inclusive, making sure many different voices and experiences are heard, giving young people inspirational role models they can identify with: these are all things that make for fantastic creativity. Taking a lead in diversity is essential for organisations to ensure they’re fit for purpose.

I would secondly argue that the discussion about diversity needs to be broader than ethnic background. As Idris Elba pointed out in his House of Lords speech, diversity is, of course, so much more than that. There is a tendency in these debates, and in the reporting of these debates, for people to start arguing about which groups are most excluded (for example in the Oscars row with Julie Delpy speaking up for women, Ian McKellen for gay men). But the truth is that people face many different kinds of barriers which often intersect: in embracing diversity we have to make sure we’re fighting for all those facing exclusion because of their race, gender, disability, class, sexual orientation etc.

Ed Vaizey stressed in his speech that the case for diversity is something for us all to think and do something about. Couldn't agree more. My worry is that this topic is sometimes conveniently perceived as someone else's problem, a problem that is being addressed by the 'diversity special interest group' or the 'diversity committee' if you like. This can absolve whole organisational responsibility to do something about it. It's a bit like the situation we've had in music education where 'inclusion' has been seen by some as the responsibility of a special interest group where the ‘inclusion work’ happens! We're making a concerted effort at Youth Music to move away from this to a situation where inclusive practice becomes the norm, working towards achieving our goal of a musically inclusive England.

Our role at Youth Music is to make sure that children and young people in challenging circumstances can regularly make music. We make no bones about it - this involves pro-actively investing our time and funding in projects nationwide working with children and young people who are losing out. In our view, this is one of the only ways that change can occur in terms of who is able to participate in music-making. It can’t be just the preserve of those who are fortunate to not having any barriers getting in their way.

Our soon-to-be-published Impact Report analyses and sets out the diversity of our work and the projects we support not just in terms of children and young people but also a diverse range of music being composed, performed and explored. Highlights include:

  • Twenty-eight percent of participants were reported as having ethnicities other than white British. This is higher than the national average for young people of 21%.
  • Twenty-four percent of participants had special educational needs, 14% were experiencing rural isolation, 14% had English as an additional language and 14% were experiencing poor health.
  • Regional investment in Youth Music projects was evenly balanced, with 83% of funding outside London. We invested 67% of our funding in the most deprived local authorities in England.
  • Eighty-eight percent of organisations supported by Youth Music used multiple music genres in their projects, guided by the interests of young people. The most popular genres used in Youth Music projects were pop and rock (63%), hip-hop (48%), rap / MCing  (47%) and dance / electronic music (45%).

A pro-active approach is what it takes for change to occur. There are those that will continue to argue that it's about the 'best person for the job'. Couldn't agree more. But we can’t ignore the fact that the way society, institutions and traditions are structured right now often prevents talented individuals from getting anywhere near the top jobs.

You can’t win a best actor Oscar if you never get the chance to start out in drama, or if stories starring people who look like you never get funded. Every child has the potential to one day lead an orchestra, but exclusion starts at a young age. The best players from conservatoires are the ones who get to go on to be professional classical musicians, but we need to identify, talk about and break down those barriers which prevent children from ever reaching that stage. That’s why inclusive practice is central to all Youth Music projects. If all children are given a fair chance to take part in music-making, with extra effort to include those at risk of being left out, only then will they get the opportunities to one day be seen as the ‘best person for the job’. We need to make sure this happens, and we need to do it ourselves, now, not hope someone else will do the ‘diversity bit’ for us. As I said, it's good for business.


Photo: Young people from Southwark Council's All About the Band, a project supported by Youth Music